A disappearing Christian Middle East?

Overriding all the public ceremonies dominating Pope Francis’s trip to Washington this month will be his growing concern about the bloody turmoil in the Middle East that has set off waves of refugees and threatens the few remaining Christians living in the region. It is a topic that will surface when he addresses the Congress and when he meets with President Obama.

For more than 2,000 years, Christians have been a significant part of the religiously complex Middle East, living side by side with Muslims and Jews, but that is changing and with it a growing fear that they no longer will be at home in the region. It seems that the political leaders are impotent in finding any resolution to the crisis, affecting not only Christians, but Muslims and Jews.

{mosads}Religious leaders are finding the courage of their beliefs and are beginning to develop leadership roles to confront the seemingly endless violence and mayhem. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mask criminality under the guise of conservative Islam, a convenient pretext to establish they are operating with the blessings of a God with a rigid code even for believers who don’t follow their narrowly defined tenets.

The diaspora of refugees desperately seeking sanctuary in Europe are Muslims as well as Christians. The Christian flight, however, is significant. While the statistical figures are not precise, The New York Times reported that the number of Christians in the Middle East has declined from 14 percent of the population to about 4 percent. Newsweek has reported a similar number, that the population in the region fell from 20 percent to 5 percent. In Iraq, the number of Christians fell from some 1.4 million to less than 500,000, and more than one-third of Syria’s Christians, some 600,000, have fled the country.

It is that festering crisis of fear and massacre that dominated a multi-religious conference this month in Athens, where top-level Christian and Muslim leaders met as part of a dialogue sponsored by the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

One of the principle participants of the interreligious gathering, Patriarch Aram I Keshishian, head of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said in an interview that he and other religious leaders have already met in Rome with the pope and in Washington with the president and members of Congress on this issue.

An imposing man with a commanding voice and obvious self-confidence, he said that “Christians are an essential part of the Middle East. We all share the problems with what is happening in Iraq and Syria. What is happening in Aleppo is an existential issue. Christians are leaving the region. We are not a minority; we are part of the culture and society of the Middle East. We have to look to our neighbors who are our brothers and sisters.”

He continued in saying that history is a passing thing and that ISIS will not last. But, he added, “Muslim leaders should speak out, they have to take the driver’s seat and confront a global evil.”

Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, the grand mufti of Lebanon, echoed the patriarch’s concern when he emphasized, speaking before the conference, that the Middle East crisis was one “we all have to endure. We are Christians and Muslims, two parts of one society. Both of us are suffering from colonialism … we are all in the same boat.”

That was essentially the consensus in the declaration of the conference that the Christian and other religious and ethnic communities are an integral and inseparable part of the Middle East’s cultural and religious diversity. The conference statement issued a condemnation of those “who manipulate religion to justify violence against people of other faiths and desecrate sacred sites and symbols.”

The conference representatives were aware that there must be movement beyond dialogue, but emphasized the importance of talking to each other is a significant beginning. They are aware that they have influence and expect that their concerns will be part of the political agenda of Pope Francis when he is in New York and Washington.

Conconi is a veteran Washington journalist.

Tags Athens Christianity Islam Pope Francis
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