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.
The Assyrian International News Agency reported on Feb. 3 that Islalmists killed 11 Coptic Christians in two families in an Upper Egypt village Jan. 30. Coptic Bishop Anba Agathon of Maghagha said on an Egyptian television program that the killers took advantage of the massive protests elsewhere in Egypt and the absence of police.
This came in the wake of a Jan. 1 attack on the Orthodox Coptic Church of the Saints in Alexandria, which killed 21 people and wounded more than 100.
And, of course, there was the Oct. 31 massacre in Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation, which killed 58 people, including two priests, and wounded 75.
“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 was held 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 the 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-based Asia 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.”
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,” wrote Habib Malik in “Islamism and the Future of the Christians in the Middle East,” an essay published last spring by the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. 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.”
What can prevent Christianity from becoming a relic in the very place it was born?
In 1948 Jerusalem was about one-fifth Christian; today, less than 2% of residents are Christian.
In Iraq, the exodus of Christians continues on a daily basis.
Yet the Christian presence is vital to the stability of the region.
“Nurturing settled, stable, prosperous and reasonably free and secure native Christian communities in the Middle East has served in many instances as a factor promoting Islamic openness and moderation,” said Malik.
Father Samir pointed out, “As long as the Muslims live in a multicultural or multireligious area, they are more open; they have to examine their opinions with others. But when they are only among Muslims, as in Saudi Arabia, they tend to become more fanatic. They see all others as atheists or irreligious people, even if they are Christians or from other religions.”
At the close of the Synod of Bishops to address the plight of Christians in the Middle East in October, the bishops in a statement said, “We say to our Muslim fellow citizens: We are brothers and sisters; God wishes us to be together, united by one faith in God and by the dual commandment of love of God and neighbor.”
But Christians must be given their full rights as citizens, and the future peace and prosperity of the region requires civil societies built “on the basis of citizenship, religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” the bishops said.
“What Muslims living in the West demand for themselves — and receive — by way of rights and legal protections they ought to be ready to grant to Christians living in Muslim-majority countries,” said Malik, who is the son of the late Charles Malik, one of the architects of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Patriarch Younan traveled from Beirut to be with his mourning flock for the memorial Mass commemorating those killed at Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad. Two young priests were among those slaughtered in the terror attack.
“We need deeds, and not just … promises, that our Christian faithful feel really safe in their churches, houses and places of work,” said the patriarch in his homily.
The prelate, who served as bishop of the New Jersey-based Syriac-rite diocese in the United States and Canada from 1995 until his election as patriarch in 2009, has called for the upholding of human rights for Christians, followed up with realistic, concrete steps.
In an interview, he said that “because Christians in Middle Eastern countries are unable to stop further violence and terrorism and to publicly defend their basic rights — especially their liberty of worship and conscience as stipulated by the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ — they badly need the support of freedom lovers in the civilized world to pressure governments to educate all their citizens in the culture of love and tolerance; to impose an effective supervision on the religious discourse, either in mosques or in the schools, so-called ‘madrassa’ (religious schools where the Quran is memorized), and to exercise justice without discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
While there is no outright persecution of Christians in Lebanon, and by mandate the country’s president must be a Maronite Catholic, the Christian presence is nevertheless continually decreasing, following 30 years of war and foreign occupation. Christians now make up around a third of the population.
“In Lebanon, it’s the fear of the future,” said Father Samir. “We’re in an area where there’s no stability, and there’s a fear of this Islamic movement. It’s a wave: You see the wave coming. The wave is not yet in your country, but you feel it could come.”
Call for a Fatwa
Italian Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco on Jan. 24 said, “The Middle East is certainly the region with the highest tension; there, Christianophobia, which is the most current version of religious intolerance, is not far from becoming now a form of ethnic or religious cleansing,” despite the fact that “for centuries that land has been a laboratory of coexistence between different faiths and ethnic groups.”
In response to the attacks on Christians in the Baghdad church and in Egypt, Mohammad el-Sammak, a Sunni Muslim who is secretary general of the National Committee for Islamic-Christian Dialogue in Lebanon, said he called for a meeting in Lebanon of Muslim religious leaders to issue a fatwa (religious dictum) that would say “that attacking any Christian is like attacking a Muslim and that attacking a church is like attacking a mosque.”
“By issuing a fatwa, that would disengage Islam from these crimes, and by this fatwa we target terrorists as criminals, as anti-Islam, anti-Christianity and anti-Arabism,” said Sammak, who is advisor to the grand mufti in Lebanon.
The proposed meeting would include the imam of Al-Azhar (the Islamic authority for Sunni Islam, located in Cairo), the minister of religious affairs for Saudi Arabia and the muftis from Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq (Sunni and Shiite) and Lebanon.
That initiative, however, is in limbo now. Sammak said the fatwa was submitted to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But Hariri was ousted Jan. 12, replaced by a new prime minister, Najib Mikati, who is trying to form a new government.
Chaldean Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Wardini of Baghdad has called on the international community to “work together to cooperate for peace and security in the Middle East and all over the world.”
Accepting the “relic status” of Middle Eastern Christianity “betrays at best a cold indifference and at worst complicity in the ongoing extinction,” said Malik.
Yet, he points out, there is a glimmer of hope for the Middle East’s long-suffering Christians, with tangible evidence in many Christian communities across the region of spiritual renewal among the youth.
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.