Cardinal Schönborn: Loss of Mid-East Christians would be 'tragedy for the region'
This article discusses the danger of Christianity disappearing from the Middle East, unless something is done, and quickly. Cardinal Schönborn, who recently spoke at a panel discussion in D.C. said, “It would be a deep wound for Christianity to lose the homeland, the land of origin, of Christianity, if it remained only a 'museum' for pilgrims. And it would be a tragedy for the region.”
By Benjamin Mann
06/30/2012 Washington, D.C. (CAN)- World leaders and diplomats must help prevent a total loss of Middle Eastern Christianity, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna warned in a June 26 panel discussion in Washington, D.C.
“Religious geography is mobile. And as things go, it may happen that the Near East will undergo the fate of the North African Christianity in the seventh century,” Vienna's archbishop told listeners at the Hudson Institute. That “flourishing” North African Church, he recalled, “vanished completely.”
“It would be a deep wound for Christianity to lose the homeland, the land of origin, of Christianity, if it remained only a 'museum' for pilgrims,” Cardinal Schönborn said. “And it would be a tragedy for the region.”
The Austrian Church leader spoke at Tuesday's roundtable, entitled “Persecuted Christians and Other Religious Minorities in the New Middle East: Formulating an Effective U.S. Policy Response,” along with Lebanese professor Dr. Habib Malik, and Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In his keynote remarks, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna recalled the seventh-century Islamic conquest of Damascus, Jerusalem, Egypt, and North Africa. While Christianity disappeared from some of these regions, it survived in others up to the present day.
But new religious and political realities – including the revolutions of the “Arab Spring,” as well as the impact of the Iraq war – now threaten the Church's survival even in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, where it persisted after the initial Muslim conquests of the seventh century.
Iraq has lost more than half of its Christian population since 2003. Observers have warned that Syria and Egypt could suffer similar losses, if Christians opt to flee the sectarian violence and political pressure brought by the new Arab revolutions.
“The Christians and other minorities in the Near East know that their only chance for survival is a secular state, with real religious freedom,” Cardinal Schönborn observed. All religions, he said, must must reject theocratic ideas that lead to “totalitarianism” by identifying God's kingdom with the state.
“One million Catholics are living in Saudi Arabia – as servants, as housemaids, as workers – with no religious rights at all,” he stated.
The U.S. “has an enourmous influence in Saudi Arabia,” Vienna's archbishop pointed out. “The question of religious freedom from these large minorities should not be forgotten on the political agenda.”
“Instead, as has happened in Egypt, the revolution was hijacked along the way,” by hardline Salafist Islamists, who were “better-organized, better-funded, and better-motivated” than the region's emerging liberal elements.
Now, Egypt and the rest of the region have been placed “on the precarious incline toward greater empowerment of Salafist ideology.” Throughout the Arab world, “the voice of the liberals is giving way to defiant chants of 'Allahu Akbar.'”
“Indigenous Middle Eastern Christians do not see a 'Spring' anywhere in sight,” he pointed out. “To them, the term 'Arab Spring' actually sounds increasingly like a bad joke, black humor. They see, instead, the makings of a 'Arab nightmare'” – with dire consequences for the region and the world.
The opposition Free Syrian Army is “looking increasingly like a militant Islamist grouping” – with its long beards, kidnappings, beheadings, and internet footage of attacks on the regime accompanied by religious chanting.
Malik believes that states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which enjoy “unwavering Western backing,” have no real interest in promoting a liberal and democratic replacement for the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Rather, the professor said, “everything they are doing there seems to be furthering a militant Sunni, Salafi, Wahhabi replacement” in Syria, “and indeed, anywhere else in the region they can manage it.” Western powers, meanwhile, are pursuing “short-sighted policies” that play into this agenda.
Syrian Christians “are not blind supporters of the bloody regime,” but are caught between “bad or worse” options for their country's future. In Egypt, likewise, Christians face “awful choices” between military rule and political Islam.
If the Middle East loses its Christians and other religious minorities, Malik warned, then “pluralism is all but dead” in the region – “and along with it, any real chances for genuine freedoms and democracy.”