04/03/2014, 00.00
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Chaldean Patriarch on the uncertain future of eastern Christians, a bridge between the West and Islam

by Mar Louis Raphael I Sako
The wars in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan have made things worse for their peoples, especially minorities. As Western policies have been a failure, fundamentalism has grown with the Arab Spring losing out to extremism. Muslim authorities have a role in protecting rights and religious freedom. The presence of Christians in the Middle East is crucial for Muslims.

Lyon (AsiaNews) - 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 for Christians!

Sectarian divisions 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 direction.

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.

When colonial 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.

At present, 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 unstoppable.

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.

Discrimination, injustice, kidnapping, isolation, and intimidation have given them the impression that in many parts of the Arab-Islamic world they are doomed to extinction.

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 citizens!

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 university.

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.

Therefore, the 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 ancestors?'

In Syria, 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

Christianity has 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!

Christians are 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 itself.

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.

Today's Middle 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 Muslim authorities

Muslim religious 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.

The moderate voices of Islam must unite and say a clear "no" to violence against Christians.

4 - The role of the Eastern Churches

The 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 Council.

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

Eastern 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 opportunities.

6 - The Role of the West

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.

Indeed, peaceful 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.

Pressure should 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.

Tunisia's new 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.

Governments should 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!"

Indeed, outside 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!

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