Defending Christianity in the Middle East

Authored By: ZENIT

A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Defending Christianity in the Middle East

Part 1 Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako on 3-Day Meeting with Pope Francis

By Junno Arocho Esteves

ROME, 26 November 2013 (ZENIT)
"We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians.” This was the call made by Pope Francis last week during an audience with participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

Prior to that audience, the Holy Father met with the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of the Middle East to discuss the violent situations faced by many in countries such as Syria and Iraq. Attacks targeted toward Christians have caused many to flee their homelands, prompting some to fear a near total loss of Christian identity in the Middle East.

Louis Raphaël I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, is one of the many voices urging Christians to stay in their homeland. Patriarch Sako spoke with ZENIT on his recent meeting with Pope Francis and the current situation facing the Church in the Middle East

ZENIT: The Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches were here in Rome to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East. What were some of the challenges discussed during those three days?

Patriarch Sako: The atmosphere was really very positive and it was very relaxed. We were encouraged to discuss all the problems facing the Oriental Churches with the cardinals, the Curia and the members of the Oriental Churches. I would like to thank Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and his collaborators for that. There is a feeling of the importance of Christians in the Middle East. Maybe our problems and also the communities of people living outside their countries in the diaspora help people to be sensitive to our existence and how Christians can survive there.

One of the challenges in the Middle East is the war. In Iraq, for 10 years, we still don’t have security. There are also a lot of attacks, [bombings], kidnappings and so forth. And now it’s [happening] in Syria where many Christians are living. Christians in Iraq now are about 500,000, down from 1,264,000 before the invasion by the United States of America.

Another challenge is how to keep our people in the diaspora in touch with their mother Churches. How to give them a pastoral role in order to keep their traditions, their liturgies, their customs, and their faith. It is not easy. We ask for parishes and also priests [to be established in the diaspora], but I tell you at the same time I, as a Patriarch from Iraq, I am feeling bad because if we send priests and bishops outside, then we will be more vulnerable and it might encourage people to leave.

And we have the other challenges: political Islam is growing. Who is behind them? Who is financing them? Also the [proliferation of] arms. We feel that some power is pushing for tensions in the Middle East. Maybe there is a plan to end those Christian parties.

ZENIT: What is the current security situation in Iraq affecting Christians at the moment?

Patriarch Sako: There is a change right now. The fighting is sectarian between the Shiites and Sunni. Maybe the same tension exists in Syria. There are two axes: Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria that are supporting Shiites and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting Sunni. They are all Muslims, they should be in agreement and [come up with] a standing dialogue because fighting each other is a big loss. People are dying and the infrastructure is destroyed.

ZENIT: Next month, you will be addressing a conference sponsored by Georgetown University on one of the major problems facing the Church in the Middle East:the mass exodus of Christians fleeing the violence that continues to surge in the region. Could you share with us what you plan to say at the conference?

Patriarch Sako: The exodus of Christians for each country in the Middle East is a big loss. The contribution of Christians was really great in all the countries. When the Muslims arrived to Iraq or Syria, they found Churches, monasteries, schools, hospitals, places of studies. So Christians helped them to form their own culture because although Muslims feel they are worshipping Allah, we all worship the same God, even if it's another religion.

Also during the Abbasid Period, Christians gave a lot to the Muslims. All the doctors were Christian in Baghdad and they were curing the caliphs and also the families. The Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), an academy, all were Christians in the beginning. They translated philosophy and science from Greek to Syriac and Arabic. In modern Iraq, Christians also gave a lot. They are elite and very educated. They have good qualifications, they are moral, open-minded. They are very helpful in helping Muslims to be more open.

Another religion in the area is richness, another culture, another language, because we speak Chaldean, Syriac, Armenian and this is a multicultural [aspect] which is very helpful to others.

ZENIT: In other words, Christians are the backbone of the Iraqi culture...

Patriarch Sako: If there remained only Muslims, what would happen? Therefore, I think the international community should help Christians to hope and to stay. They should protect not only Christians, but the minorities and not encourage them to leave.
Defending Christianity in the Middle East (Part 2) Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako on 3-Day Meeting with Pope Francis

By Junno Arocho Esteves

ROME, 27 November 2013 (ZENIT)
"We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians.”

This was Pope Francis' appeal last week during an audience with participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

Prior to that audience, the Holy Father met with the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of the Middle East to discuss the violent situations faced by many in countries such as Syria and Iraq. Attacks targeted towards Christians have caused many to flee their homelands, prompting what some fear will be the loss of Christian identity within the Middle East.

