Amman, Jordan, Jan 30, 2015 / 16:19 pm
Christians have lived in the Middle East since the time of the apostles, but political machinations by world powers and other groups put these communities at risk of extinction, a Jordanian priest fears.
"Who are the main players in these 'dirty games'? Behind the scenes?" Father Rifat Bader asked journalists at his church near Amman on Oct. 28. "I think many nations are involved in dirty games."
"But the thing that I cannot understand really: Why do the Christians have to go out of the game?" he asked. "Why, we are part of our societies! So let us be considered as part of the game! Not out of it."
Fr. Bader, the general director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media, is pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Latin Rite Catholic Church in the Jordanian capital.
The priest cited Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Sako's September 2014 comments about "dirty political games" in the Middle East.
Fr. Bader noted the early 20th century actions of Western powers in the region, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement the United Kingdom and France secretly contracted during World War I to divide the territory of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the war. He predicted similar action in the Middle East in the 21st century.
"Now we have a new Sykes-Picot, with new divisions," he said.
Fr. Bader was also sceptical of United States policy in the region. In his view, religious minorities "are not a real concern for the U.S. government."
The aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been hard for many, particularly for Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities. Iraq's Christian population declined from about 1.4 million people to only 400,000. The rapid expansion of the Islamic State group in 2014 only worsened their plight, as the group captured historically Christian towns and cities with large Christian populations such as Mosul, and imposed an extreme version of Islamic law.
The Islamic State's rise has compounded the crisis in neighboring Syria, where a civil war continues to rage between the government of President Bashar Assad and several rebel coalitions, including the Islamic State. The political backers of the Islamic State are a topic of intense speculation in the region.
Fr. Bader said that the Islamic State was "fiercest" first against the Christians. "And then came the Yazidis, and then the Kurds," he said, listing the militants' other targets.
"The first part of this dirty game was against the Christians," he said. "They didn't have time to think."
Fr. Bader's church has hosted several dozen Iraqi Christian refugees who fled the Islamic State hours before its soldiers occupied their towns and cities. As of late October, they lived in a building converted to shelter them, with assistance from the Catholic humanitarian agency Caritas Jordan and the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services.
Many of the refugees are determined never to return.
"No, we will never go back," Taif Hanna, an engineer from Mosul, told reporters. "ISIS tried to kill us."
The militant group offered three choices: conversion to Islam, payment of a tax, or death.
"So we all fled Iraq," Taif said.
"I will leave all my history there. Because of the terrorism," lamented Taif's father, Maan George Hanna. "We have no trust in the government or anything. Never, forever."
While Fr. Bader praised the Jordanian monarchy's actions to help Christians, he voiced strong concern that so many Christian refugees were leaving the Middle East entirely.
"When they leave Jordan, they leave the Middle East. This makes us more sad. We want to keep them in the Middle East, but we cannot," he said, questioning why other Arab countries were not welcoming more Christians.
The priest also criticized aspects of the meeting of U.S. President Barack Obama with leading Christians of the Middle East, which was linked to the In Defense of Christians summit in September 2014.
In Fr. Bader's view, the meeting neglected Christians and their patriarchs in the Holy Land itself.
He contended that the meeting depicted Islam as the only challenge to Christians in the Middle East and ignored the challenge posed to Christians by Israel.
According to the priest, some in the Holy Land suffer "as Christians" from the Israeli occupation and "the lack of religious freedom."
Fr. Bader thought there was a double standard in how the U.S. government treats Palestine and Israel.
At the same time, he saw the need for "one Islamic voice in the Muslim and Arab world" to condemn the Islamic State's actions.
The majority of Jordanians are against the Islamic State, and Fr. Bader said it is wrong to think that such a caliphate is good for all Muslims.
"They do not want such a form of a violent, cruel, massacr(ing) state."
He added that many Muslims who do want a religious state at most want it to resemble the papacy: speaking on behalf of human beings and human rights, and not against them.
Fr. Bader praised Muslim assistance for Christian refugees. When Muslims heard Iraqi Christians were coming to stay, he reported, veiled Muslim women came to help them.
"Really that is a great image of Jordan."
The country has taken in about 1.4 million Syrian refugees, increasing its population by about 20 percent. Despite the significant strain on national resources, the country appears to be politically stable.
"We thank God for the stability in Jordan, that we can at least have a safe country which hosts all these people from Syria and from Iraq," Fr. Bader said.
"Before that, it was from Palestine."
He said it is important to distinguish Arab countries in which Christians are persecuted, from countries in which they are not.
Fr. Bader had high praise for Jordan's King Abdullah II. The priest noted the king's remarks at the United Nations and at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative which emphasized Christians' 2,000-year history in the Middle East and their past, present, and future role in Middle East societies.
"When the king says this, we are proud of what he is saying, because he is frank, and he is really always defending the Arabic Christians."
The king has also been patron of a conference about the challenges facing Middle East Christians.
Fr. Bader also praised the Catholic Church's support for many projects, noting that coordination teams of bishops come every year from the U.S. and from Europe.
"They come, they visit Gaza, they visit the hidden sufferings in Jordan and in Palestine."
The Jordanian priest noted that Caritas Jordan helps both Muslims and Christians. Religious differences are not a barrier to aid and cooperation, the priest said.
However, Caritas Jordan is also facing a great burden in trying to aid the refugees.
"That's why Caritas needs more help from the partners outside," the priest said. "They have to help Caritas because we don't foresee when this crisis will end."
Fr. Bader stressed the importance of Arabic-language Catholic news, especially after the reaction to Benedict XVI's 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany about the role of faith and reason in Christianity and Islam.
Media coverage focused on a passage in which the Pope cited a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who criticized Islam's Prophet Mohammed. The media coverage at times provoked reactions that turned violent.
"Nobody could read the speech," Fr. Bader said. "They were just attacking the Pope and the Church without reading the content of it."