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Stay or go: Christians in Mideast battle tough choices amid violence

By Carol Glatz

1/22/2010 Iraq (CNS) — A recent preparatory document for an October Synod of Bishops for the Middle East made a forceful appeal to the Christian minority there to resist emigration and to openly give witness to the Gospel values of hope, joy, justice and forgiveness in their native communities.

But like most commandments — that’s easier said than done.

The synod outline said a strong faith would provide the courage for enduring the violence, persecution, prejudice and poverty that Christians in the Middle East often face today.

“To stay today in Iraq, you need to have a very profound conviction of the value of your faith” and a strong sense that the Christian presence is important for the country, said Father Leon Lemmens, secretary-general of the Vatican coordinating body of church funding agencies for Eastern Catholic churches, known by its Italian acronym, ROACO.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said that when Christians feel threatened or that they don’t belong, “you need a heroic sense of commitment on that occasion to say, ‘I’m going to stay and I’m going to give witness.'”

The targeted killings and abductions have forced many priests to flee Iraq, resulting in a critical shortage, he said. For example, he said, it’s estimated that there are only about 14 priests left to minister to perhaps 100,000 Christians in Baghdad.

“This is discouraging also to Christians; they say, ‘The pastor has fled, why should the flock stay?'” he said. Local bishops need to be very close to their priests, encouraging them to stay and bringing them together as a family, he said.

“Christians, by being really authentic followers of Jesus, have a very powerful message. And like the Lord they don’t necessarily come out on top winning in a political or social sense, but ultimately they do” win new life, he said.

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