Vatican City (AsiaNews) The difficult context in which Catholics live in the Middle East, compounded by limits on religious freedom that have reduced Christ's followers to second class citizens, was at the heart of Mgr Giovanni Lajolo's speech to the assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
Mgr Lajolo, the Holy See's "foreign minister", described the different local situations in which Catholics find themselves, situations characterised by the same negative demographic trend. Under the circumstances, he explained, the whole Catholic Church must mobilise itself through diplomatic initiatives and economic measures to help Christians as well as "make society and civil law stronger, raise cultural levels (better training in the social sciences and humanities), and improve the status of women".
Through its communication media, the Church can "provide an important contribution to train Christians and inform Muslims about our faith via radio, internet and satellite programmes."
The "situation of Christians in the Holy Land was particularly distressing," he said, "but so is it in Turkey and the other countries of the Middle East. Their numbers have been dwindling. [Not only are] many Christians living in these countries foreigners staying on temporarily, [but]it is sad to witness the exodus of Christians from Iraq where their presence, albeit as a minority, was well-rooted."
Despite the lack of accurate figures "because these countries, including Israel, do not count religion in their census", the Vatican diplomat cited data taken from the Church's Yearbooks, the United Nations, the US State Department and numbers from nunciatures.
"In Iran, Catholics constituted 0.1 per cent of the population in 1973 and 0.01 in 2005. In Iraq their numbers dropped by almost two thirds going from 2.6 per cent in 1973 to 1 per cent in 2005. In Syria Catholics were 2.8 per cent of the population in 1973 and 1.9 per cent in 2005. In Israel-Palestine they were 1.9 in 1973 and are but 1 per cent in 2003."
Given the situation, "the Holy See through its envoys has tried to engage local authorities in a dialogue to help Christians, signing wherever possible arrangements in specific and limited areas, and calling on them to respect international human rights agreements that some predominantly Muslim countries have actually signed".
Religious freedom, Mgr Lajolo stressed, "also includes the right to change one's religion and embrace another without compulsion". And in that regard, he mentioned the "serious pressures, including death threats, on the families of those who want to become Catholic, pressures that can even originate from local secret services or embassy officials representing [would-be converts'] country of origin".
The Pope's 'foreign minister' went to explain that it would be useful to help local civil societies move in the right direction. And to do so, "it will be important to identify the right people with whom it would be possible to talk about mutual respect, solidarity, peace, life's sacredness, and, in general, service to fundamental moral values such as the defence of human dignity and the rights inherent in it".