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Speakers: Solving Mideast crisis, bringing peace to region decades away

09 Dec 2016 – By Matthew Gambino

VILLANOVA, Pa. (CNS) — 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 Dec. 5-6 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.

In Egypt, Christians make up 10 percent of the population today, down slightly from 12 percent in 1980. But they face legal and social discrimination in that country, several panelists at the conference said.

In Lebanon Christians made up 39 percent of the population in 2015, down from 55 percent in 1970, a decline attributed to that country’s 1975-1991 civil war. The country today struggles to manage millions of refugees, including an estimated 700,000 Christians, from the current war in neighboring Syria.

The decline stretches back centuries, but the panelists at Villanova agreed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by Western powers and the subsequent failure of the U.S.-led civil government was “devastating, and had a catastrophic impact on Christians,” said Brian Katulis, a political analyst on the Middle East.

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