- "Stay here! Don't emigrate!" Despite all the difficulties, destroyed churches,
abandoned parishes, marginalisation, Middle East Christians should "remain
staunchly in their land, village or district," said Gregory III Laham, Greek Catholic
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, in a deep and moving appeal to the region's
Christians contained in the letter he addressed to them on the solemnity of
Christmas and New Year.
Titled Rejoice, Mary, who hast shown the Lord
Christ, Lover of mankind!, the letter explains the reasons why Christians
are needed in the Middle East, even if they often suffer from marginalisation
and violence by Islamic fundamentalists, and
just as their presence is increasingly appreciated by Muslim representatives.
At the same time,
the long message (17 pages in the English translation and as many in the French
translation) calls on Muslims to help guarantee Christians full citizenship and
equality in rights and duties in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.
Starting with a
strong theological and spiritual flavour, the patriarch shows the mystery of
the Church veiled in Mary, who gave the world Christ, the man-God, testifying
to his faith through love, acts of mercy and charity, which "is how
the Church has appeared in our Arab world [. . .] through its love, service,
institutions and projects."
Muslim Arab world needs us," Gregory writes. "I dare say that without us
Christians there can be no Arabness. A big Muslim businessman (who shall be
nameless) asserted, in a public meeting, that the Muslim Arab world needs the
Christian presence to be Arab and Muslim, and for living together, democracy,
social justice, openness to be realised . . . ".
quoted "the great Egyptian writer Muhammad Hassanein Heikal" who in 2002 spoke
about "the demographic and sociological changes in the Arab world" and said, "I
have something to say about Eastern Christians: Christian emigration is
noticed. We cannot turn our attention away from this phenomenon and neglect its
reasons or causes, even if these reasons are psychological, and more to do with
the prevailing atmosphere, than with reality. I think that the whole Arab scene
will be different, from the human and civilizational perspective; it will
surely be poorer, less rich, if this Christian emigration were to be ignored or
neglected and become the subject of fears, however unjustified. What a loss if
Eastern Christians feel, reasonably or unreasonably, that there is no future
for them and their children in this East! Islam will remain alone and solitary
in this East, where nothing assuages its loneliness except the Jewish presence,
In listing the
many "challenges" the region's Christians are facing, the patriarch writes
that some of them are common to all Arabs, others are specific to Christians.
A desire for
security, fatigue over Arab divisions, Arab revival and cooperation with
Muslims are among the first. A
desire not to be considered second-class citizens; the possibility to spread freely
the Christian message; the right to ensure that their children study, work and are
not marginalised; the separation of religion and politics, and a stop to the
growth of Islamist and fundamentalist movements that restrict
the space of others are among the second.
Muslims must meet these challenges together, Gregory notes, especially those of
"extremism, fundamentalism and Takfir," the latter being the practice of
condemning other Muslims for apostasy.
In his view, all
the upheavals in the Arab world, which have led Islam to extremism, are due to another
major challenge that must be addressed, namely the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, the "biggest reason for emigration of Christians, and of Muslims too",
which is also "at the root of the series of crises that have continued to be
unleashed on Muslim and Christian Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere, since 1948."
For Gregory, this
conflict has not been resolved partly because of divisions in the Arab world
and among its rulers, who give priority "to the particular
interests of each country, party".
The Arab world
needs Christians because of their contribution to its just development, which
they do by manifesting the "Gospel's values."
Christians to show Christ in their life, behaviour, presence, witness,
involvement, interaction in their society, political activity and service in
the various sectors of life in their society."
reason," he goes on to "exhort our faithful and call them to patience in these
tribulations, especially in this tsunami of stifling, destructive, bloody and
tragic crises of our Arab world, particularly in Syria, but also to different
degrees in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon."
"We appeal to
them not to emigrate, to remain staunchly in their land, village or district,
despite the difficulties that we all know. We share in the suffering of our
brothers and sisters. We pray for the many victims, whose number is growing
every day. We are bruised by the pain and suffering of the injured in our
hospitals, and of those who have handicaps. We are expending every possible
effort to alleviate this poignant pain of millions of our fellow-citizens,
displaced and destabilised inside and outside Syria, and to obtain the release
of the kidnapped, such as the Syriac Archbishop and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan
of Aleppo and other priests and faithful, our fellow-citizens."
"Yes, we want to
preserve this strong, faithful, convinced, resistant, deep, open, interactive,
conversant, active, influential, calm Christian presence at all costs, to be
able to bear witness and show Christian values and real Christian vision in our
predominantly Muslim world, and be present with and for this world, showing
forth the compassionate Christ Jesus, Lover of mankind".
For the Greek Catholic
patriarch, acts of violence in Tripoli, Saida and Beirut in Lebanon, in Baghdad,
in Maaloula and other parts of Syria and in Egypt, show that the fate of
Christians is like that of the Mothers of the Holy Innocents, like that of "Rachel
[who] weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children,
because they were [no more] (Jeremiah,
31:15; Matthew, 2:18)." Still despite
this, he remains opposed to the emigration of Christians.
his best wishes for Christmas and the New Year, he noted that the international
community has come to pay more attention to the situation in Syria mainly due
to Pope Francis' interest and prayers. He also expressed some hope for the
upcoming peace conference (Geneva II).
Pope Francis showed solidarity with us in bearing Syria's cross, I call upon
all of you to bear this cross with us, to help us reach the Resurrection dawn."