What future for Christians in the Middle East? It is the question we ask ourselves in a dramatic moment for the Christian communities in the Middle East: the region is going through terrible months. Yesterday we listened to some vivid testimonies. Even if it is true that there is a very hard conflict between Muslims (between Sunnis and Shiites, or between Sunnis of various positions), but there is a special condition of Christians in the Middle East, to be considered as such. It has been said by Middle Eastern Christian leaders for some time: an upheaval is taking place!
So many times, in their two-thousand-year history, the Christian peoples of the East have suffered violence, risking their lives. But this time we are seeing a dramatic ethnic cleansing of entire regions, which perhaps has no parallel in history and represents almost the end of a story. I would like to recall, greeting His Beatitude Chrisostomos, the painful situation of occupied Cyprus.
Significantly, we are commemorating these days a centenary: the massacre of Armenians and Christians, which began on 24 April 1915, a plan of ethnic cleansing nationalist that used religious fanaticism to cruelly destroy more than one and a half million Armenians and Christians in the Ottoman Empire. It is the “Metz Yeghern”, the Great Evil, of the Armenians. But -for the Syriacs or the Chaldeans, forgotten for such a long time- it is “Seyfo”, the time of the sword. A world of living together (difficult but real) between Muslims and Christians disappeared in modern Turkey, while Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries became a refuge for Christians. Today -one hundred years after that- it seems that a cycle is ending with exoduses and massacres precisely in those lands. Some speak of genocide of minorities in the Middle East. It is certainly martyrdom for many, forced to leave their homes or who lose their lives due to the fact that they are Christians.
Mind you: martyrdom is not characteristic of those that seek death or kill themselves to kill others. Martyrdom is characteristic of those that-while wanting to live- do not give up their faith and identity. And that is why it is eliminated. It remains a question without a reasonable answer: Why? Why are they against them? Christians are mild, harmless, hard-working, used to living peacefully with others of different religions. Perhaps this reality, so peaceful, is intolerable for Islamic totalitarianism, which wants to build an integral and oppressive Islamic state. The question remains worrying and without a right answer: Why are these peaceful Christians persecuted? This question is at the same time an act of accusation and a cry of pain against senseless and relentless persecution.
Also because, in the long history of the Arab world, the Christian minorities have been a reality of openness and a guarantee of pluralism, rooted in stories so old that go back to a time before Islam. In the political and social ecology of the Muslim world, even with closed regimes, they have been a rampart in the face of the totalitarian impulses of Islam. Their elimination is a suicide of pluralism, which will be paid dearly by Muslims themselves, especially by Muslim minorities considered heterodox, the Shiites, women, young people that are more globalised, the most secular people. Yes, suicide, because Christians have always made an important contribution to the best ages of Arab societies, if only in their rebirth, the Nahada.
A world is disappearing: it is a tragedy for Christians, a vacuum for Muslim societies, a loss for the balance of the Mediterranean and for civilisation. You have experienced the very painful story of the Nineveh Plain, a two-thousand-year-old Christian land from which they uprooted Christians, mostly refugees in Kurdistan. Then there is the story of Syria, ravaged by four years of violence and war. Aleppo, for which we launched an appeal, endorsed by the UN envoy himself but -unfortunately without significant answers-, is dying in a circle of fire. Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an ancient crossroads of coexistence and exchanges, fades under the bombings, while those that can flee. It was a place of cohabitation that I remember with nostalgia and grief for its sweet and tolerant life. The war in Syria has lasted almost like World War I and produces an incredible number of refugees that is suffocating Lebanon (1,500,000 over three million people).
The question on the future of Christians in the Middle East is connected necessarily with a regional framework of widespread violence and insecurity to everyone, especially minority groups. What can be done for Christians in such a context? For an effective response –we think it is the purpose of this meeting- it is necessary to listen to the voices of Eastern Christians. What do Eastern Christians think about their future? In this perspective, I thank the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Paolo Gentiloni, for his presence at this meeting; as I also thank mons. Paul Richard Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See, and other representatives of the foreign ministries.
