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Time to stop the Christian exodus from the Middle East, says Vatican

The plight of Christians in the Middle East is threatened by an “extremist current” of “political Islam” and is being ignored by the world, the Pope has said ahead of a new Vatican report.

In a working paper released during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cyprus, to prepare for a crisis summit of Middle East bishops in Rome in October, the Church cited Islamic fundamentalism as a major threat to Christians in the cradle of Christianity.

The Synod, the working paper said, would aim to “help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs. Often times, relations between Christians and Muslims are difficult, principally because Muslims [make] no distinction between religion and politics, thereby relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered non-citizens… The key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognise religious freedom and human rights.”

The document said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and political instability in Lebanon, where Christians are now barely a quarter of the population, have forced thousands to flee the region.
In his final Mass in Cyprus on Sunday Benedict XVI said he was praying that the meeting would focus the attention of the international community “on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs”.

The Vatican estimates there are about 17 million Christians in the region, and although new Catholic immigrants from the Philippines and South Asia have settled in the Gulf, the native Christian populations has declined.

In Lebanon, which was over 70 per cent Christian at the time of its creation by the French in 1926, Christians account for between 25 and 40 per cent of the population, and have declined because of higher emigration levels and lower birth rates. Egypt’s large Coptic population suffers official discrimination from the government and terrorist attacks from Islamic extremists. Palestinian Christians have declined to barely two per cent of the population, down from 15 per cent at the time of Israel’s creation. But the most immediately threatened population are Iraq’s Christians, half of whom have fled since the 2003 invasion, driven out by sectarian attacks, the most recent of which was a bus bombing in Mosul.

The Pope symbolically delivered the document at the end of a Mass during his visit to Cyprus last weekend. The working paper, known in Latin as an Instrumentum Laboris, will be the basis for two weeks of discussions.

The 46-page document said clerics in the region blamed the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories for inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life, alleging that access to holy places is dependent on military permission that is sometimes denied on security grounds. “For decades, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, disregard for international law, the selfishness of great powers and the lack of respect for human rights have disrupted the stability of the region and subjected entire populations to a level of violence which tempts them to despair,” the document said.

The Vatican backs a Palestinian homeland alongside Israel but its relations with the Jewish state have been strained. It said: “The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is creating difficulties in everyday life,” including restrictions on access to holy places. Because of security restrictions it can take Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, hours to travel distances that should take minutes. In particular the Church is worried that the conditions suffered by Palestinians were fuelling radicalisation across the region, and encouraging further emigration to the West.

The document said: “Today, emigration is particularly prevalent because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability throughout the region.”

It said the situation for Christians in the Middle East had been exacerbated by the menacing social situation in Iraq “where the war has unleashed evil forces”.

It also complained that some Christian fundamentalists use biblical texts to justify Israel’s occupation, “making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue”. Some extreme evangelical Protestants believe that the Jews must all return to Israel for the Rapture to begin.

A further exodus of Christians from the Holy Land would be a great loss to the Church in the “very place where [Christianity] was born”, it said. “International politics often pays no attention to the existence of Christians and the fact that they are victims, at times the first to suffer, goes unnoticed.”
The document lamented that with the exception of Turkey, in countries with a Muslim majority Islam is generally the religion of the state and the principal source of legislation, inspired by sharia, or Islamic law.

“In some countries, the state is Islamic and sharia is applied in not only private life but also society, even for non-Muslims, with the consequent deprivation of human rights. Islamic states generally do not recognise religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” the statement said. It said that Middle Eastern countries often identity Christianity with the West, and that with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism “attacks against Christians are increasing almost everywhere”.