In 2012, specifically on September 14 marking the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Pope Benedict XVI signed the Apostolic Exhortation in St. Paul's Church in Harissa, Lebanon, titled, "The Church in the Middle East, Partnership and Testimony". It is the fruit of the work of the Synod called for by Pope Benedict XVI after his visit to the Holy Land in 2009, which convened in 2010.
The Synod sessions ended in the Vatican on Sunday October 24, 2010. On the next Sunday, namely October 31, one of the major terrorist massacres took place at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad resulting in the martyrdom of a large number of people.
The most important content of the Apostolic Exhortation is:
--The Middle East, without Christians or with a small number of them, is not the Middle East.
--Religious freedom, which is degree more advanced than tolerance, is the crown of all freedoms.
Indeed, in recent years, several questions have arisen about the “Christians of the East,”, or we often hear about what is known as the “issue” of the Christians of the East, especially after many of them have been subjected to acts of restriction, constraint, and forced displacement, as has recently been the case with the Christians of Mosul and furthermore without ignoring the Israeli occupation's gradual displacement of Palestinians, especially of Christians in honorable Jerusalem.
Throughout the past ages, Christians have been subjected to numerous harassments, including the scourge to which their societies were subjected that snowballed into calamities and a sharp drop in their numbers. Yet, the Christians remain "the light of the East" and "the salt of Earth", according to the words of Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, the Christians remain distinguished by their sweet and nice fragrance, while maintaining their clear and venerable contributions in all fields. They are present, as they were in the past, as well as now, and in the future, in cultural and scientific fields, as well as in the fields of economy, politics and the army, while they work sincerely in upholding the progress of their societies.
The past abounds with contributions of Christians to the rejuvenation, development, and stability of their societies in the distant and near past as the sun of their achievements cannot be covered by a sieve, thus the Christian presence cannot be rebuffed by anyone. In this regard, I refer to the book written by late Dr. Fadwa Nasir, titled "The Christians, Terror and the Idea of Arab Nationalism, 1840-1918." The researcher shows that Arab Christians have made vivid contributions to the resurgence of their countries, as well as the growth of national ideas and their activation in the context of Arab life.
As for the present situation of Christians, and apart from the issue of numbers and percentages of presence, it follows the rhythm of the countries in which they live. It sometimes restores its status quo ante, as is the case in the countries of the so-called “Arab Spring countries”, or repairs the destruction caused by wars, such as in Iraq and Syria, or tries to break free from narrow political sectarianism which is no longer a producer of security and stability as is the case in Lebanon or in the fulfillment of the process of achievement as in the case with Jordan where Christians make clear contributions, but they are still subject to the quota system that brings them to the parliament, for example under the category of religious “minorities.” I wish in this regard to mention some contemporary and important dates in the life of the Christians in the East:
In 1992: The patriarchs of the East issued their famous document titled, "The Christian Presence in the East: Testimony and Message".
In 2002: The Christian Arab Conference in Jordan and Palestine was held in Amman, where it states, "Together in defence of the fierce attack on Islam and Muslims while accusing them of terrorism".
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI signed his Apostolic Exhortation: Christians in the East, Communion and Witness.
In 2013, King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein called for holding a conference in Amman: Defending Arab Christian Identity.
In 2014, the Christians of Mosul were forcibly displaced and persecuted in front of the international community.
As for the fate or for the future--and this is what I will focus on--it does not depend on them alone, because they are not isolated islands in this dear and pained East which is longing for better days to come. They still live in a civilized partnership with their Muslim brethren and stand “together” before the one God, at the service of humanity. The issue is not confined to pessimism or optimism in the future, as this is in the hands of Almighty God, but adherence to partnership will be an essential clue to staying in the future and to completing the path of progress.
What future awaits Christians of the East?
