13 December 2016
Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., gives the keynote address on 5 December at Villanova University’s conference on Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East.
(photo: Catholic Philly/Villanova University)
A recent gathering at Villanova University looked at the ongoing crisis in the Middle East — and found some compelling conclusions:
Consensus about the Middle East and its long-simmering tensions might seem hard to come by, but a dozen international scholars, government officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations found a few points of agreement during a meeting at Villanova University.
The ancient Christian community in the Middle East is in danger of extinction, along with other religious minorities. The violent conflicts and social unrest in many countries of the region have been inflamed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The prospects for peace and stability are bleak in the short term, and likely will not be resolved significantly for a generation at least.
That was the grim picture painted for 160 participants of the 5-6 December international conference examining the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in the context of the current political, social and security struggles of the region.
Organized by Augustinian Father Kail Ellis of the university, the conference drew top diplomats, scholars from Lebanon and the United States, and policy advisers, along with leaders of NGOs such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a Vatican-approved agency based in New York.
An official with the U.S. State Department, Knox Thames, said in his keynote address to open the conference that protecting religious freedom was “not only important because it’s a human right but because it also gives rise to peace, security and development. It is instrumentally important in forging a better world.”
He was followed by speakers who acknowledged the rich cultural and intellectual contributions to society by Christians in the region from the time of the early church up to the present.
They also acknowledged that a diaspora of Christians from the region is in full swing. Driven by persecution, discrimination and war in Iraq and Syria, many Christians are fleeing, despite pleas from religious leaders to remain in their homelands.
Statistics from CNEWA show that while Christian communities have been a minority for a long time, their share of the population has declined dramatically in recent years. In 2015 Christians accounted for only between 1 percent and 6 percent of the population in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Jordan. Their numbers had been between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population 30 years ago.
Read more at this link.
CNEWA’s Sami El-Yousef, regional director for Palestine and Israel, helped provide additional context in his speech at the conference, concluding:
Christian contributions in education, health care, and social advancement are huge in comparison to the size of the Christian presence and constitute a disproportionate contribution to the building of the various societies. This institutional presence is the pride of the Christian witness as services are provided to all segments of society with no distinction to religion, ethnic group, gender or nationality. Further, Christian institutions constitute the backbone of the Christian presence in the various countries where they are present. Generation upon generation has been able to carry this tradition and keep these institutions open and thriving. However, with the changing face of the Middle East at large and the Holy Land in particular, will we be able to maintain the tradition, and keep this Christian witness alive? Will the living stones remain or will they emigrate leaving a Holy Land consisting of Churches and monument Holy sites manned by a few religious men and women. This is the challenge for all of us as we move forward.
You can read the full speech here.