ROME — Unless Christian denominations set aside their differences and work together, Christianity will not survive in Syria and Iraq — and is endangered in Burma, China, and Turkish-occupied Cyprus as well.
That was the impassioned plea from Christian religious leaders and scholars meeting in Rome this week, a group that also decried the anemic response of the West that is leaving Middle Eastern Christians feeling “forgotten, abandoned, even betrayed.”
As Elisabeth Prodromou of Tufts University put it: “We need to recognize that the current state of fracture in the Church is having a terrible impact” on the ability to mobilize support for at-risk Christians.
Prodromou and others spoke at a Dec. 10-12 conference on anti-Christian persecution organized by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
Held in one of Rome’s Vatican-run universities, it was co-sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio.
Prodromou said that one positive outcome of persecution is a greater ecumenical awareness.
Estimates hold that 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination around the world target Christians, and, according to the Pew Forum, Christians faced some form of harassment in 102 nations in 2014.
Leaders of those persecuted Christians complained this week of an anemic Western response.
“Middle Eastern Christians have been forgotten, abandoned, even betrayed by the Western countries,” said Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan.
Syria, Iraq, North Korea, China, Burma, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Chad, Kenya, Uganda, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia all were cited as hotspots for assaults on Christians.
“The whole Middle East, without exception, is presently engulfed by a nightmare that seems to have no end and that undermines the very existence of minorities, particularly of Christians, in lands known to be the cradle of our faith and early Christian communities,” Younan said during an address Friday.
During the summer of 2014, an ISIS onslaught drove some 140,000 Christians, until then living peacefully in their villages, from their homes in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq.
“The whole world, particularly Western countries, turned a blind eye,” Younan said.
In the region, “being persecuted is at the heart of the Christian experience,” said Orthodox Metropolitan Athenagoras of Belgium.
Religious leaders from the Middle East seemed to agree that stronger military action is a key element of the solution.
“We all together must destroy [ISIS] militarily, with troops,” said Iraqi Patriarch Raphael Sako, head of the country’s Chaldean Catholic Church. “We need troops on the ground. With bombing, there will be no solution.”
Sako demanded that Islamic religious authorities take responsibility for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, pointing out that so far they’ve condemned the actions of ISIS, but not the group itself.
According to Angaelos, the response also needs to go beyond military action.
Speaking to Crux, he said that first and foremost, the West needs to continue offering humanitarian aid, welcoming refugees, and speaking and advocating on their behalf so that all the immediate needs of those facing danger are met.
Secondly, he wants “good, long-term, strategic choices.”
“There needs to be a multidisciplinary approach, humanitarian aid, education, development, reconciliation,” he said. “[A military approach] can be a part of the solution, but it can’t be the only one. If we’re talking about the sanctity of life, every death is regrettable.”
Called “Under Caesar’s sword,” the conference was the fruit of a three-year study of how Christians respond to persecution around the world.
Among other things, the study’s results show that contrary to common perception, Islam is not the sole perpetrator of the persecution of Christians, with serious repression taking place under Communist regimes such as North Korea or China, under a Hindu nationalist government in India, and the Sinhalese Buddhist government of Sri Lanka.
The responses of Christians vary, depending on the level of repression. Some flee, as in Syria and Nigeria. Some try to cope, as in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Or the response takes a more active form, such as interreligious engagement in countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia.
Daniel Philpott, director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and one of the organizers of the conference, told Crux that the study also delved into a “remarkable few examples” of Christians taking up arms.
Even though there are no cases of Christians embracing a “terrorist dynamic,” Philpott said, there are cases such as Nigeria or the Central African Republic where they’ve taken up arms “mostly out of self-defense.”
“It has to be said that sometimes they become even more aggressive [than the persecutors], Philpott said. “[But] the number is relatively few.”
Mariz Tadros of Sussex University called for a collective push from Christians in civil society, media, and politics, to have the international community acknowledge that what’s happening with Christians in Iraq and Syria qualifies as genocide.
“The evidence is there, just like with the Yazidis,” she said during a panel on Friday.
Tadros charged that at a local level in countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, international aid is being distributed unevenly, with Christians being sidelined and discriminated against.
“We, as Christians taxpayers, should demand to know where our money is going,” she said.
Bishop Anba Angaelos, leader of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, called the world “not to be desensitized to the point at which we’re okay with people being killed.”
Addressing the issue of Christians fighting back, Angaelos said that at least in the Middle East, they react to violence in the only way they know how: without retaliation.
“In 2013, dozens of Christian churches were burned down, and the response was to paint in their crumbling walls: ‘Love your enemy’,” Angaelos said.
Angaelos referred to the thousands of Christians from the Middle East and Africa currently fleeing their countries in rubber boats across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, in what’s been labeled as the worst refugee crisis on the Old Continent since the Second World War.
Angaelos said the fact that people embark for what they themselves describe as a “slow death” can only be explained by the fact that they “feel there’s no alternative.”
“They’re running from ‘quick deaths’ by bombs and bullets,” he said.
Even in Latin America, where, according to Paul Frestor, a professor in Wilfred Laurier University, Christians have mostly “been powerful, not powerless,” speakers said the situation is increasingly grim.
For the last decade, for instance, Mexico and Colombia have alternated as the most dangerous places in the world to be a Catholic priest.
As Frestor noted, priests and other religious leaders face death in these two countries, since national governments have been replaced either by paramilitary groups or criminal organizations, both of which see religion as a threat.
David Saperstein, the US International Religious Freedom Envoy, saw a ray of hope in Pope Francis. Saperstein defined Francis as “the most influential pope of the last century” and praised his outspokenness on anti-Christian persecution.
“This pope’s commitment to religious freedom for all, and the willingness to speak directly to the plight of these Christian communities facing oppression and persecution, but also the not Christian ones, has significantly helped us move our agenda to enhance religious freedom,” he said.
Going forward, Saperstein said that an effective response must include dialogue with Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has claimed that protection of Middle Eastern Christians is a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
Angaelos sees hope in the fact that Christians have been in the Middle East for two millenia, and they’re still present despite many hardships.
“We’ve outlived many things,” he told Crux. “They’re faithful, and inspirational, and we pray for them. We need to make sure they’re comfortable with being there, and safe.”