Mideast Christians endangered, priest warns

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INDIANAPOLIS (UMNS) —Religious freedom has become “a luxury” in the Middle East and western Christians need to be concerned about what is happening to Christians living in the region.

That was both the message and a plea from the Rev. Nabil Haddad, a priest in the Melkite Catholic Church, to members of the Religion Communicators Counciland Associated Church Press who were meeting jointly.

Haddad was part of an April 4 discussion on “Faith-based Peacebuilding in the Social Media Age.”

He was joined by A. Rashied Omar, research scholar of Islamic Studies at the Kroc Institute at University of Notre Dame; Lindsey Mintz , executive director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council; and, as moderator, Verity Jones, executive director for the Christian Theological Seminary Center for Pastoral Excellence.

Christian populations in Iraq, Syria and other countries, often able to quietly co-exist in the past, are now endangered, noted Haddad, who is founder and executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman, Jordan.

‘Set aside’ means to ‘isolate’

Being set aside from other groups is a problem, he explained. “The minute we talk about Christians in my region as a community, we isolate them and put them in a ghetto.”

In Iraq, for example, 75 percent of the Chaldean Christians have left. “They did not do anything to the Sunnis, they did not harm the Shiites, but nobody was able to help them,” Haddad said.

In Egypt, a clash between Christians and Muslims escalated into an attack on the main Coptic Christian Cathedral April 7, the New York Times reported.

Acts of intolerance against Muslims elsewhere can mean retribution against Christians in the Middle East. “Every time we see minarets (towers on a mosque) are banned in one country…Christians in some countries, they pay a price,” he explained.

Haddad said he is part of a “spoiled minority” in Jordan, where he understands, studies and lives with Islam and where his center has sponsored three initiatives of what he calls “interfaith diplomacy.” That ability to live peacefully together needs to be protected, he added, and religious minorities must reach out and not be isolated.

Fostering peace also means fighting against stereotypes, said Omar, who also serves as imam at the Claremont Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and continuing war on terror have reinforced widespread perceptions that the Islamic faith and Muslims “have an inherent predilection for violence and terrorism, more than any other faith,” he noted.

The Qur’an considers justice to be a value — “Be just, that is the closest thing to pious faith (Chapter 5, Verse 8)” — but the concept of compassion is the most important value, Omar said, equivalent to the Christian understanding that “God is love.” Without compassion, struggles for justice in a particular country, for example, “invariably end up mimicking the repressive regime,” he explained.

Muslims ‘must not become weary’

While painfully acknowledging that there are some “extremists in our ranks,” Muslims “must not become weary” of stating that acts of terrorism and barbarism are not part of the Islamic faith, Omar said. The news media must help get that message across as well, he said.

Mintz, who spent a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1996 and returned to Israel in 2000, acknowledged her optimism about achieving peace in the Middle East had faded over the years.

But, she said, the panel had made her more hopeful, especially after learning about “promising initiatives (by interfaith groups) around the world.”

Peace-building efforts often are missing the religious voice, she noted. “We have to make sure we are at the table.”

To foster understanding, Haddad encouraged his audience to come and visit Jordan. “Your  brothers and sisters in that region need your voice and your support,” he said.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.  Contact her at (646) 369-3759 or[email protected].

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