Middle East could effectively be emptied of its Christians, say concerned bishops.
By Doreen Abi Raad
ZOUK MOSBEH, Lebanon (CNS) – Chaldean Catholic leaders warned that Iraq’s diminishing Christian population should be an “alarm bell” for the rest of the world and could foreshadow the transformation of the Middle East.
Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut warned participants at a mid-February conference that the Iraqi model of depleting Christians could be introduced into the rest of the Middle East.
He said the mission of the conference was to “sound the alarm bell … to avoid the transformation of the East into a desert of Christianity.”
“International religious authorities look at the Iraqi Christian situation as hopeless” and view Christians’ departure “as something imminent and unavoidable,” said the bishop.
“Our fellow Muslim brothers must be aware of these dangers and must take responsibility in turn. The Arab and Muslim countries have to make a serious move to stop the extermination of the Christian existence in Iraq,” he said.
“Many Muslim officials have acknowledged that the persecution of Iraqi Christians is actually taking place and it is a practice that is foreign to the Islamic traditions,” Bishop Kassarji added.
Maronite Father Walid Mousa, president of Notre Dame University-Louaize, which hosted the conference, told participants: “Christianity is not the one who invaded Iraq and led to the fall of Saddam Hussein. So why is it now a victim?”
The conference, under the patronage of Cardinal Nasrallah P Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, was organised by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Lebanon.
Approximately 400,000 Christians have fled Iraq since 2003 and about 300,000 remain.
One bishop and three priests are among the 500 Christians who have been killed.
Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said the reasons why Christians are fleeing Iraq are complicated.
“Tragic mistakes were committed in Iraq, which created a huge chaos,” he said.
“The occupation of Iraq by the Americans resulted in fatal mistakes, such as the dismantling of organisations, including the army and police forces, and the opening of borders without monitoring them. In addition, neighboring countries have had a direct influence and impact on Iraq. Internally, political parties vying for power have taken advantage of minorities,” said the archbishop.
“Extremist Islamic rhetoric and the call for establishing a theocratic ruling system has played a huge part in the agony of Christians,” Archbishop Sako said. “They (Christians) have been associated with the occupier without having any relation to it, or to the crusaders from whom they suffered. And they have been accused of blasphemy and polytheism and are innocent of such accusations.”
Christians, he said, “have the feeling of being wronged and marginalised in the representation (in) and contribution to Iraqi state organisations.”
“The idea of emptying the East of Christians is a deadly sin,” he said.
“We need to reject all forms of oppression, suppression and terrorism in the name of religion, and the Church has a big responsibility for open and sincere dialogue with Muslim authorities,” Archbishop Sako said, noting that there is also a need for governmental institutions that work to help protect minorities.
Arab countries and churches in the West need to pay more attention to Christian minorities in the East, whose future “relies heavily on the Church to shelter their followers and protect them.”
During the conference, several Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon shared their story.
Haytham, who had been a student at the University of Mosul before coming to Lebanon about a year and a half ago, preferred only to use his first name.
“I have very good memories of Iraq and even more bitter memories,” said the 33-year-old man. “I was very scared. I couldn’t sleep at night. Every time I left the university, I wondered if I would arrive home. Our life became hell.
“I had been very patient, but as a Christian I had lost hope,” he said. Haytham said he wants to return to Iraq and rebuild the country but he does not know when he will be able to return.
Thirty-year-old Wassan, who also preferred to use only her first name, came to Lebanon from Mosul around the same time as Haytham. She said: “Life in Iraq reached a point where we couldn’t move and couldn’t express ourselves. It’s hard to stay close to the Church under these conditions.
“Iraq is a wounded lion.
“But one day, the lion will rise again and will heal.”
During the concluding session of the conference, participants made recommendations for the United Nations, the Arab League and the international community, as well as for the Eastern Catholic churches in Lebanon.
The recommendations urged the UN to work with the Iraqi government to monitor violations against Christians and other minorities and to carry out international agreements regarding Iraq’s aboriginal people. Participants also urged the UN to increase aid to Iraqis and to organize an international conference addressing the situation of Iraqi minorities.
They also called on the Eastern Catholic churches in Lebanon to dedicate 2009 as the year for “Christian Existence in Iraq” and to organise a day of prayer for Christians in Iraq.