ROME — Calls for the creation of “safe havens” for Christians in Iraq and Syria, as well as the creation of an international police force capable of identifying and apprehending the authors of terrorist acts, surfaced at a recent summit of leaders of all Christian churches in the Middle East along with politicians, diplomats, and activists.
On behalf of the region’s suffering minority groups, those leaders say it’s time to “get past the alarm” caused by the rise in anti-Christian violence and start taking concrete measures, warning that a Middle East with few Christians, or none at all, would lose its identity.
The appeal came from a late April conference on Christians in the Middle East held in Bari, Italy, and organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay movement focused on ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue as well as conflict resolution. It brought together prelates from all the major Christian denominations in the region, as well as political and diplomatic figures and activists for minority rights.
Sant’Egidio’s founder, Italian Catholic historian and former government minister Andrea Riccardi, voiced hope that a “Bari roundtable” may become a standing forum for discussing the situation facing Christians in the Middle East.
In terms of concrete action, Riccardi recalled a proposal he launched three years ago to carve out a “Safe Haven” for Christians in the Nineveh Plains, a region of Iraq north and east of the city of Mosul.
It’s an area with a heavy concentration of Christians, and Riccardi has suggested that an international force could secure the area to ensure that it doesn’t become the next ISIS target.
Approximately 30,000 Christians reportedly have since fled the Nineveh Plains for fear of falling into the hands of radical Islamists. According to recent news reports, Iraqi Christians are currently forming their own defense force in the Nineveh Plains, with some 3,000 men having volunteered for training.
Marco Impagliazzo, the president of Sant’Egidio, floated a different idea: the creation of an international police force capable of intervening in emergency situations when minority groups such as Christians are under assault.
As a model, Impagliazzo mentioned UNIFIL, a peacekeeping force under the Italian flag and the United Nations that is currently working in Lebanon.
Also at the Bari gathering, Gregory III, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, called for “an ecumenical initiative of all Churches, able to work out a peace plan to bring to the common table of the great powers.”
Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Church, said the indifference and inaction regarding the “true and real dismantling” of the centuries-old coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Middle East is “a scandal.”
Christians of the region “deserve our solidarity, our gratitude, and every possible support,” Sandri said.
Sandri’s comments came just ahead of a three-day visit to Iraq. Before leaving, he complained that “vested interests” and politics are being put before the lives of the people involved.
“We trust that from deep within their hearts each one of them, leaders and militants, can recognize their blindness … and commit to build rather than to destroy and annihilate,” he said.
British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, was also among the participants in the summit in Bari. He said that a similar responsibility lies with religious leaders living outside of the region. He called on them to move their faithful to support persecuted minorities, both with prayer and concrete gestures of solidarity, because “Christians in the region feel alone or abandoned.”
Gallagher also called for mechanisms to encourage Muslim-majority countries to address the phenomenon of terrorism in a serious way, including reviewing the teaching delivered in their mosques and schools.
Echoing Pope Francis, Gallagher called for the promotion of peace through diplomacy and by stopping the arms trade.
“What has the path of violence produced other than further destruction, without solving the problems?” he asked.
Catholic cardinals and priests, Patriarchs of Orthodox and Ancient Oriental Churches, as well as politicians and several ambassadors to the Holy See, including the US, Russian, German and British top diplomats, were among those participating in the meeting.
The Christian population in both Iraq and Syria has been in freefall due to constant violence in recent years.
From an estimated 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq before the US invasion in 2003, today fewer than 400,000 remain, with an estimated 200,000 living as refugees in Erbil and Baghdad. The situation in Syria is similar. Before a civil war broke out four years ago, Syria’s 1.8 million Christians represented 10 percent of the total population. Today, at least 500,000 have fled.