Christians in the Middle East “as in a cage”, amid slight signs of openness
by Bernardo Cervellera
At the meeting of the Oasis Centre, the sorrowful testimony of Bishop Warduni of Iraq, and of Bishop Hinder of the Arabian peninsula. The intention is to drive Christians out of the Middle East. But here and there (Kuwait and Jordan) there are small signs of tolerance.
Amman (AsiaNews) – Christians closed up in Islamic societies “as in a cage”; Christians as a presence to be eliminated from all of the Middle East; Christians made the scapegoat for the faults of the West; free (in Jordan) to hold in public all of the processions of the liturgical year.
At the meeting of the scholarly committee of the Oasis Centre, the testimonies continue from bishops, priests, and laypeople from majority Muslim countries.
It’s not all dust and blood in the Middle East. Bishop Mounjed el-Hachem, nuncio in Kuwait, talked about the openness seen in this country, and of the constant invitation from the emirates to the Christians to open schools – there are already seven of them – in order to offer a modern education to students, most of them Islamic. The nuncio also recounts the “publicity” given publicly by the emir of Qatar to the Vatican, praising the open-mindedness of the pope, who “has permitted (sic) the construction of a mosque a short distance from the Vatican” [editor’s note: he means the mosque of Rome]. The emir thus justified – with a certain “reciprocity” – the opening of a church in Qatar, inaugurated last March in Doha.
The quality of the schools and charity toward the sick and handicapped is the key to the warm and even “equal” welcome for Catholics in the Jordanian kingdom, where the population is more than 90% Muslim.
But in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, it’s a different tune. The most touching testimony was that of Bishop Shlemon Warduni, patriarchal vicar of Baghdad, who recounted the situation of the Christian community in the country, which has been reduced to just a flicker. Thanks to violence, kidnappings, killings, threats, very few Christians have remained. Their exodus toward Jordan and Syria, and toward the West, is “part of a project to eliminate the Christian presence from the Middle East”: a project, the prelate explains, “that is not only Islamic”. Those who remain in the country are subjected to Islamic taxes, threats, and forced conversions, on penalty of death. Christians even have their children taken away to make them Muslim. Bishop Warduni is sceptical about the new constitution, which is ultimately inspired by sharia (“Who will guarantee us freedom in the future?”). And even if in recent times the security situation has improved, Christian priests and laity undergo constant kidnappings with the aim of extortion, from which they can be liberated “if they convert to Islam”.
The vicar of Baghdad also referred to the desperation of the young people, and to the weariness of the adults. Recalling also John Paul II’s opposition to the war of 2003, he asked for solidarity and prayers on the part of all Christians in the world, so that international politics as well “might focus on the good of the Iraqis”, Christian and Muslim.
Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of Arabia, spoke of the “cage” in which Christians are enclosed in the Arabian peninsula (“as in a zoo”); every little sign of religious freedom comes as a concession of power, insufficient for responding to the religious needs of the people. In Kuwait, for example, permission has been given to open a church for 800-1,000 people, but there are more than 350,000 Catholics. According to Bishop Hinder, “the abuse of freedom” that is lived in the West scandalises the Muslims of Arabia, and has “repercussions on religious freedom” for Christians, who are seen as no different from Westerners.
All of these testimonies have brought to light that there are small signs of openness, but these are too few and far between, and are not founded on rights. Fr Camille Semaan, from Egypt, noted that Christians are sometimes able to find Muslims who are understanding and sympathetic toward their situation, but “these are an elite”, while the population in general (especially in Egypt) becomes more fundamentalist by the day.