For the past few weeks, 250 participants in the Catholic Church’s Synod of Bishops for the Middle East have converged to discuss issues facing the Church in the region. John L. Allen reports that of the 185 attending bishops, 140 do not belong to the Latin Rite.
They are a part of the 22 Eastern Catholic Rites, which maintain their unique traditions while remaining in full communion with Rome. Furthering religious diversity were talks to the Synod from Islamic scholars, a rabbi, and a message from Coptic Pope Senouda III.
While there is probably the beginning of a joke somewhere, with such a collection of clerics, the Synod’s discussion was often literally consisted of matters of life and death. Archbishop Boutros Marayati wondered about the survival of Eastern Christianity itself, noting the hardships in the region for Christians over the past century. This has ranged from the outright genocide of Armenians and other Christian groups in the early 20th century through the current plight of Christians suffering in post-invasion Iraq.
In fact, in an article appearing in the Telegraph in April, Edward Stourton wrote, “The campaign of violence against Christians is one of the most under-reported stories of Iraq since the invasion of 2003. And it could change the country’s character in a fundamental way; by the time the dust finally settles on the chaotic current chapter of Iraq’s history, the Christian community may have disappeared altogether…”
Often— and mistakenly —associated with the West, Iraq’s Christian population has been estimated to have seen a decline from 1.5 million to 400,000 in just 20 years. Father Sameer Shaba Maroki, professor at Babel College, stated the cause for mass emigration simply: “The reason is fear, not economics.”
These problems are not limited to just Iraq. The representative for Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria—the
head of the Orthodox Coptic Church whose title should not be confused with the Catholic Pope—said, “the conflicts and persecutions that our region suffers from have multiplied and turned into lamentation and suffering, resulting in the migration of a large number of the finest young Christians, leaving their homelands behind.”
Muhammad al-Sammak reflected on the loss of Middle Eastern Christians from an Islamic perspective: “The emigration of Christians is an impoverishment of the Arabic identity, of its culture and of its authenticity…They are an integral part of the cultural, literary and scientific formation of Islamic civilization.”
An outlier to the declining Christian population is found in Saudi Arabia where immigration patterns has seen as many as two million Christians come to work in the country from places like India and the Philippines. Unfortunately, this has not been accompanied by religious liberty of any recognizable sort.
Despite the endemic oppression faced by Christians in the Middle East, there is little voiced concern in the Western world. This must change. The humanitarian implications are obvious. We should always feel compassion for other human beings. The imperative to support Eastern Christianity, particularly the Middle Eastern variants, both in their region of origin and abroad is globally significant.
Its cultural richness is derived from a history that predates both Islam and Christianized Europe. The loss of Eastern Christianity would be incalculable, and permanently damage any attempts at global understanding and dialogue.