By DALE GAVLAK, Catholic News Service | Published September 12, 2013
AMMAN, Jordan (CNS)—For decades, Arab Christians have been fleeing the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East in droves, mainly because of violence.
Within the past two-and-a-half years, some 450,000 Christians are believed to be among the 2 million people who have fled the civil war in Syria, an ancient land of historic churches, the country where St. Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus.
Some 70 high-ranking Arab church leaders, together with their Western counterparts, and Muslim clerics gathered in Amman for a Sept. 3-4 meeting aimed at tackling “the challenges of Arab Christians.”
The Christian and Muslims leaders aimed to find a way to end the sectarian strife threatening their people and countries.
“We must confront extremist trends,” Archbishop Fouad Twal, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the gathering. He said it was the duty of religious leaders and their communities to work jointly “to get the new generation to accept ‘the other,’” in order to “isolate these trends.”
Sheik Aref Nayed, a Libyan Muslim theologian, challenged participants to consider what factors help create extremist groups in the first place and whether religious leaders may have also failed to protect their people against government-sanctioned violence.
“Did Sunni clerics support the Syrian people in their initial peaceful protests?” he asked.
He questioned whether Arab church and mosque leaders failed to stand up against regimes and rebels while their congregations were massacred.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, drew attention to how American religious moderates have “got the back” of Muslims in the United States.
“When (American) Christian fundamentalists attack Muslims, we immediately say this is not the response of Christians. We want to see moderate Muslims do the same thing for Christians in the Middle East,” Cardinal McCarrick told the assembly, which included distinguished clergy from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches in the Middle East.
“I would hope that the moderate voices of Islam would be raised right away,” he said.
“By Muslims, there should be an immediate voice of great concern by the moderate leaders saying this is not true Islam,” Cardinal McCarrick said, pointing to the milestone document, The Amman Message, developed in 2004 in part by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, Jordanian King Abdullah II’s chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs and personal envoy.
But Cardinal McCarrick also challenged Christians in the Middle East to try to hold fast to their ancient homelands, maintain their historic presence, and not flee to the West.
“They have to be brave enough to say: ‘You are driving us out. If this continues, you will make it impossible.’“
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, led a minute of silent prayer for Christians who had died and for their families. He also paid tribute to Muslims who “denounce the acts committed by some of their mistaken co-religionists against Christians.” He urged Arab Christians to continue to live “not alongside each other, but with each other.”
Iraq is again facing some of the deadliest sectarian violence in five years; things had somewhat calmed in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. But in July, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed and more than 2,300 were wounded.
Archbishop Jean Sleiman, the Latin-rite bishop of Baghdad, said most of the deadly attacks now taking place in Iraq involved Sunni and Shiite Muslims against each other.
Church officials say Christians numbered about 1.5 million before the 2003 war, representing just over 5 percent of the population of Iraq. Some now say Christians remaining in the country are half that figure.
Following the invasion, violence against Christians rose, with reports of kidnappings, torture, church bombings and killings. Some were pressured to convert to Islam under threat of death or expulsion, and women were ordered to wear Islamic dress.
Syrian Christians fear sharing a similar fate.
Archbishop Sleiman comes from Lebanon, which was torn apart by a 15-year civil war that killed 120,000 people.
Archbishop Sleiman said that, humanly speaking, Iraqi Christians and others in the region are in a “very deep despair.” They fear Muslim fundamentalism and the push to turn the Arab countries into Islamic states, with Shariah or Islamic law as the main base of justice.
“The fear is pushing Christians to go abroad,” he added.
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad agreed that emigration has grown.
Christians “don’t trust the future and think they are marginalized. They are looking for a better future outside the country,” the patriarch added. He said he believes that 600,000 Christians have left Iraq over the past decade.
On a recent visit to northern Iraq, Patriarch Sako encouraged the Catholic faithful in 40 villages to remain and not leave.
“But they need help from the church, Christian politicians, and abroad,” he said, citing projects to build schools and health clinics.
“The situations in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon are also getting worse. Christians are feeling threatened,” Patriarch Sako added, saying many feel they are “second-class citizens.”
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, said problems faced by Christians in the Middle East were “not new.” He urged Christians to bolster dialogue with moderate Muslims.
“The church is able and has to do this. We have to avoid risks to be nostalgic of the past or to ask for protection. We, as Christians, are part of this society, and we also have to be part of the changes in the society.”
He said Christians in the Middle East were seeking human rights, equal citizenship, freedom of worship and freedom of conscience. Christians are struggling for their place in Arab society and before government authorities.
“It’s not always a war of religion, but that of power,” he said.
Father Pizzaballa said it was important for Christians to work alongside Muslims to determine the future shape of their societies and countries in the midst seismic political change rocking the region.
“We have to build, little by little, a new model of societies in the Middle East. The changes are very dramatic, very fast, and we have to be there,” he said.