Iraq archbishop calls for frank exchange when Pope comes to Lebanon
By John Pontifex
MIDDLE EAST patriarchs and bishops should “speak directly and openly” with the Pope about their fears that Christianity in the region is at risk of fading away – according to a highly respected Church leader in Iraq.
In a frank assessment of the bleak situation facing the Church in the birthplace of Christianity, Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk said that Christian leaders meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Lebanon next weekend (14-16 September) should “go beyond the formalities” to spell out their concerns for the survival of the faith.
In a message sent to Aid to the Church in Need just 10 days before the Pontiff’s landmark trip, Archbishop Sako underlined the extent of the Christian exodus from Middle East, saying that it showed no sign of stopping and indeed had spread from Iraq to other countries, notably Syria.
He also said that, despite considerable political discussion about democracy and freedom, extremism and sectarianism were growing and that in response Christians were leaving the region which had been home to their families for thousands of years.
Archbishop Sako wrote: “The rise of political Islam is a matter of worry. We Christians are a minority and there is no prospect of us gaining equal citizenship in the concrete reality of day-to-day life and there is no vision of a better future.
“Everyone is speaking of democracy and freedom but the reality on the ground is different.
“The sectarianism is gaining ground and the majority are not taking care of minority groups. I think there are real fears of more Christians leaving.”
Archbishop Sako highlighted the violence against Christians in Iraq, peaking in the years immediately after the 2003 fall of President Saddam Hussein, with attacks on dozens of churches and a mass exodus of more than half the Christian faithful.
Underlining the need for straight talking with Pope Benedict during his visit to Lebanon, Archbishop Sako stated: “The patriarchs and the bishops should go beyond the formalities to speak directly and openly with him about their fears and concerns. We should make clear our worries and the challenges ahead.”
He described the difficulty of encouraging faithful in his diocese of Kirkuk to stay, saying many if not most had left.
Stressing the impact of continuing conflict, including the crisis in Syria, he wrote: “From my diocese there are few families left. I cannot stop them [leaving] and speaking truthfully I have no magic solutions.
“I am doing my best to keep them, defend them and encourage them. That has limited the problem but it is sad to see them leaving for good. As a pastor, I feel bad.”
Explaining their reasons for emigrating, he wrote: “The policy of the state is based on Islam and so the Christians feel they are second class citizens.”
He added that the faithful sometimes felt discouraged by lack of strong Church leadership.
He wrote: “From inside the Churches, there are no reforms or dynamism. The Good News of Jesus Christ should have a dynamic dimension so where are the reasons for hope, the reasons for joy as given in our teaching?”
He also wrote: “Our hierarchy has become tired and it is sad to say we are sometimes divided.”
Archbishop Sako called for the development of what he called a “Christian Arab theology” focused around the cultural traditions of the Middle East, and responsive to the faithful’s “concrete situation” dominated by the need for co-existence with majority Muslim groups.
He wrote: “It is necessary today to develop a Christian Arab theology able to announce the word of God to Arab Christians – and those who are not Christians – and help them to discover God’s love and paternal presence, enhancing dialogue and strengthening co-existence.
“This theology does not mean isolation from the theology of the Universal Church but rather one which interacts with events and hence assists the Oriental Church with its mission.”
Archbishop Sako called on the international community to prioritise human rights and initiatives designed to encourage minority groups to stay in the Middle East.
He concluded by saluting the work of Catholic charities including Aid to the Church in Need.
The archbishop wrote: “Personally, I think charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, Caritas, Missio and L’OEuvre d’Orient are doing a lot to help us, they are doing much to encourage us, to give us more hope.
“Without their close support, the situation would be a lot worse.”
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 130 countries throughout the world.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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