September 7, 2012


The trials of Middle Eastern Christians continue to increase

When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Lebanon on Sept. 14 for a three-day apostolic journey, he will visit a region that is being wracked by violence.

A civil war in neighboring Syria continues to rage—a conflict that has resulted in an upsurge in Christian refugees.

Syria is one of the cradles of Christianity. Christians there predated St. Paul’s missionary efforts. In fact, it was on the road to Damascus to round up followers of Christ that Saul experienced his conversion.

Under President Bashar al-Assad, Christians have experienced freedom of religion and good relations with the Muslims who rule the country. It appears that that may change if, or when, the Assad regime falls.

It is similar to what has happened in Iraq. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Christians there felt secure despite the dictator’s often cruel ways. But violence against them erupted after his fall, and hundreds of thousands of Christians fled—many of them to Syria. Now they’re not safe there.

For now, the refugees are fleeing to Lebanon and Jordan. Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, which has been working with Syrian refugees for 14 months, said at the beginning of August that the number of Syrian refugees could be well over 100,000. He expects many more in the future because “the human plight and wound in this part of the world is getting deeper.”

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has been distributing food kits, food vouchers, sheets and blankets, and hygiene kits in both Jordan and Lebanon. 

Caroline Brennan, senior communications director for CRS, said, “The underlying feeling among Syrian refugees is this genuine deep despair for everything that is lost. They really were blinded by this happening to them. They did not expect this.”

Of course, not all of these refugees are Christians. Muslims are also trying to escape because of the violence of Sunnis upon Shiites and Shiites upon Sunnis.

At the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in October of 2010, the secretary general, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, gave some statistics of Catholics in the Middle East. He said that there are approximately 5.7 million Catholics in countries from Turkey to Egypt and east to Iran, plus Cyprus and the Arabian Peninsula.

Perhaps surprisingly, 2.4 million of them—43 percent—are on the Arabian Peninsula. However, they are “guest workers” rather than native residents. Most of them are Syro-Malabar Catholics from India. They have a particularly difficult time practicing their religion in that Muslim area.

In Egypt, Christians were protected during the years that Hosni Mubarak was president. Christians there are about 10 percent of the population, but the largest in the Middle East in terms of absolute numbers. Ninety-five percent of them—7.2 million— belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, but there are also 181,000 Coptic Catholics.

Now, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken control, and Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, has reportedly told a journalist in a private meeting that Christians should “convert, pay tribute or leave.”

Christians, therefore, are living in fear.

If Egypt has the largest Christian population in absolute numbers in the Middle East, Lebanon has the largest percentage of the population, but that percentage has fallen. In 1926, Christians comprised 84 percent of the population. Today, the percentage is disputed, but estimated at about 39 percent.

The Maronite Catholic Church is the largest and most politically active followed by the Greek Orthodox Church. Others include the Greek Melkite Catholic Church and the Latin Rite Catholic Church. Christians and Muslims each hold 64 seats in the Lebanese Parliament.

Palestinian refugees flooded into Lebanon when Israel became a state in 1947. As recently as 2005, there were 402,582 descendants of Palestinian refugees still registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, representing nearly 10 percent of the population. Most of them are Sunni Muslims.

There is fear now that the civil war in Syria will spill over into Lebanon.

Many Christians in the Middle East have long been escaping to South America, the United States and elsewhere.

As Msgr. Robert Stern, secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, has pointed out, there are more Christians from Bethlehem now living in Santiago, Chile, than in Bethlehem itself.

The events in the Middle East are proving to be disastrous for Christians. Pope Benedict is traveling there in large part to encourage them and give them strength.

—John F. Fink

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