BEIRUT — Religious cleansing, genocide and outright extermination are terms now used to describe the plight of Christians in the Middle East, particularly following recent horrific attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt.
While attacks on Christians in the Middle East are nothing new, the situation has escalated.
There was the Oct. 31 massacre in Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation, for example, which killed 58 people, including two priests, and wounded 75.
Then, on Jan. 1, an attack on the Orthodox Coptic Church of the Saints in Alexandria, Egypt, killed 21 people and wounded more than 100.
“Christians are scared and are continuing to leave,” said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq. “They want to educate their children with security,” he said, noting that even when their children are in school, parents are afraid about their safety. “They are very worried about their future.”
While there are Christians who want to stay in Iraq, the bishop said, they are feeling more vulnerable and afraid with each day and want to flee their homeland.
It is estimated that about half of Iraq’s approximately 1.4 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion in 2003. The exodus has brought hundreds of thousands to neighboring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and most recently Turkey.
Archbishop Sako was instrumental in calling for the Synod of Bishops to address the plight of Christians in the Middle East, which they did this past October at the Vatican.
“Human bleeding is threatening the Christian presence in the area. It is a disaster that with their departure will go their history, heritage, liturgies, spirituality and witness,” the archbishop said of the descendants of the world’s first Christians.
Rise of Fundamentalism
In a Jan. 10 speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI quoted a message from the synod, saying Christians in the Middle East are loyal citizens who are entitled to “enjoy all the rights of citizenship, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and the use of the mass media.”
Religious leaders point to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism for the escalation of attacks.
Patriarch of Antioch for Syriac Catholics Ignatius Youssef III Younan, who was one of the two president delegates for the synod, explained, “With the rise of the so-called Islamic fundamentalism — we should rather say ‘violent fanaticism’ — in most of Arabic and countries of Muslim-majority around the world, non-Muslim minorities, especially Christians, have been the easy targets of terrorist attacks.”
It wasn’t always that way. Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, who wrote the working document for the synod, characterizes the 1950s in Egypt, where he was born, as a wonderful era for the country’s Christians. “We were esteemed,” recalled the priest, who is founder of the Center for Documentation and Research on Arab Christianity.
Then came the Islamization of the country in the 1970s. Now Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who make up about 10% of the country’s population of 80 million, are regularly attacked.
“Violence against Christians is something that happens every day and has as its aim to rid the Middle East of the Christian presence,” Father Samir wrote recently for the Rome-basedAsia News service.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, apostolic nuncio to Egypt, said that the Alexandria attack was a terrorist operation, and “the aim appears to be to destabilize the country — that is, to set Christians against Muslims.”
Egypt’s constitution speaks about citizenship — but also about Islam as the necessary reference for all legislation, Archbishop Fitzgerald said. “This produces problems.”
There is a distinct feeling of discrimination among Christians, in universities, in government service and in the access of Christians to seats in Egypt’s parliament, the nuncio points out. Moreover, obtaining permission for building or repairing churches is difficult, whereas mosques can be erected easily.
Not All of Islam
Yet religious leaders maintain that such violence has nothing to do with Islam as a religion.
Maronite Catholic Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, in a recent interview with CNN, characterized Islam as “a religion that promotes worshipping the goodness in life, worshipping God and being fair to others.”
Melkite Catholic Bishop of Sidon, Lebanon, Elie Haddad said that “Islam is a religion of peace; otherwise, it’s not a religion.” In his diocese, which is 90% Muslim, he said, “I know people who are praying well and fasting well and helping well. You cannot distinguish between them, Muslims and Christians.”
“It’s not the whole Islamic world. Even these fundamental groups are rejected by the Muslims,” he pointed out.
Mohammad el-Sammak, a Sunni Muslim and secretary general of the National Committee for Islamic-Christian Dialogue in Lebanon, said, “Islamic religious teachings respect the religious right of Christians, whether in the Middle East or any place, because believing in Christianity as a message from God is a part of Islamic doctrine.”
In his speech at the synod, Sammak said the emigration of Christians makes it difficult for the rest of the region’s Arabs to live their identity fully. “They (Christians) are an integral part of the cultural, literary and scientific formation of Islamic civilization.”
Chaldean Catholic Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut has said that international powers have ignored the pain of Iraqi Christians, who are perceived as an insignificant minority. “They are wary to address the issue of Christian minorities because of the extremely delicate situation in the vulnerable and volatile region, and especially given the rising wave of fundamentalism.”
While the White House, in a statement following the Egypt attacks, said, “The perpetrators of this attack were clearly targeting Christian worshippers and have no respect for human life and dignity,” the Obama administration was criticized for not using the words “Christian” or “church” in condemning the Oct. 31 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad.
France, which has had a historic interest in interaction with the Middle East dating back to the Middle Ages and the Ottoman Empire, was explicit in its condemnation of the Egypt attack.
“We cannot accept and thereby facilitate what looks more and more like a particularly perverse program of cleansing in the Middle East, religious cleansing,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a Jan. 7 annual address to religious leaders.
In the past, attacks against Christians in the Middle East hardly got any attention.
“Fundamentally, United States policies in the Middle East have never placed a significant priority on the conditions of indigenous Christians or the threats they have been up against just for being Christian,” Habib Malik wrote in his recently published book, Islamism and the Future of the Christians in the Middle East.
Said Malik, an associate professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University, “Now we see increased attention from the leaders and governments outside the region who have condemned these attacks because they fear that similar acts of terror now also threaten their societies.”
Next Week: Part 2 will focus on preserving the Christian presence in the Middle East.
Register correspondent Doreen AbiRaad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.