Defending Christianity in the Middle East. “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.