Christian population disappearing from Middle East

The Vatican's top foreign policy official yesterday called attention to the "particularly unhappy" situation of the decline of Christians in the Middle East over the past 30 years.

Catholic World News reports that Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Secretary for Relations with States, in a talk to the Pontifical Council for Migrants observed that the Christian presence in the Middle East has been "considerably reduced".

Citing the statistics compiled annually by the Vatican through apostolic nuncios, he noted that in Iran the Catholic population has today is one-tenth what it was in 1973, while in Iraq it is one-third.

In Syria, he said, the Catholic presence has dropped from 2.6 per cent of the whole population to just 1 per cent; in Israel and the Palestinian territories it has fallen from 1.9 per cent to 1 per cent.

In some countries in the region, many Christians are living only temporarily, Archbishop Lajolo observed. But in other nations the Christian population has very long standing.

He cited in particular the example of Iraq, where an ancient Christian community, predating the arrival of Islam, is now being drastically reduced by emigration.

The Vatican's "foreign minister" also remarked that in many countries where Islam is the dominant religion, Christians frequently marry Muslims, and then find their legal rights severely attenuated in the face of Islamic law.

"The protection of Christians in Islamic-majority countries" is one of the most delicate problems facing the Church, Archbishop Lajolo said, seizing the theme of this week's meeting for the Pontifical Council for Migrants.

He reported that the exodus of Christians from the region is aggravated by the number of families who may still be disposed to "leave their homeland, when their fundamental rights are no longer adequately protected."

In the face of these problems, the archbishop said, the Church must act boldly, not retreating, and "take clear and courageous positions to affirm the Christian identity."

That bold strategy is necessary, he continued, because "we know very well that radical Islam exploits anything that it interprets as a sign of weakness."

Archbishop Lajolo drew a distinction between the demand for religious freedom and the continuation of inter-religious dialogue. That dialogue, he explained, should be pursued with religious leaders, not with the government - "even if these initiatives can be facilitated by responsible political leaders."

In the political domain, he continued, it is essential to build up the understanding of separation between religion and government - an understanding that is not broadly accepted in the Middle East.

Spotlight on vanishing Christians of the Middle East (Catholic World News 17/5/06)

In an increasingly difficult context, Catholics drop in number in Mideast, says Mgr Lajolo (AsiaNews.it 17/5/06)

18 May 2006