2013-09-04 Vatican Radio(Vatican Radio) A two day conference on the challenges facing the Middle East’s Christians wraps up today in Amman, Jordan. The conference, called by Jordan’s King Abdullah and organized by his chief advisor for religious and cultural affairs, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, brought together representatives at the highest levels of the Christian churches in the Middle East.
Listen to Tracey McClure's interview Wednesday with Apostolic Nuncio to Jordan and Iraq Giorgio Lingua:
The conference was organized amid a rise in attacks against churches, kidnappings and killings of Christians in countries across the region. The uprisings in Egypt and the conflict in Syria in particular have led more and more Christians to leave.
King Abdullah, who spoke to Pope Francis of the initiative in a private audience last Thursday, told conference participants that the current climate of “intra-religious, sectarian and ideological” violence in the Middle East “requires all of us to focus on education, and the way we bring up our children to protect the generations to come. This is the responsibility of families and other educational institutions, as well as mosques and churches.”
Pope Francis recently offered a similar reflection on the importance of education in building mutual respect between Christians and Muslims in his personal message to the world’s Muslims for the end of Ramadan.
King Abdullah said “We support every effort to preserve the historical Arab Christian identity, and safeguard the right to worship freely, based on a rule in both the Christian and Islamic faiths that underlines love of God and love of neighbor, as embodied in the “A Common Word” initiative.”
The Amman conference opened Tuesday with a welcome speech by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad who said Arab Christians in parts of the region have become targets for intolerance:
According to the Jordan Times, the Prince said “Arab Christians are suffering not only because of the blind and deaf sedition that everyone has suffered from in certain Arab countries since the beginning of what is incorrectly called the Arab Spring, but also merely because they are Christians.”
Prince Ghazi rejected “categorically and completely” all forms of intolerance, recalling how Arab Muslims and Christians have lived side by side and together forged one society over the last 1,300 years. Arab Christians from all spheres of society, he noted, have played a vital role in the building of Arab and Muslim countries.
On Tuesday, participants heard from Patriarchs from Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian churches in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon while the Patriarchs and bishops of the churches in Jordan and Jerusalem spoke of issues of concern in their respective communities on Wednesday.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue represented the Vatican at that session while the Apostolic Nuncio in Amman, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua addressed participants as the Holy See’s diplomatic representative to Jordan and Iraq.
Vatican diplomat shares insights into conference
Speaking to Vatican Radio’s Tracey McClure, Archbishop Lingua praised King Abdullah’s initiative:
“As you know the situation for Christians in the Middle East is very tense in this moment and I think the King is good willed and wanted to try everything he can to help them to stay in this region and to live with their Muslim brothers as best as they can. And I think this conference, in this sense shows that he is aware that Christians are a little scared and they are thinking to leave. And so he realizes that something must be done and so this is the first time that such a conference was organized in a Muslim country with the leaders of a country, in this case King Abdullah who has called a conference for Christian leaders of the region.”
Archbishop Lingua said Christian leaders at the conference “were worried of course about military intervention in Syria and so this is why many of them were asking to the foreign countries not to interfere in the political affairs of the countries of this region. They are calling for a dialogue and if the international community can do something, it is to promote dialogue and reconciliation instead of military intervention.”
Archbishop Lingua notes that Muslim participants at the Amman conference and many others he has encountered “are insisting that Muslims and Christians are Arabs. This is the concept that is becoming more (stressed) – that Christians are not guests or second class citizens. The concept of citizenship is a concept which is stressed because all of them are citizens of this country so they are not guests or foreigners. And so, more than tolerance, we must stress citizenship.”
The idea that Arab Muslims and Christians are citizens of their respective countries but are not always respected as partners in and contributors to society was a repeated grievance expressed at the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Church of the Middle East. During his 2012 pastoral visit to Lebanon to deliver the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to the region's bishops, Benedict XVI said the Mideast's 6 million strong Christian community must enjoy “full citizenship” and not be treated as "second-class citizens or believers."
And full citizenship according to Benedict XVI meant the right to full religious freedom. Saying it was time to move beyond the concept of “tolerance” to true “religious freedom," Benedict demanded that all people be permitted to freely choose their own religion, and to practice it publicly, "without endangering one's life."
Archbishop Lingua says he hopes initiatives such as the Amman conference will lead to peace and security in the near future: “this is the priority because with the violence, there are too many weapons circulating in this region. So if security is restored, everything can be done and promoted. And also, the resolution of the Palestinian Israeli conflict which many say is the root of all the Middle East’s problems.”