Louis Raphaël I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, is one of the many voices urging Christians to stay in their homeland. Patriarch Sako spoke with ZENIT on his recent meeting with Pope Francis and the current situation facing the Church in the Middle East.

Part 1 was published on November 26th, 2013.

ZENIT: As Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, how do you encourage Christians, who live in fear of the increasing violence, to stay?

Patriarch Sako: They have to read the history of Christianity there. We’ve had challenges in the centuries and difficulties throughout the centuries but our followers stayed and gave witness to human and Christian values. Now there are problems but we are a part of this nation, of this country. As a Christian, if truly I feel that I am Christian, I am also, even if a lay person, a missionary. So, they [Christians] have this responsibility to spread the Gospel in many ways. Maybe not to preach the streets but to live in a Christian way. That is a very important witness.

There are problems, but we can also resolve them. If there are problems of security, they can go to other secure cities or areas. In the North it is very safe. And also, if they need help, as Church we are helping them. We can help them stay and build our future together if they want it, even with others. The Iraqi population, the Muslim population, is not bad. All Muslims are not fanatics or violent. It is only some groups. Also the population is against them. If we can unite our communities with patience and hope, I’m sure we can help build a better future.

ZENIT: You have done much to improve relations with Muslims, especially with religious leaders in Kirkuk. Are there any initiatives you have in place to continue dialogue with the Muslim world?

Patriarch Sako: You know, in Baghdad we tried to establish relationship with the Muslim authorities, even the government. I met three times with the prime minister and I tried also to reconcile the government with a Muslim leader. I offered them that after our Synod [on the Middle East in 2010]. We also visit [them] when there is a problem or an opportunity to meet, also when there are attacks. I send a message of solidarity to our Muslim brothers. And from when I was elected until now, no Christians have been attacked. But for 10 years, Christians lost their trust in the situation, the government there hear explosions and are afraid. So they are worried but right now no one is against them. Even before, when there were attacks and a kind of persecution, it was politicized. There are some cases because you can find fanatic people that don’t like Christians being there. This is not a policy though.

ZENIT: Is there anything in particular in Pope Francis’ words or actions regarding the Middle East that has struck you?

Patriarch Sako: I have always spoken about a project to integrate all citizens in their citizenship, to be able to live with the same standard as that of the majority religion. The Pope really underlined that. He said that we have to support the project of citizenship, equal citizenship of all. I wrote an article maybe seven months ago saying that our countries should now move on from tolerance to citizenship, because tolerance is very bad. Tolerance means “I am not liked.” This is offensive to minorities, for those who are not Muslim. But citizenship means that we are all equal. Religion is something personal between me and God. Okay, there is a Muslim background culture, we are not against it but to impose Islamic law, the Sharia, upon all is unacceptable. It is not logical, it cannot be done.

ZENIT: What are your hopes after this three day meeting with the Holy Father?  

Patriarch Sako: Well there are many hopes. First, the solidarity and closeness of all participants in the plenary assembly. All of them showed us their solidarity, solidarity we can express on many occasions or in many ways. To visit us for instance, from the Holy See or the bishops conferences, to support or finance our projects. We have asked many to open a dialogue with Muslim authorities, to change interreligious dialogue, not to be provoking tensions. Religious dialogue would be for peace for dialogue, passive coexistence and collaboration with all. Also the Holy See and the international community can have an impact, to respect human rights in those countries in the Middle East - reciprocity. Also to encourage our churches to be stronger and more united and maybe to encourage them to stay, but also to train them, to form them as leaders. We have had many priests from Iraq who have left the country and this is a scandal. Now we have churches without parish priests. A priest should be there and be a pastor even if it's just up to him, to be just like a good [shepherd].

ZENIT: Many of our readers have been following the situation in the Middle East. How can they help their fellow Christians?

Patriarch Sako: First, I think to pray because there is a spiritual communion. You know the miracle of Syria was that it came about through prayer and fasting. And this can be repeated. But also to spread this culture of dialogue, to ask others to help to respect diversity. Maybe where there are attacks, you can also manifest your support by condemning the attacks against innocent Christians in Syria and Iraq.

Also to ask your government to be honest and to be beside those who are suffering or being persecuted. They are not only leaders of a flock but they are also responsible, for instance through the United Nations and other international agencies. [Christians must] make their voices strong and loud.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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