ROME – The disappearance of Christian communities from the Middle East threatens hope for finding a way to preserve traditional Arab values while also recognizing individual human rights, said two of the region’s Catholic bishops.
In Iraq, “all minorities are threatened with extinction,” said Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad.
“The drama of Christians is the drama of Iraq. The flight of Christians is leading to a cultural and religious homogenization, which will weaken and impoverish Iraq,” the archbishop said Feb. 20 at a conference in Rome.
The conference, sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio, looked at the situation of Christians in the Middle East, their political status and their relations with their Muslim neighbors.
Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria, told the conference that while things are much better for Christians in Syria than in Iraq “many young Christians think of moving.”
“Christians in Syria – like people everywhere – want to be citizens of the world with freedom, democracy, well-being and happiness,” he said. But high unemployment and hints at a rise in Muslim fundamentalism make them doubt their future in “a country that could become hostile to them,” he said.
“Christians wonder why they should stay (in Syria) and get involved when they see what happened in Iraq and in Lebanon,” Bishop Audo said.
The bishop said leaders of Syria’s Muslim community and the country’s government have been working to promote dialogue and cooperation among Muslims and Christians, but more must be done to create meeting places where they can “exorcise their fears.”
“Arab Christians, with their Arabic culture, are in a privileged position to be intermediaries” between tradition and modernity, he said.
“They can help Muslims reclaim their openness to the human sciences and find ways to engage with the positive aspects of modernity, such as religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and interreligious dialogue,” he said.
Archbishop Sleiman titled his talk about Iraqi Christians “From Melancholy to Disenchantment.”
He said that while Christians were not treated equally under the government of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein their dreams for equality, freedom and peace in a post-Saddam Iraq have been dashed.
“The situation in Iraq is still serious,” he said. “The violence is still real, even though for the media and for the politicians, including (U.S. President George W.) Bush himself, it has decreased. But this is a trap because it prevents people from seeking real solutions, and it makes the drama of violent outbursts more shocking.”
The archbishop said, “The concern over the disappearance of Christians (from Iraq) is, unfortunately, well-founded.”
Not only are Christians still fleeing, with very few returning, but those who stay feel less and less at home in the country, he said.
Archbishop Sleiman said it is not uncommon to hear Christians say “We were better off when things were worse.”
The situation varies from neighborhood to neighborhood in Baghdad and from city to city. In some places, he said, Christians are under intense pressure to convert to Islam or leave, while in other places Christians and Muslims live peacefully side by side and attend each other’s celebrations, particularly weddings.
Without Saddam dominating Iraqi society, he said, traditional and new forms of tribalism are rising.
“In tribal societies, the person as a subject of rights and obligations, freedom and responsibility does not exist. There is no equality or reciprocity. The right of a group to worship is recognized, but not the right of an individual to follow his or her conscience,” he said.
With the end of the Saddam regime, the archbishop said, the U.S. and its allies brought the satellite dishes, cellular phones and computers of modernity, “but the country still does not have a modern idea of the identity and dignity of the human person.”
Archbishop Sleiman said that, without Christians as full and equal citizens, a thoroughly Muslim Iraq would feel no urgency in finding a way to preserve important traditional values while also accepting diversity and recognizing the equality of all men and women.