- In recent days, Mar Louis Sako Raphael
I took part a seminar sponsored by the Université catholique de Lyon, France,
on "The Vocation of Eastern Christians".
For the Chaldean patriarch, Christians should not be
considered a "minority, but as citizens in every respect."
In an extended address, His Holiness explained the
general situation of Christians in the Middle East, emphasising the importance
of their presence. He also looked at the role of Muslim authorities and Eastern
Churches, calling for pressures to be put on governments to recognise and
guarantee equal rights. Lastly, he renewed his appeal for an end to the exodus of
Christians from their native lands.
Here is Mar Sako's full address (translation by AsiaNews).
Regime change in
several countries tore them apart. Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya
have not all helped to solve the problem of their peoples. On the contrary, they
have led to chaos and conflict that do not bode well for the future, especially
are getting worse, especially between Shias and Sunnis. And several political
parties are organising along sectarian lines and everything is being divided
according to religion.
I believe in
Iraq this will end with the country's division because the ground has already been
prepared both from a psychological and a geographically point of view. The cleansing
of neighbourhoods and cities between Sunni and Shia areas is moving things in that
1 - The general
situation of Christians in the Middle East
Until 50 years
ago, the Christians of the Middle East represented about 20 per cent of the
total population. Today they are estimated to be just 3 per cent.
powers set up these nations, they disregarded historical, geographical or
ethnic factors. There was no uniformity nor any real project based on
citizenship that would include everyone.
The 1916 Sykes-Picot
Agreement did not take into account the borders of countries such as Lebanon,
Jordan, Syria, Iraq and others.
Decisions were made
as a function of the interests of the great powers, and this opened the way for
the religious and ethnic conflicts that we are still dealing with today.
There is no peace
between Israelis and Palestinians. Lebanon has been shattered and is always threatened
by civil war. Syria is on the verge of collapse, with nine million people having
fled their homes. Iraq has been devastated. Egypt is blowing up. Millions of Eastern
Christians have become refugees, fleeing from one region to another.
there is increasingly talk of a plan to create a new Middle East. For us, it is
a source of concern and fear. 1,400 years of Islam have not been able to take
us away from our lands and our churches; now Western policy has dispersed us to
the four corners of the earth.
More and more Christians
are being victimised, and their exodus from the Middle East appears
At present, they
are estimated to be between 10 and 12 million out of a total population of 550
million, or around 3 per cent. And the pressures exerted on Christians and
other religious minorities in the Middle East have increased over the past few
decades, sometimes in a subtle way, in other times, openly.
injustice, kidnapping, isolation, and intimidation have given them the
impression that in many parts of the Arab-Islamic world they are doomed to
All this stems
from the instability of most of these countries and the growth of radical
Islam, under the guise of "political Islam". As for the "Arab
Spring", it lost out to extremism. "Political" Islam wants to revive
the Caliphate as much in Damascus as in Iraq! Their way of thinking and doing
war is a return to the Middle Ages with Christians allowed to stay as second-class
The US invasion
of Iraq led to the death of a bishop [Mgr Paulos Faraj Rahho, who died in
captivity in March 2008], six priests and more than a thousand Christians; 66 attacks
against churches; and 200 cases of kidnapping.
About half of all
Iraqi Christians, once numbering a million and a half, have left the country
for fear of violence and religious persecution, especially after the massacre
that took place in Baghdad in 2010, in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation, and
the attack in Qaraqosh against Christian students on their way to the
Taking property away
from Christians, who are deemed without rights because they are not Muslim,
threatening letters sent to Christians, as well as members of other non-Muslim
minorities, are making Christians feel like second-class citizens.
question is, 'Are the men and women who have a great and illustrious past
behind them destined to disappear from Mesopotamia and the land of their
Christians are exposed to attacks by Islamist insurgents. The latter have wiped
out Maaloula, a historic Christian town whose inhabitants spoke Aramaic, the
language of Jesus. Two bishops, many priests, 12 nuns have been kidnapped and recently
released. Some 1,200 Christians have been killed, 30 per cent of churches have
been destroyed and 600,000 Christians have fled the country. Those who are left
live in fear and dread!
Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian
minister and the former president of the Council of Churches of the Middle East,
said, "If the situation continues like this, there will come a time when
there will be no more Christians in Syria."
The Copts in
Egypt have suffered the worst attacks. Suicide bombers have killed at least 85
faithful at the Church of All Saints and a hundred churches have come under attack.
Lebanon is the
only country in the region where Christians are still politically relevant with
a certain freedom of action, but even here, their power is in decline. It started
with the Taef Agreement, which is still hanging in the balance!
In short, all
Christians think about emigration, at least some of the time.
2 - The
importance of the Christian presence in the Middle East
its roots in the Middle East. In Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt,
Christians were the majority well before Islam arrived.
They were well
organised and contributed to the construction of the Arab-Islamic civilisation
alongside their Muslim brothers, which is why their presence in the Arab and
Muslim world is essential, if for no other reason than their different
religion, openness and skills. Overall, Christians constitute an elite!
not a minority. They must fully take up their position and play their role in
public life. Failure to do so would mean their end. At the opening of the first
general congress of the Christians of the East in Raboué (Lebanon) on 28 and 29
October, 2013, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said, "Their future will
rather be in promoting the logic of moderation, openness and dialogue in their
environment, as well as [making] every effort aimed at building a fair and
embracing State that [. . .] allows [them] to share the political life and the
management of public affairs with all the civilizational components of the
society, regardless of their numeral size". Ultimately, the "future of
the Christians of the Levant will not be in isolation and isolationism," nor
"in foreign military protection."