The majority of Eastern Christians - as monsignor Kawak said yesterday - has always thought that, in the Arab countries, the springs would bring negative consequences for their safety, considering as a better guarantee the persistence of authoritarian regimes: in order to survive - said the patriarch Aphrem. Since 2003, he has considered the war in Iraq as a disruptive mistake to that country. A distance of perception among the Christians of the East on the one hand, Europe and the West on the other is obvious: not a gap. The West, despite its articulation, has a clear awareness that instability in the Middle East opens serious gaps in the Mediterranean balance: peace and stability, the spread of terrorism, are his concerns. Russia is an important reality in this framework, and is part of the solution. Dear friends, for complex problems, there are no simple solutions.
The issue then is: what happens to Islam and how to react? We are witnessing a deadly conflict for supremacy and leadership in the Sunni world between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Added to this is the challenge of Shiite Islam to the Sunni majority. In this context, all minorities are crushed and an area of serious instability has been created. This is not a new situation in the history of Islam: chaos, fitna. We know how many wars have divided Muslims, at least until the advent of the Ottomans. Among the jihadist terrorists themselves there is conflict, as between the Nusra Front (al Qaeda) and Isis and many more.
Whoever wins this war (and I do not anticipate that anyone will win), a monster will emerge in the rubble ... Muslims must be called to different responsibilities. It is necessary to talk to them as much as possible: in all instances. They must be aware that, if they fight a war between them, it affects others, it affects everyone, even very far. Hatred between Shiites and Sunnis and aversion within Sunni Islam are disfiguring the face of secular Islam. They can not think of taking hostage the world due to their divisions. They need to know that their reputation has a strong impact in the world: there is now fear of Islam, whose destructive capacity is feared, as said the president Al Sisi.
We know that the people of Islam suffers, wants peace, but its voice is covered by proponents of hate. Only if the crisis between Muslims is solved (or finds at least truce), only then will we able to save Christianity in the East and stability in the area, will we have fewer refugees (who haunt European politics so much) and will stop foreign fighters. There is not a simple solution to what is complex. No one has a magic wand.
The question on emergencies remains: what to do for Christian refugees in Kurdistan and other countries, including Turkey. The recent meeting of the Security Council of the United Nations dedicated to minorities, on 27 March 2015, under the impetus of France, was an important warning signal, when it said the return of refugees to their homes was a priority. Here is the agonising question addressed to Christian leaders by their communities and not from today: is there a future in our lands or do we have to emigrate? It takes a long-term thinking on the future of the region and on the space of Christians in the area. It is necessary to find safe harbours, safe havens to resist, as I have supported for years (and here they have been too afraid to build ghettos). It is the task of politics: to negotiate with those that can and that want for the future of Christianity in those lands, to call upon the States (like Iraq) to ensure the safety of Christian citizens.
The theme has to become part of the action of governments. Although the goal is not to revive the protection of Christians that did so much damage. To create areas of truce in Syria, like Aleppo (to the UN, the proposal is still on the table). To especially help Lebanon (the Unifil operation desired by Italy has protected it, but how long?). There is a need to revisit the strategy in Syria. West and Europe today are not those of the nineteenth century who protected Christians. Certainly in the West, however, there is a growing sensitivity to the plight of Christians in the East. In the East, a great unity among Christians has been created. But - I wonder – is it not necessary that today, in this emergency, we find a way to make more effective humanitarian interventions? In short, the courage of united action in the globalised world. Unity (with each other and with all churches in the world) is the strength of Christians, in this dramatic situation of weakness. In the current difficult situation, hope is combined with realism. Hope comes from God - we know that. Not from the West. But this hope will mature new conditions of relations in the Middle East. Soon, yes, hopefully soon!