Afflicted by wars, emigration and insecurity, Christian communities have now become "a small flock" amid the indifference of the international community. Patriarchs appeal to Pope Francis and the international community. Catholics and Orthodox share the same problems. The end of Christians in the East would be "a shameful stigma for the whole 21st century".
Dimane (AsiaNews) – Consciously “hoping against hope” and placing itself in the hands of “God’s justice, the Council of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs yesterday released a final statement after its annual session (August 10-11, 2017) in Dimane (northern Lebanon), the summer residence of the Maronite Patriarch.
With some sadness, the patriarchs criticised the international community of watching the extinction due to insecurity and emigration of one Eastern Church after the other in Iraq, Syria but also Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt without reacting to the gravity of the tragedy. They warn that if this state of affairs continues, it will be a real "plan of genocide" and "an affront to humanity."
Their message coincides with the release of clear data on the decline in the number of Christians in various Middle East countries, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and the Holy Land. In the latter geographic area, divided between Israel and Occupied Territories, Christians represent only 1.2 per cent of the population. In Syria, due to the war that broke out in 2011, their number has fallen from 250,000 to 100,000, according to recent statistics. Meanwhile, the Chaldean patriarch is struggling to convince Christians from the Nineveh Plain to come back to their native land after it was taken back from Daesh.
In a "general appeal", somewhat confused because it was probably drafted by more than one person, in which hope is mixed with cries and lamentations, the patriarchs say, "It's time to launch a prophetic appeal to bear witness to the truth . . . We are invited to remain attached to our Eastern identity and to remain faithful to our mission. Taking on the care of our little flock, we Eastern patriarchs are pained by watching the human haemorrhage of Christians who abandon their native lands in the Middle East."
"The oppressors who are acting fully cognizant of what they are doing, the mindless who take advantage of our pacifism, should know that God's justice will have the last word. To our faithful we say that we now look like yeast in the dough, in the light shining in a world thirsty of the vivifying Spirit. Let us remain rooted in the land of our fathers and ancestors, hoping against every hope in a future in which, as parts of a genuine and specific heritage, we shall be understood as sources of enrichment for our societies and for the universal Church in the East and the West ".
"We must remain attached to the proclamation of the truth in charity, and proclaim boldly the legitimacy of the separation between state and religion in the constitution of our homelands, and the equality of everyone in terms of rights and duties, irrespective of religious or community affiliation. This is an essential condition to reassure the nation’s Christians and other small groups."
Appeal to the international community
"We call upon the United Nations and the countries directly affected by the war in Syria, Iraq and Palestine (Russia, the United States, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) to stop the wars whose goals are now clear: destruction, killing, exile, boosting terrorist organisations, spreading the spirit of intolerance and conflict between religions and cultures. Perpetuating this situation, failure to establish a just, global and lasting peace in the region, and ensuring the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes in dignity and justice will remain as a shameful stigma for the whole 21st century".
Appeal to Pope Francis
"To Peter's successor, we say that we are ready to respond to the call for holiness, following the Saviour on the way of the Passion. But let us also remember that we represent Churches that flourished in the land of the East since the apostolic times . . . whose existence is in real danger."
"We have all participated in conferences, seminars, and meetings. We have tried to convey to the world the ugliness of the fate inflicted upon the Christian people. But we are not a ‘nation’ with big borders, or one that attracts the attention of giants of finance. We are now a small peaceful flock, a small flock that does not count on anyone else but you to invite the great ones who preside over the destinies of the world, who continue to push Middle East Christians to leave, which is no doubt, a plan of genocide, a human catastrophe, even a defeat for civilisation and an affront to all humanity."
In Lebanon, schools are at risk of closure
Furthermore, the statement notes the traditional ecumenical sequence, held on the first day, with the presence of Orthodox Eastern patriarchs and a visit of the president. Obviously, Eastern Orthodox patriarchs share the same concerns and face the same challenges.
The statement also expresses the concern of Lebanon’s Catholic School Secretariat (which caters to 70 per cent of the school population) over the approval of the new wage grid for teachers, which will increase costs by 20 per cent. According to the Secretariat, many state-funded free schools, especially in the provinces and the countryside, will be unable to cope with higher costs and will have to close. The bishops have therefore express concern over the "hundreds" of teachers who will lose their job and ask the Lebanese government to supplement the increases that have been made.
The press release did not fail to present Lebanon as a democratic model that all Arab countries should imitate because of the principle of separation between state and religion. It finally called for the return of displaced people (Syrians and Palestinians) now in Lebanon who have become "a heavy burden and a threat to the country's political, economic and social security."
The Nuncio and the Islamic State
The nuncio to Lebanon, Mgr Gabriele Caccia, spoke on the first day to reassure the Eastern Churches that the pope and the Universal Church are attentive to them, as evidenced by the Synod of 2010 and the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in the Middle East that followed, which Benedict XVI promulgated in Lebanon in 2012.
The statement noted that the "Arab Spring" led to the so-called Islamic State, "a novelty in the history of the region. The intention was perhaps to give a more regional role to an international Muslim organisation. But its rule has been shortened, bringing the situation back to the starting point, not without internal and international tensions. “
“We are starting to see an outline for a negotiated political solution to the issue, backed by the great powers, particularly Russia and United States. Let us hope that it can be lead to peace, justice and stability."
The annual meeting was attended by Catholic patriarchs: Bechara al-Rahi (Maronite), Ignace Youssef Younan III (Syriac Catholic), Joseph Absi (Greek Melchite Catholic), Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak (Catholic Coptic patriarch emeritus, president of the patriarchal council and Catholic bishops of Egypt), Louis Raphael I Sako (Chaldean), Gregory Petros XX (Armenian Catholic), and William Shomali (representing Mgr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem).
The other religious leaders present at the ecumenical session included Patriarch John X (Greek Orthodox), Patriarch Ignace Ephrem II (Syriac Orthodox), Catholicos Aram I (Armenian Orthodox), and Rev Salim Sahyouni (president of the Evangelical Community of Syria and Lebanon).
Francis celebrates the centenary of the founding of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. Created during the World War and while "another World War is in progress, albeit piecemeal". An "eminently ecumenical" horizon. "God does not forget His children, His memory is for the righteous, for those who suffer, who are oppressed and who are wondering why," yet they never cease to trust in the Lord. "
Tomorrow Pope Francis goes to the Pontifical Oriental Institute together with patriarchs and metropolitans of the Eastern Catholic Churches to celebrate the centenary. The occasion is also the centenary of the birth of the Vatican Congregation for the Oriental Churches. The richness of oriental traditions, their experience of coexistence (and persecution) with other religions, their life alongside Latin traditions.