Damascus (AsiaNews) - "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."
"This 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 . . . ".
The patriarch 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, namely Israel."
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.
Christians and 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."
"We want 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."
"For this 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.
In expressing 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).
Finally, "as 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."