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Synod: Declining Christian Populations

14 Oct 2010 – By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Concern, and even alarm, over the real threat of the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East was a recurrent theme at the Synod of Bishops focusing on the region.

Christians, who were present in the region long before Islam, “are presently facing a deadly dilemma: to choose between disappearance and isolation, which would bring an end to their historical role and their mission,” said Hares Chehab, secretary general of Lebanon’s National Committee for Islamic-Christian Dialogue.

Chehab, a papally appointed observer at the synod, addressed the gathering Oct. 12 and echoed concerns voiced by a variety of bishops who spoke before him.

The region is gradually emptying itself of Christians, “who had contributed so much to the elaboration of its civilization, and were always the pioneers in the battle for its freedom, its ascent to modernity,” he said.

The emigration of Christians cannot be attributed only to economic difficulties, “otherwise the whole region would have been depopulated,” Chehab said. He pointed instead to “discrimination, persecution in certain areas, fear in others, the lack of freedom (and) inequality of rights” as the leading motives for leaving.

A key to addressing the problem is to strengthen Christian-Muslim dialogue, he said. But while dialogue is taking place in many countries throughout the region, too often it never gets beyond the common belief in one God and values like the importance of family, which Christians and Muslims share, he said.

The standard dialogue style “should give way from now on to another form where the language of complaisance would be banned, to focus especially on truth, no matter how hard it is, but with love and sincerity,” Chehab said.

Chehab, like many of the synod members, pointed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the chief reason for the strained relations and sense of insecurity that push many Christians to flee the region.

Melkite Patriarch Gregoire III Laham of Damascus, Syria, told the synod that “among the most dangerous effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is the phenomenon of Christian emigration, “which will make Arab society a society with only one color, a society uniquely Muslim.”

If the Middle East is seen as Muslim and the West seen as Christian, “any occasion would be propitious for a new clash of cultures, of civilizations and even of religions — a destructive clash between the Muslim Arab East and the Christian West,” the patriarch said.

Patriarch Laham also called for increased Christian-Muslim dialogue and for Christians to tell their Muslim brothers and sisters “what our fears are,” including concern about a lack of separation between religion and government, lack of equality and about a legal system that is based on Islamic law.

“To make peace, this is the great challenge. This is the great ‘jihad’ and the great good,” he said, using “jihad,” the Arabic word for “struggle.”

U.S. Cardinal John P. Foley, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, told the synod that praying for peace in the Middle East is an obligation all Christians share.

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