BY CAROL GLATZ
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
VATICAN CITY — The need to find ways to stop the slow, yet steady departure of Christians from the Middle East has come into greater focus recently.
Pope Benedict urged the dwindling Arab Christian minority to patiently persist in its struggle to survive and hold onto its religious and cultural identity when he met with bishops from Iraq, Iran and Turkey who were in Rome to report on their dioceses early this year.
And he will have many public occasions to reach out and appeal directly to Christians with his proposed visit to the Holy Land May 8-15.
The Christian exodus has become so severe that Iraqi bishops called on the pope to convene a regional synod to address the problem.
In the meantime, conferences were held in Detroit, Lebanon and Rome in February to underline the important role Christians play in Muslim-majority nations.
The Rome gathering organized by the Sant’Egidio Community brought together Christian and Muslim scholars and religious leaders from the Middle East to discuss the value and contribution of the Eastern Christian churches in Arab nations.
One element that emerged from the meeting is that Christians don’t belong in the Middle East only because they’ve been there since the time of Jesus and are legitimate citizens of Arab nations.
The Christian culture and mindset contributes to the building of a more peaceful, democratic nation, many people said.
Some said a strong Christian presence could help moderate Muslims counter the rising wave of Islamic extremism sweeping across the region.
Mohammed Sammak, political adviser to Lebanon’s grand mufti, said, “The fewer Christians there are, the more (Islamic) fundamentalism rises,” fills the void and gains the upper hand.
“That is why as a Muslim, I am opposed” to Christians emigrating.
For Christians to disappear from the Middle East would be like “pulling out the threads of a cloth” so that the whole social fabric risks unraveling and dying, Sammak said.
Another danger, he said, is that if Muslim-majority nations do nothing to protect and encourage their Christian minorities to stay, then North American and European countries will think that Islam does not accept or respect Christianity.
If people living abroad see Muslims are unable to live with Christians even when they share the same culture, language and citizenship, he said, “then they’ll think, ‘So how can we Europeans live with Muslims.’”
Tensions and restrictions against Muslims living in or emigrating to Europe will increase as tensions and violence against Christians continue in the Middle East and vice versa, Sammak predicted.
Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad said Christians help preserve peaceful coexistence in a religiously and ethnically diverse society.
Christians possess a unique culture that displays “the willingness to mediate” and, therefore, they “could do so many things because reconstruction (of a war-torn nation) deals above all with souls, culture, mentalities,” he told Vatican Radio Feb. 23.
MONEY AND POLITICS
Many participants agreed that large numbers of Christians have been fleeing the Middle East for economic and political motives rather than purely religious reasons. Participant Bernard Sabella, a Catholic member of the Palestinian parliament, said the exodus of Christians “is related to the global market. So if a young Palestinian — Christian or Muslim — can get work in the United States or Dubai, then they will go.”
(HH: I really think they are discounting how much simply getting to ANYWHERE that is viable economically where they will have freedom from oppression is the main impetus.)
Mitri said the cultural and economic contribution of Christians have always outweighed their numerical proportion.
Sammak said losing Christians would mean losing the human, cultural, scientific and educational resources they bring to a nation.
FEAR OF ISLAM
Archbishop Sleiman told reporters that while economic and political problems are major reasons for leaving, Christians in countries like Iraq and the Palestinian territories leave out of “fear of Islamic fundamentalism and being legally discriminated against” in an Islamic republic or under Shariah, the religiously based law of Islam.
The Lebanese-born archbishop of Baghdad said he believes it is still possible for the dwindling numbers of Christians to play a role in the rebuilding of their country.
“But it’s important churches have to be convinced their role is still important. When I see emigration, I’m not sure Christians still believe their role is important,” he said.
(HH here: this is a thorny issue. From the viewpoint of Christian communities it is good to stand and fight for rights and change. For the individual and family though martyrdom is a lot to ask.
Careful lines need to be walked here. For a church to ask its people to potentially accept martyrdom is not something to be undertaken lightly.
Before asking Christians to stand firm in the face of terror and death I think the churches need to put considerable pressure on the Muslim governments to show more respect for the local non-Muslims. If that outside pressure is impossible to exert because it will “provoke” violence against Christians IN country then their influence IS gone and the churches should advise them to flee for their safety and their family’s souls; forced conversion or death is likely in the near future.)