With more attention being devoted to the plight of Christians in the Holy Land — this “60 Minutes” piece is just the latest example — the Catholic Courier newspaper in Rochester recently spoke with some experts on the region, including our own Michael La Civita:
The Holy Land is the birthplace of Christianity, yet it also is the very place Christianity is most in danger of disappearing, experts say.
“To think that there may be no Christians in the place where it all began is a rather arresting thought,” said Mark Schnellbaecher, regional director in the Middle East and Eastern Europe for Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid agency of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Attacks on Christians in the Middle East have increased dramatically in the last few years, Schnellbaecher said, pointing to Iraq as an example. Although always a minority, Iraq’s Christian community had been stable and protected during the reign of Saddam Hussein. After the U.S.-led invasion toppled the dictator in 2003, militant Islamic political movements that had been repressed under Hussein “came up like mushrooms after a spring rain,” he said. Members of these movements kidnapped and killed many Christians, and the survivors fled Iraq in droves.
“To watch the dispersement of one of the most ancient Christian communities before your eyes is just sad,” said Schnellbaecher, who is based in Beirut. “These are the kinds of things that normally happen over centuries, and here it’s happened in the course of a decade. I think it is certainly possible in my lifetime there won’t be any Christians in Iraq.”
The dire situation facing Iraqi Christians is being replicated in other Middle Eastern countries, he added. This is true in Syria, which seems to be on the brink of civil war, and in Egypt, where extremist Muslim groups have forced Christians to live in fear since the 2011 revolution ousted former President Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak.
“Everyone looks to Iraq, and they see what happened to the Christian community — it’s been decimated — and they sort of wonder, is that our fate as well?” Schnellbaecher said.
And Christians are not the only ones facing violence, hostility and displacement in the Middle East, where other religious minorities also are under attack, said Michael La Civita, vice president of communications for Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency providing humanitarian support to the people of the Middle East, northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
“It’s open season on these smaller groups,” La Civita said.
Many times, religious differences are not the only reasons for hostilities, he added. Christians in many Middle Eastern countries, for example, tend to be well-educated members of the upper middle class, so anti-Christian violence is sometimes fueled by economic factors, La Civita said. These factors by no means justify such violence, he said, but they do help explain its origins.
“There is sometimes a social or economic or political reason for the violence that ensues. You have to put everything into its proper context and really look at what’s the source of some of these problems,” he noted.