Middle-East hemorrhaging its Christians

  • Yesterday, Pope Francis welcomed representatives from Middle Eastern churches to the Vatican.
  • Geopolitical and religious conflicts are draining the Middle East of its Christians.

 

“In solidarity with the pastors of Eastern churches, we will not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians […] From Syria to Iraq, Egypt and other regions of the Holy Land, tears are flowing,” bemoaned Pope Francis in his speech to the Congregation for the Oriental Churches that had gathered at the Vatican on Thursday.

The Maronite patriarch, Bechara Boutros, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Anthony Audo, the patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, Gregory III Laham and the Iraqi Chaldean, Louis Raphaël I Sako, were among the main guests. Following the example of the Argentinean pontiff, the representatives of the Oriental rites made a call in unison for the Christians of the Middle East to remain in their native lands “despite the persecution”.

This meeting, the first of its kind since 2009, had been long awaited by the Oriental churches. The Arab Spring revolutions, though, stormed through, turning hostility against Christians into a major factor in the region. Henceforth, it’s no longer just a simple issue of caring for the faithful. Controlling the flow of migrating Oriental Christians is now a matter of survival. “By asking them to stay where they are, religious authorities are taking the chance of turning the Christians into the expiatory victims of the conflicts that engulf them”, criticizes Christian Terras, analyst for the Catholic Ecclesiastic Institution.

“It’s unwise. The Oriental Christians are threatened both by fundamentalist Muslims and sectarianism flowing from the geopolitical conflicts,” explains the analyst. Between 10 and 13 million Oriental Christians are estimated to be spread out across Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Palestine. Although their economic situation compares favorably against other communities, the Christians’ low reproduction rate and significant migration patterns undermine the Christian influence in the region. As a double minority, they have to hang their fortunes on alliances with powerful entities that can guarantee their survival.

This is a delicate balance which can be easily upset in the case of a reversal of powers. For example, in Syria the Catholic and Byzantine rite Christians, who are favored allies of the Alaouite minority in power, are now under threat and being persecuted by their opponents since the start of the war against Assad. In Iraq the Christians are caught in the crossfire between the Sunnis and the Shiites and are often accused of pro-Americanism as they are forced to leave the country. In the north of the country the number of Christians has dropped from over one million ten years ago to 400,000 today.

Moreover, the governments in power continue to encourage this exodus to countries such as Turkey and Lebanon by easing visa procedures. In Egypt cohabitation between Coptic Christians (10% of the population) and Muslims continues to deteriorate. “Conflicts in Upper Egypt between neighbors quickly take on a religious tone,” explains Philippe Hensmans, director of the French-speaking Belgian section of Amnesty International. “Ever since the fall of Mohamed Morsi, numerous churches have been damaged or pillaged. In addition administrative roadblocks prevent Christians from building or even repairing their places of worship. Crimes against Christians go unpunished.” In the wake of the Israeli-Arab wars and civil and religious conflicts, religious identities end up trumping nationalities. More than ever, the Middle East is in the grips of the specter of tribal regression as wielded by the Salafists and religious fundamentalists. The diverse nature of its population has been one of the hallmarks of this part of the world. Unfortunately, this diversity in which the Christians took part for centuries is in danger of becoming not a strength, but the Achilles heel of the Middle East.

ALEJANDRA MEJIA CARDONA

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