The Cross in Torment

Pope Benedict holds synod to protect Mideast Christians from vicious persecution.

While Tariq Ramadan is hectoring Americans about "Islamophobia," calling Muslims the new “blacks” in America, a synod is currently underway in the Vatican to save Christian communities in the Middle East’s Islamic countries from extinction. The flight of the region’s Christians to the West from the area where Christianity was born has reached such alarming proportions, Pope Benedict XVI gathered 285 delegates in Rome last Monday to investigate the phenomenon.

In his homily in St. Peter’s Cathedral to open the two-week synod, the Catholic pontiff called upon the delegates to scrutinize the situation with a “view to God” to ensure the region’s Christians can escape “discouragement” and “the temptation to flee.” The pope also indicated that the heart of problem lies in the threat Middle Eastern Christians face from Islamic radicalism, calling it, along with the international drug trade, “terroristic ideologies.

“Violent acts are apparently made in the name of God; but this is not God: they are false divinities that must be unmasked,” he said.

Among the synod’s delegates are 185 representatives from ten Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Egypt) including nine patriarchs from the Middle East’s ancient Christian churches. It was in Cyprus last June that the pope announced this week’s ‘Synod on the Middle East’. After a mass, the pontiff distributed its working paper, the Instrumentum Laboris, to members of the Special Council of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.

While in Cyprus, the leader of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics said the October synod will “try to deepen” the ties between the region’s churches and promote the solidarity of Christians everywhere with those in the Middle East. The synod’s other purpose, the pontiff said, would be to draw the world’s attention to Middle Eastern Christians who “suffer great trials due to the present situation.

“This is an opportunity to highlight the significant value of the Christian presence and witness in the countries of the Bible, not only for the Christian community worldwide, but also for your neighbors and fellow citizens,” he said in June.

Those “great trials” the Middle East’s Christians are enduring have been well documented. In Iraq, for example, the Islamists are cleansing the country through violence of all Christians similar to what the Nazis once did to make Germany “Judenrein.” In 1980, Catholics made up almost three percent of Iraq’s population, but only formed .89 percent two years ago.

A study by Phillipe Fargue, “The Arab Christians in the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective”, cited in Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, states that the Christian population in the Middle East has gone from 26.4 percent of the area’s population in 1914 to at most 9.2 percent in 2005. An Egyptian newspaper, referring to Vatican statistics, recently put the current Christian representation for the entire region at a dismal 5.62 percent.

Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, represents in microcosm why Christian numbers have fallen so drastically in that part of the world. In 1990, Christians were still a majority in the birthplace of Jesus at 60 percent; today they number only about 15 percent of the population with many of these wanting to emigrate. The reason they wish to leave, they say, is that they feel threatened and discriminated against by their Muslim neighbors. One young Christian who wants to leave asked the German reporter interviewing him about Christian persecution not to mention his name or he would be “a dead man.”

“Either they would blow my brains out or accuse me of collaboration with Israel,” he said. “Then I would also be tortured.”

The torments Bethlehem’s Christians have had to endure from the Muslim majority, according to the young man, extend from insults in the marketplace to rape and murder. Even the souvenir shops around the Church of the Nativity have to pay off Muslim gangs, all of which makes for a climate of fear that drives Christians away and allows Islamist bullies to thrive.

“Our church leaders and the Christian politicians also are afraid and don’t want to make things even worse. That’s why they stay silent,” he said.

The only good news for the church in the region is that the number of Christians in Israel and states of the Arabian Peninsula are rising. This is due to the arrival of Christian guest workers from countries like the Philippines and Sudan. Israel has also had a community of Russian Christians. But while Christians in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from practising their religion, those in Israel enjoy religious freedom.

“We have in Israel and Palestine a new community of 40,000 Filipinos…without mentioning Indians and Sudanese,” said Fouad Toual, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Pope Benedict called upon the synod to find a way to allow the Middle East’s Christians “to live with dignity in their own homeland” and believes drawing the world’s attention to their plight would help in this respect. While commendable goals, they are, however, doomed to failure.

Christians in the Middle East have been cynically abandoned by the West, especially by western European governments, their traditional protectors, who have capitulated before Islam and whose citizens are now experiencing in their cities some of the same harassing treatment Middle Eastern Christians know all too well. Some Europeans believe Western Europe itself is on the verge of religious civil wars and wonder who will save them. Middle Eastern Christians also do not control the region’s oil supply and have no powerful lobby in Washington.

But the main reason the sad situation of Middle Eastern Christians will remain the same, if not worsen, after the synod is that their Islamist persecutors are immune to change. One cannot deal with fanatics, often violent, who believe they are on a mission from god to convert the whole world to Islam. When President Obama was in Cairo, for example, he spoke against Egypt’s discrimination against Coptic Christians, but his remarks made no impression on authorities. Tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities are still often high to the point where an eventual massacre of Christians is a distinct possibility.

The Christians of the Middle East have lived on their lands centuries before Islam’s appearance and are the soul of their religion. They are the true heirs of the original Christianity. Despite the pope’s good wishes and due to the world’s indifference, they are, tragically, destined to disappear. And for that, we will all pay a price.