A conference in Amman discusses the challenges facing Arab Christians
Arab Christians face a variety of challenges, major among which are the need to resist migration from their homelands under pressure of discrimination; curtailed citizenship rights; and unending attacks against them, their faith, churches
Arab Christians face a variety of challenges, major among which are the need to resist migration from their homelands under pressure of discrimination; curtailed citizenship rights; and unending attacks against them, their faith, churches, homes and livelihoods by extremist groups. The testimony was given by Fr Ammonius Adel, secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II before the recent conference held in Amman on “The Challenges Facing Arab Christians”.
The two-day conference which wrapped up today was held under the royal patronage of King Abdullah of Jordan, with the aim of discussing the challenges facing Arab Christians, documenting these challenges and identifying ways to address them in order to preserve the Christians’ role in the Arab region and in Jerusalem. Participating were some 70 high-ranking Arab Church leaders, together with their Western counterparts, as well as Muslim clerics.
Christians in “very deep despair”
According to the Catholic News Service, Arab Christians have been fleeing the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East in droves for decades, mainly because of violence.
Archbishop Jean Sleiman, the Latin-rite bishop of Baghdad, said that, according to Church officials, Christians numbered about 1.5 million before the 2003 war, representing just over 5 per cent 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 a similar fate.
Archbishop Sleiman said that 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 sharia, Islamic law, in control.
“The fear is pushing Christians to emigrate,” he explained.
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad agreed that emigration has grown. Christians “don’t trust the future”.
“The situations in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon are also getting worse. Christians are feeling threatened. Many feel they are second-class citizens,” Patriarch Sako said.
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.
“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”.
For his part, Sheikh Aref Nayed, a Libyan Muslim theologian, challenged participants to consider what factors help create extremist groups in the first place.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, drew attention to how American religious moderates condemn attacks against Muslims by Christian fundamentalists attack Muslims. “We want to see moderate Muslims do the same thing for Christians in the Middle East,” Cardinal McCarrick said.
The answer: Dialogue
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, urged Christians to bolster dialogue with moderate Muslims. “The Church is able and has to do this. 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.
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 there,” he said.
The final session of the conference discussed the situation in Syria, with the participants urging for dialogue and peace not war and killings.
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.”
The final message of the conference was to stress the call for real coexistence among Arab Christians and Muslims, to foster mutual respect and dialogue. They confirmed the demand for earnest efforts to end religious-based extremism.
5 September 2013