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The grim reality of the Christians of Arabia, where “there is no religious freedom”

10/14/2010 Middle East, Vatican City (AsiaNews) – “No religious freedom” for Christians living in Arabia, even when they are allowed (not in Saudi Arabia) to have a church. In Lebanon, however, the Arab country where the Christian presence is proportionately greater and has the constitutional and political implications (the President of the Republic is a Christian) they are united among confessions, but divided politically. These are the two experiences that have had the greatest impact yesterday at the Synod of Bishops on the Middle East, where bishops interventions continue, while work begins on the “circuli minores,” the study groups.

The situation of Christians in the Arab peninsula was clearly outlined by Mgr. Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Arabia. In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, he said, there are no native Christians. The three million Catholics out of a population of 65 million inhabitants are all migrant workers from a hundred different countries, mostly from the Philippines and India. The Catholic presence in Arab countries with Islam as the state religion is facing “tough laws on immigration (restricting the number of priests) and security systems. Individual rights and social assistance are very limited”.

There is no “freedom of religion” (no Muslim may convert, but Christians are welcome in Islam), there is limited freedom of worship in designated places, granted by benevolent rulers (except Saudi Arabia). Too few churches, very high turnouts with a single parish having up to 25 thousand faithful on Friday with 10 or more masses a day. The distance from the church, work, laws governing residential areas, all make participation impossible for many”. The Catholic Church is respectful of the law and is trusted by the government. It “has to adapt its structures and pastoral activity to limitations imposed by external circumstances”.

Several bishops spoke of Lebanon, examining different perspectives. Bishop Béchara Rai, the Maronite Bishop of Jbeil said that “there is no sectarian division, but a diversity of Catholic Churches sui iuris, Orthodox and Protestant, each having their own liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage. However there is a political division that does not concern a difference in essence, rather in strategic options. Regarding the essence, Christians disagree about some national constants, defined in the document called ‘The constants’, published by the Maronite Patriarchate 6 December 2006, accepted and signed by the Heads of Christian political parties”. “As for the political options, the division of Christians is based on the strategy for the protection of these constants and the efficient and effective presence of Christians. This division is caused by the current political conditions, both internal, regional and international. ” In particular, Bishop, Rai said that, following the division of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christian groups have chosen to ally with one or the other.

Bishop Béchara Elie Haddad, Archbishop of Sidon of the Greek-Melkites spoke instead of the “dangerous phenomenon” of the sale of the land of the Christians in Lebanon. It “threatens to annihilate the Christian presence in the coming years”. To remedy this phenomenon, he proposes a strategy to create solidarity among the churches linked to the Holy See to change the discourse on the Church regards Islam in order to distinguish clearly between Islam and fundamentalism. “This helps our dialogue with Muslims in order to help us persevere in our land” and move from concept of helping the Eastern Christians to the concept of a development rooted in their own land that helps them find employment.

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