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Cardinal Schönborn: Loss of Mid-East Christians would be 'tragedy for the region'
By Benjamin Mann
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

.- World leaders and diplomats must help prevent a total loss of Middle Eastern Christianity, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna warned in a June 26 panel discussion in Washington, D.C.

“Religious geography is mobile. And as things go, it may happen that the Near East will undergo the fate of the North African Christianity in the seventh century,” Vienna's archbishop told listeners at the Hudson Institute. That “flourishing” North African Church, he recalled, “vanished completely.”

“It would be a deep wound for Christianity to lose the homeland, the land of origin, of Christianity, if it remained only a 'museum' for pilgrims,” Cardinal Schönborn said. “And it would be a tragedy for the region.”

The Austrian Church leader spoke at Tuesday's roundtable, entitled “Persecuted Christians and Other Religious Minorities in the New Middle East: Formulating an Effective U.S. Policy Response,” along with Lebanese professor Dr. Habib Malik, and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In his keynote remarks, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna recalled the seventh-century Islamic conquest of Damascus, Jerusalem, Egypt, and North Africa. While Christianity disappeared from some of these regions, it survived in others up to the present day.

But new religious and political realities – including the revolutions of the “Arab Spring,” as well as the impact of the Iraq war – now threaten the Church's survival even in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, where it persisted after the initial Muslim conquests of the seventh century.

Cardinal Schönborn's remarks came just days after the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi as Egypt's new president. Meanwhile, Syria's ongoing conflict is increasingly seen as a civil war, while bombings and other attacks in Iraq killed around 180 people during June 2012.

Iraq has lost more than half of its Christian population since 2003. Observers have warned that Syria and Egypt could suffer similar losses, if Christians opt to flee the sectarian violence and political pressure brought by the new Arab revolutions.

In Tuesday's speech, Cardinal Schönborn advised Western politicians and diplomats to deepen their awareness of religious factors at work in the Middle East – which have been “seriously neglected,” to the detriment of vulnerable groups.

Western nations must also “insist on the importance of the secular state” for the future of the Middle East. If U.S. policymakers want to help the cause of Arab democracy, they should “help the Christians and the other minorities to breathe,” the cardinal advised.

“The Christians and other minorities in the Near East know that their only chance for survival is a secular state, with real religious freedom,” Cardinal Schönborn observed. All religions, he said, must must reject theocratic ideas that lead to “totalitarianism” by identifying God's kingdom with the state.

He also warned political leaders “not to repeat, in Syria and elsewhere, the mistakes of Iraq,” where the unleashing of sectarian conflict led to the devastation of the Christian population.

Cardinal Schönborn concluded his remarks with a mention of the new Christian migrant-worker populations that have come to the Middle East in recent years, mostly from countries such as India, the Phillipines, and Sri Lanka.

“One million Catholics are living in Saudi Arabia – as servants, as housemaids, as workers – with no religious rights at all,” he stated.

The U.S. “has an enourmous influence in Saudi Arabia,” Vienna's archbishop pointed out. “The question of religious freedom from these large minorities should not be forgotten on the political agenda.”

Cardinal Schönborn's keynote speech was followed by an analysis of regional factors by Dr. Habib Malik, a Catholic scholar and human rights advocate who teaches history at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

Malik's remarks on the “so-called 'Arab Spring'” outlined the “very real fears being felt and expressed daily” by religious minorities, “regarding the disturbing trends and emerging ominous outcomes of this new Middle East taking shape.”

The region's “repressive dictatorial regimes,” established and solidified during the mid-20th century, are now “collapsing like dominoes before our very eyes,” Malik noted.

But today, 18 months after this process began in Tuniasia, “what remains of the anticipated 'Spring' is a jumble of disturbing outcomes and ominous tendencies, that resemble anything but a democratic new birth.”

Western media initially hailed the regional revolutions as the moment of emergence for a new “Facebook generation” of Arab youth, expected to promote democracy and human rights. But these activists, Malik said, failed to maintain their momentum or make a lasting political impact.

“Instead, as has happened in Egypt, the revolution was hijacked along the way,” by hardline Salafist Islamists, who were “better-organized, better-funded, and better-motivated” than the region's emerging liberal elements.

Now, Egypt and the rest of the region have been placed “on the precarious incline toward greater empowerment of Salafist ideology.” Throughout the Arab world, “the voice of the liberals is giving way to defiant chants of 'Allahu Akbar.'”

“Indigenous Middle Eastern Christians do not see a 'Spring' anywhere in sight,” he pointed out. “To them, the term 'Arab Spring' actually sounds increasingly like a bad joke, black humor. They see, instead, the makings of a 'Arab nightmare'” – with dire consequences for the region and the world.

The opposition Free Syrian Army is “looking increasingly like a militant Islamist grouping” – with its long beards, kidnappings, beheadings, and internet footage of attacks on the regime accompanied by religious chanting.

Malik believes that states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which enjoy “unwavering Western backing,” have no real interest in promoting a liberal and democratic replacement for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Rather, the professor said, “everything they are doing there seems to be furthering a militant Sunni, Salafi, Wahhabi replacement” in Syria, “and indeed, anywhere else in the region they can manage it.” Western powers, meanwhile, are pursuing “short-sighted policies” that play into this agenda.

Syrian Christians “are not blind supporters of the bloody regime,” but are caught between “bad or worse” options for their country's future. In Egypt, likewise, Christians face “awful choices” between military rule and political Islam.

If the Middle East loses its Christians and other religious minorities, Malik warned, then “pluralism is all but dead” in the region – “and along with it, any real chances for genuine freedoms and democracy.”

The professor credited certain U.S. government figures, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for adopting a more cautious line of “prudent reluctance” toward the Syrian opposition in recent weeks.

Rather than allowing radical Islamic elements to take power, the U.S. and its Western allies should “protect and preserve whatever meager freedoms already exist in parts of the Middle East, and build upon them. This means, among other things, active protection for minority rights and for pluralism.”

Potential persecutors of these communities should be put on notice “that they will be watched like a hawk by the international community.” Lebanon, an “oasis of freedom” in the region, should be “protected” and “nurtured” as a model of pluralism.

An effective official response to the changing Arab world, Malik said, would also involve U.S. and European pressure against Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to “temper Sunni agitation, and stop fanning the flames of Sunni fanaticism with money, arms, and propaganda.”

“Blowing up the entire region is not the way to change a dictator in Syria, or elsewhere,” he stated. “This charade of arch-repressors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar leading a crusade versus regional dictators, with American and Western backing, has to end.”

Tags: Church in Middle East

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