By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
Â Beirut, Lebanon â€“ At an unusual conclave held just outside of Beirut on Thursday, some two dozen bishops from the splintered churches of the Middle East gathered in a show of unity for the embattled Christians of Iraq.
The meeting was convoked under the patronage of Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Cardinal Sfeir, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and the entire East, who for decades has been the spiritual leader of the majority of Lebanonâ€™s Christian population.
The Archbishops of Kirkuk and Al Qosh came from Iraq. Both are Chaldeans, once an Eastern rite church that today has become a full member of the Roman Catholic church.
They were joined by senior Eastern rite church leaders, including Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim, Metropolitan of the Aleppo Archdiocese for the Syriac Orthodox church, and by bishops from the Syrian Catholic and Assyrian church.
The purple sashes and skullcaps and heavy gold crosses worn by the Western bishops contrasted with the elaborate black headgear, the hooded cloaks and long beards of their Eastern brothers. Some of the Eastern rite bishops wore giant medallions bearing icons of Jesus from thick gold chains around their necks.
Despite long-standing doctrinal differences, they sat side by side in an intentional show of unity.
â€œHundreds of thousands of Christians are leaving Iraq,â€ said Bishop Michel Kassarji, the Chaldean bishop of Beirut. The massive wave of forced emigration is â€œthreatening the historic presence of Christians in Iraq.â€
The world powers â€œhave not paid any attention to the screams and sufferings of these people. No one helps us. This is leading to the genocide of an entire population.â€
Bishop Kassarji warned that if Christians were forced out of Iraq, they could be forced out of other predominantly Muslim countries as well. He urged his fellow church leaders to join together in common action before it was too late.
â€œThis conference is a call to preserve the minorities of the East, to keep this region from becoming a desertâ€¦ The Iraqi model is an example of what is awaiting Christians elsewhere in the Middle East,â€ he said.
Iraqis massively fled Baghdad starting in 2004, when Muslim extremists began fire-bombing churches, kidnapping and murdering Christians, and demanding that Christians convert to Islam or pay the â€œjizyaâ€ â€“ a Koranic protection tax imposed on non-Muslims.
Thousands of Christians in Baghdad and other major cities received letters slipped beneath their front doors warning them that failure to the jizya or convert to Islam was a crime punishable by death.
At least three hundred Iraqi Christians have been the victim of targeted killings by Muslim extremists since 2004. Most estimates agree that half of Iraqâ€™s pre-war population of 1.4 million Christians have fled the country or have taken refuge in the Kurdish region to the north, where they are unable to work or settle permanently.
[Editor’s Note: Read â€œArmed Muslims Begin ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in Baghdadâ€- Go Here Now]
The bishops were united in seeking ways to anchor Iraqâ€™s battered Christian population in their homeland, whether in temporary safe havens in the Kurdish region, or in the predominantly Christian Nineveh Plain area to the east of Mosul.
â€œKeeping Christians in Iraq depends on the church,â€ exhorted the Archbishop of Kirkuk, Dr. Louis Sako. â€œWe need a clear vision and a working plan to keep Christians in Iraq,â€ he said.
Archbishop Sako had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome just two weeks earlier, where he delivered a â€œprojectâ€ for mobilizing the global church to protect the Christians of Iraq.
He called the â€œplan to empty Iraq and the Eastâ€ of its Christian populations â€œa deadly sin.â€
Addressing himself to Muslim leaders, Bishop Sako said, â€œYou need to stop accusing the Christians of blasphemy, of being crusaders, and stop calling them â€˜People of the Book,â€™ which is demeaning.
â€œArab countries should assume their responsibilities to protect Christians in their countries,â€ he added. â€œWe want to continue living in the midst of Arab and Muslim culture, but in a way that protects our rights.â€
As Bishop Sako spoke those words, the representative of Lebanonâ€™s chief Mufti, a state-appointed cleric, walked out of the conference, where he was attending as an invited observer.
And the Iraqi ambassador to Lebanon â€“ a Kurd â€“ demanded that conference organizers allow him to rebut Bishop Sakoâ€™s claims that the Kurdish government was suborning clerics with bribes. When they refused, he also walked out of the conference.
In the past two years, countries such as Germany, France and Sweden have dramatically increased the number of Iraqi Christian refugees they have approved for resettlement. But the bishops argued against resettlement â€œexcept in humanitarian cases,â€ since it would mean the gradual emptying of Christians from the Middle East.
Archbishop Youhanna Ibrahim of Aleppo said that some Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria have returned to Iraq as the security situation has improved.
He accused UN aid organizations of purposefully hiding the true number of Christians among the refugees, for fear of offending Muslims.
International aid organizations distribute aid to refugees according to their religious community. Since Christians were considered just 3% of the Iraqi population before the U.S.-led liberation in 2003, Christian refugees are getting just 3% of the aid.
â€œBut a leak from inside the UNHCR itself shows that 50% of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are religious minorities,â€ the Syriac Archbishop said. â€œThey didnâ€™t want to admit that because they know it will anger Iraqi Muslims.â€
Like other participants in the conference, the Syriac Archishop urged the church to act as one to help Iraqi Christians remain in Iraq.
â€œItâ€™s hard to find Muslims who are protecting Christians,â€ he said. Instead, Muslim groups have openly threatened Christians and often have caused them to flee.
â€œBut Christians of the East who fleeâ€¦ will not be able to preserve their identities,â€ he warned. â€œAnd Muslims will lose a partner in dialogue.â€
Conference participants, who included politicians and activists from inside Iraq, as well as scholars and journalists, issued fifteen recommendations aimed at stemming the tide of emigration of Iraqâ€™s Christians before the community becomes extinct.
They urged church leaders to take steps individually and collectively to raise the awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, by holding days of prayer on behalf of Iraqi Christians and by declaring 2009 the â€œYear of the Iraqi Christians.â€
They called on the United Nations to organize an international conference on the minorities of Iraq, similar to the one held in favor of Kosovo.
They also called on the United Nations to set up branch offices in Christian areas of Iraq to monitor the distribution of international refugee assistance and to monitor human rights abuses.
They called on the Arab League to hold a special session to announce concrete measures to prevent attacks on Christians in their countries, and to work with Muslim clerics to encourage them to issue fatwas, or religious rulings, declaring attacks on Christians to be against Islam.
In concluding the conference, Michel Kasdano, an aid to the Chaldean Bishop of Beirut, warned that failure to take concrete and concerted action would lead to â€œa catastropheâ€ and an Iraq â€œthat will be purged of Christians.â€
Bishops from the four Christian churches in Iraq planned to take the groupâ€™s recommendations to regional heads of State, to Western embassies in Lebanon, to Washington and to the Vatican, and also were planning a march on the United Nations office in Beirut to draw attention to their demands, he said.