At the same
congress, Habib Ephram made an emotional appeal in favour of preserving the
identity of Eastern Christians out of respect for history, law and humanity
We can only hope
that their long historical tradition can help the Christians of Syria and
others preserve their rich heritage and continue to offer their valuable
contribution to existing cultures.
East Christians can play an essential role in the dialogue between the West and
Islam; they can be a bridge that brings closer and unites. This is why the West
is called to help them remain in their countries of origin.
In an article in
the British newspaper The Independent,
Robert Fisk described Christian emigration from the Middle East as a blow to
the Arab-Islamic civilisation, and a tragedy for a country regarded as a symbol
of pluralism and coexistence.
3 - The role of
authorities in the Middle East have an irreplaceable role in promoting the
values of human dignity, human rights, citizenship, coexistence, freedom of
religion, and a real dialogue that respects the human person. Recognising the
other, the non-Muslim, as an equal citizen in all his rights and duties will
boost trust among all citizens.
For this reason,
Muslim authorities should focus on religion and on appropriate religious
education programmes in order to defend and protect everyone's rights as well
as the sacredness of life.
voices of Islam must unite and say a clear "no" to violence against
4 - The role of
the Eastern Churches
should encourage the Christians of the Middle East to maintain their historical
presence and not flee to the West.
They must be sufficiently
courageous to continue bearing witness in their respective countries and be a
real sign of hope and peace for their fellow citizens. At the same time, they must
have the courage to claim their civil rights and their right to citizenship.
Pope Francis underscored
this important goal at the audience with the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches
in the Vatican on 21 November 2013, when he said that the Roman Catholic Church
"will never accept a Middle East without Christians."
I call on the
Church to address Muslims in a new separate document. It is important to clarify
our fears and hopes to them, as well as explain the inalienable principle of
religious freedom as laid out in Dignitatis
Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Liberty of the Second Vatican
At the same time,
it is equally essential for them to find a new and comprehensible theological
language to explain their Christian faith, as our fathers did under the
Umayyads and the Abbasids.
5 - The role of
Eastern Christians in the West
Christians in the West can play an important role in helping their brethren in
distress in the East, showing them solidarity. It is their job to help them stay
in their lands of origin.
They can put
pressure on Muslim communities living in the West to spread a culture of
respect for all religions, especially respect for the religious freedom of
Christians in the East. They can ask their governments to grant them the same
rights that Muslim citizens exercise, in particular the right to participate actively
and constructively in politics, in the service of the common good to create
true democracy. The presence of Christians in the East is a guarantee for moderate
Islam, one that is able to live with others in peace and harmony!
Would it not be possible
to bring together these Eastern Christians in the West under a single name,
such as 'Eastern Christians Union', to help their Eastern brothers and sisters
in seeking solutions to their problems? Create a sort of lobby? Diaspora Christians
should retain their right to vote, so precious at election time, in order to
increase the number of elected officials from our community.
They should not
encourage emigration and deprive the country of its youth. They should inform Western
Christians about the challenges they face every day. Perhaps, they could invest
and create activities in their countries of origin, providing people with employment
6 - The Role of
In my opinion,
the responsibility for the current plight of Eastern Christians falls partly on
the West, due to its unbalanced policy in the region.
At the same time,
it is sad to note that most Western Christians have no real awareness of the
painful situation of Christians in the Middle East, even though they could actually
highlight their real condition and raise awareness among politicians.
coexistence itself in the region and throughout the world are at stake. Eastern
Christians wonder why the West is indifferent and silent over their fate. They rely
on the support and solidarity of their brothers and sisters in the West!
Takfirists who consider
democracy contrary to sharia systematically attack Christians. There is no
doubt that these groups are a real threat against moderate Islam as well! The West
must put pressure on neighbouring countries and on others to stop supporting
and sending fighters and militants to our land.
be exerted to change the constitutions of Arab and Muslim countries. Here is an
example of discrimination: conversion to Islam is considered normal, but conversion
to Christianity is considered an offence that can entail many risks, including
death [for apostasy]. When one spouse converts to Islam, his or her children
are automatically considered Muslim.
A nation's constitution
must be based on social coexistence and individual and public liberty to establish
true citizenship and a state for everyone.
constitution is a sign of hope, as is the Palestinian Authority's decision to
remove religion from identity cards and passports. This is positive change.
Only a social
and political system that respects diversity and individual and public freedoms,
based on real citizenship, can reassure Christians and allow them to share
power as full partners.
ensure security and protect religious freedom and ethnic diversity for all
across their territory and at levels of their administration
In his Apostolic
Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The
joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis outlines his teachings, and addresses the
issue of religious rights.
In it, he "ask[s]
and I humbly entreat[s]" Muslim "countries to grant Christians freedom to
worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of
Islam enjoy in Western countries!"
of the Muslim world, Muslims have ever-greater access to their traditions and to
religious freedom whilst Christians in the East see theirs shrink more and more.
This is one thing that could lead to their end in the Middle East!