Can we stem the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land and the wider Middle East?
During his visit to Jordan in May 2009 Pope Benedict said “Jordan a model for Christian Muslim co-existence.”
The recent massacre of Christian worshippers in The Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad Iraq has received a great deal of publicity and world-wide condemnation. Very little was heard from Arab States and Muslim religious leaders. The sole exception was Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan was the first Arab leader to strongly condemn the outrage. The King also declared Jordan’s readiness to receive the injured survivors for medical treatment in Jordan. Iraq’s hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with large numbers of injured victims. Security reasons and lack of adequate facilities make Jordan the better option.
The plight of Christians in the Middle East
Since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East some 30 years ago, Christians have been targeted in Egypt where Coptic churches were torched and women were kidnapped by Muslim extremists who claimed wrongly that the women wanted to convert to Islam. A number of Coptic Christians were also murdered by Muslim extremists. Al-Qaeda has recently issued threats against the Copts of Egypt. The Copts live in fear from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalists within Egypt itself.
Since the fall of the Saddam Regime in Iraq in 2003, the Christian minorities of Iraq have been at the receiving end of a violent campaign of hatred and violence by Jihadists and by militias operating in Iraq. Hundreds were killed.
The most notorious case was the kidnapping and murdering of the Catholic Archbishop Paul Faraj Rahho the courageous leader of the beleaguered Chaldean Catholics in Northern Iraq. He was kidnapped and his body was discovered two weeks later on March 13th 2008. Some two-third of Christians have fled Iraq into Syria and Jordan.
Jordan was the preferred destination. Tariq Aziz who served as the Deputy Prime Minister prior to the invasion of Iraq and a former Foreign Minister in the 1990s was recently sentenced to death by Iraq Supreme Criminal Court which many believe is a politically motivated vengeance tribunal… Aziz who is feeble and suffers from various illnesses and a Christian by faith, demanded through his lawyers that if executed or if he dies in prison, he would like to be buried in Jordan.
The Lebanese Christians are leaving in droves
More than 50 percent of Lebanon’s Christians live abroad. Civil wars and sectarian conflict had seen to that. The looming UN Tribunal investigating the 2005 Assassination of former Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is expected to implicate elements of Hezbollah in the assassination. The Iranian-backed Leader of Hezbollah Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is threatening to plunge the country into chaos, violence and paralysis if the tribunal points fingers at elements of Hezbollah. He is demanding the cancellation of the tribunal for the sake of stability. More Christians are leaving to avoid getting caught in a future bloody confrontation between Hezbollah fighters and supporters of Saad Hariri the current Prime Minister and the son of the slain Rafiq Hariri. Half a century ago, Christians were a majority in Lebanon and they are now rapidly shrinking into a minority.
Christians in the occupied territories and Gaza live in fear
In Gaza churches and schools were burned. Church leaders were targeted and killed and their women were forced to wear the Islamic Hijab. In the West Bank and Jerusalem the Israeli occupation and the threat from Islamists forced many thousands of Christians to leave. An unholy alliance between the occupier and Islamic fundamentalist movements forced many Christians to emigrate to North America, Australia and Jordan.
Robert Fisk of the British Independent Newspaper in a recent article highlighted the predicament of Christians in Bethlehem who live in a state of siege. They cannot even visit Jerusalem which is barely 10 miles away without a permit from the occupation authorities and they may have to wait 6 months to get such a permit. Their life is intolerable. So eventually the Holy Lands will have no Christians left. Can we imagine the site of the birth of Jesus Christ bereft of Christians.
Pope Paul Benedict has recently called for a special Synod to discuss the dwindling Christian population in the Holy Land.
Jordan the only Island of Hope in an Ocean of Despair.
In his excellent article in the Independent newspaper of London, the highly respected Robert Fisk wrote recently about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and in the Holy Lands in particular. Fisk said that Jordan is the only hope for Christians in Jordan where the Hashemite Royal family have always protected their Christian population. Jordan is the only flame of hope in the region Fisk said. The Kingdom made sure that Jordan keeps its 350 thousand Christians who are living in peace and amity with their Muslims neighbours. Their rights are guaranteed by the constitution. They are free to work and worship as they wish and they have representation in Parliament and they serve in the army and the police and play a vital role in the private and public sectors.
Jordan is a unique model of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. During his Papal visit to Jordan in May 2009 Pope Benedict paid tribute to King Abdullah II for promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding and the strengthening of the Christian Muslim ties. King Abdullah is following a tradition established by King Abdullah I the founder and continued through his late father King Hussein.
It is not therefore surprising that Jordan has become the destination of choice for Christians fleeing the violence in Iraq and the Israeli occupation in the West bank and Jerusalem.
Jordan has rejected extremism, sectarianism and has defeated the Al-Qaeda enterprise in Jordan and is working hard to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state solution.
HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal declared recently “let us stand united against the hatred industry” and His Majesty King Abdullah II called on several occasions for the moderate voices in Islam to rise and speak out against violence and extremism committed in the name of Islam.