By NIRAJ WARIKOO – Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — As the Christian population dwindles in the Middle East, members of the community from around the world are gathering in Southfield, Mich., this weekend to discuss how to improve their plight and stabilize their presence.
Though born in the Middle East, Christianity there finds itself under siege from religious extremism, war and political instability. Conference organizers say they hope to bring attention to the problems and find solutions.
The Southfield conference – “Christianity in the Middle East: Ancient Yet Ever New” – also aims to unite the diverse group of nationalities and denominations that make up the estimated 17 million Middle Eastern Christians.
The gathering is to include religious leaders from Iraq, Jordan, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Syria and Iran, and include Protestant, Orthodox, Coptic and Catholic denominations.
“If we don’t act, there will be no more Christians soon in the land where Christ was born,” said Bassam Rizk, a conference organizer with Noursat, an Arabic-language Christian TV station helping to sponsor the conference. “We want to let the American people know we exist, and let the Arab Christians know we care about them.”
The other main sponsor of the conference is CAMECT – Christian Arab and Middle Eastern Churches Together – a coalition of various Christian groups. And it’s hosted by the local Chaldean diocese.
Metro Detroit is home to a significant population of Christians with roots in the Arabic-speaking world.
They worry that in Iraq, for example, the Christian community has dropped half of its pre-war population of 1.3 million. In the Palestinian territories, Christians now make up less than 3 percent of the population – a big drop from 60 years ago, said community advocates. And in Lebanon, the Christian community has dropped from about 55 percent to 30 percent over the past 30 years, said Noursat managers.
“We don’t want this to be a crying conference,” where people just bemoan their fate, said Jacques El-Kallassi, chairman of Noursat. Organizers are looking for practical ways to remain in the Middle East, he said.
“It is our duty to help,” said Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Michigan and among the conference speakers. “We don’t want the Middle East to be empty of Christians.”