The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church is calling on the faithful to reach out to Muslims in order to foster a common understanding of religious liberty and cooperation in supporting it.
“The majority Muslim population is good and not violent,” said Archbishop Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon. “They do not agree with the extremists but they are also afraid to react publicly.”
He noted that moderate Muslims are “the majority,” and said that they must promote religious freedom and civil harmony in their societies.
“They must prove to the world through deeds that Islam is not a religion of ‘terror and killing’ of innocent civilians.”
Archbishop Sako, whose Church is in full communion with Rome, delivered a keynote lecture Dec. 14 at a conference on Christianity and freedom, held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. The conference is an initiative of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
The archbishop suggested that the Catholic Church produce a document for Muslims to translate ideas of religious freedom into a language more understandable to Islamic thinking.
“Such an undertaking can help the Church look for a new and more comprehensible theological language in Arabic to help Christians and Muslims to understand our faith, and the importance of religious freedom to every person and every society,” he stated.
This proposed document, he said, should explain “in language compatible with Islam” the idea of religious freedom as articulated in the Second Vatican Council’s religious freedom declaration “Dignitatis Humanae.”
“It is important to clarify with them both our fears and our hopes,” he observed.
“We need a way to help Muslims reconcile Islam with citizenship based on full equality,” he added. “A secular state that entails cooperation between religious and political leaders would be ideal.”
The patriarch invited Muslim friends to show common action as a follow up to “A Common Word Between Us and You,” a 2007 document produced by leading Muslims as part of a dialogue with Pope Benedict XVI.
Archbishop Sako stressed the importance of Christians in the Middle East, citing their history in the region dating back to apostolic times, long before Islam’s arrival. He noted Christians’ culture, their high level of education, their work in business, their “spirit of cooperation” and their institutions such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the elderly.
Efforts to repress Christians or to encourage them to flee is “a great crime” against them and “a big loss for Muslims,” he said, calling for an end to the “mortal exodus” of Christians from the Middle East, due to threats including war, a lack of security, “extremist political Islam” and organized crime.
“We Christians are trying to remain in our homelands because we are committed to love each other,” the archbishop explained, stressing the need for religious unity in the quest for peace.
“Because we are all created by God, each of us carries a heritage that profoundly links us all,” he said.
The patriarch urged the West and the international community to increase efforts to help Muslim nations in “modernizing” Islam’s approach to religious freedom, as well as to convince Muslim nations that anti-Christian persecution is harmful both for Christians and their societies as a whole.
Archbishop Sako, who is based in Baghdad, particularly lamented the lack of security in Iraq and the daily attacks, bombings, kidnappings and murders.
“Naturally we are worried about our future,” he said. “The continuing weakening of Christianity in Iraq is not just a tragedy for our country, but the entire region.”
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, “turmoil swept Iraq,” he said. Christians and other minority groups have been especially affected.
More than 1,000 Iraqi Christians have been killed since 2003, while others have been tortured or kidnapped and released only after a large ransom. About 62 churches and monasteries have been attacked.
Iraq’s Christian population has halved since 1987, with at least 850,000 having left the country.
A similar scenario is playing out in Egypt, where more than 100 churches have been attacked in the last 18 months. In Syria, 67 churches have been attacked and tens of thousands of Christians have left the country.
Archbishop Sako stressed the “deep roots” of Christianity in the Middle East, dating back to apostolic times. He noted that Syriac Christianity uses a language very close to the Aramaic language of Jesus Christ and the early Christians. This version of Christianity reached Tibet and China.
Furthermore, it was in Antioch in the Roman province of Syria that the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. The patriarchal sees of five churches originated in Antioch.
The archbishop said that many Muslims do not know the historical role of Christians in the religious and intellectual formation of Islamic civilization.
He praised the “long tradition” of Syriac Christians’ encounter and dialogue with their Muslim neighbors, voicing hope that this tradition may help these Christians preserve their heritage and offer their “unique contributions.”
“The loss of Christianity from the Middle East would fundamentally alter the contours of culture and society in nations such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt,” he emphasized. “It would deal a severe blow to any hope of pluralism and democracy.”