It is the same future that awaits their societies. The suffering of societies is also the suffering of Christians, since the future will be built together, not at the expense of one without the other. From this premise, I salute before you the spirit of the martyr journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh who was killed on the morning of May 11 this year. This provides cogent evidence that the Christians are not mere spectators, but are at the heart of the life of the East with its pain, testimony and aspirations.
Following are seven points that will show us the future on which the presence of Christians in the East will be built.
2. The future is based on the continuous enhancement of the values of equality and citizenship. While reviewing the terms of "majority", "minority", "common living" and "tolerance", what emerges as the key to the future is the value of “citizenship”. It transcends the feeling of patriotic spirit to resorting to viewing “rights and duties,” as a point of reference and the need to view the citizens as citizens and human beings, regardless of their religious affiliations, and ethnic origin.
3. The future is built on promoting positive experience in our dear East, including the Jordanian experience in which Christians and Muslims work hand-in-hand as one family striving for the betterment of the joint community. This is what His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein focuses on as he won international awards in recognition of his efforts to promote the values of harmony in the beloved Kingdom of Jordan, in the city of Jerusalem, and in the world at large.
4. The future is built on maintaining contacts and extending bridges of affection and cooperation among the Christians of the East who remained in their native countries and their brethren who emigrated whether it was voluntary or a based on forced displacement. The believers of the East living in diaspora have outnumbered those living in their native countries. We Christians of the East must maintain contacts with them and always look for means to boost cooperation so that the emigrant masses of people, especially the new generations, will not forget their customs and countries of origin. Though this sometimes seems difficult to implement, yet it is necessary to preserve the Christian identity in the East, even if half of them are abroad.
5. The future is built by consolidating the ecumenical effort (or unity among the Churches), so as to be in unison.Defending a uniform identity implies defending the broad identity of the East, namely pluralism and the beautiful mosaics. This, of course, requires the elimination of sectarian fanaticism among the Churches, cooperation within and outside the East, and cooperation within the East and abroad based on the Christian presence as a whole rather than on a narrow “sectarian,” basis.
6. The future is built by continuing efforts in the various countries of the East to set the basis for stable and potent values of democracy, open participation for all in various fields including the political one, and strengthening or even expanding the options in constitutions to encompass the freedom to practice religious rites to the point of complete religious freedom, or freedom of belief. Tunisia has so far been able to incorporate this in its new constitution.
7. The future is built through cooperation with the Christians of the West and with financial support for the projects carried out by the Churches of the East. In this context appreciation is conveyed to the Hungarian government that supports the Christians of the East through backing the official church institutions and giving a helping hand to the needy families. This is a fervent appeal to the governments of the West and the Churches of the West to support the East with integrated development projects in order to create job opportunities for the unemployed, whose numbers have increased due to the Corona pandemic. This support will not only be confined to Christians as through them, services will be provided to entire societies. There are, for example, numerous schools owned or supervised by Churches, and sometimes the students do not afford to pay school fees, and the same applies to universities as the situation further exacerbates. Many thanks go to Hungary which offers scholarships to our Jordanian students. Yet, we also need support for local schools, so as to remain open to all and not confined to only rich students.
Thus, as we cherish what the Christians of the East have accomplished in the past and view their conditions nowadays, we notice that they have become fragmented and immersed in securing a living just like the situation in their societies. But, they view the future with eyes full of grace which is one of the most important virtues on which their trust and faith are based. This future is not only built by Christianity, but by civilized partnership with their Muslim brethren as without which every one of them would seek for a future of one's own and this will not be possible.
I would like to conclude by quoting the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation ten years ago:
The Catholics of the Middle East, the majority of whom are native citizens of their countries, have the duty and right to participate fully in national life, working to build up their country. They should enjoy full citizenship and not be treated as second-class citizens or believers. As in the past when, as pioneers of the Arab Renaissance, they took full part in the cultural, economic and scientific life of the different cultures of the region, so too in our own day they wish to share with Muslims their experiences and to make their specific contribution. It is because of Jesus that Christians are sensitive to the dignity of the human person and to freedom of religion which is its corollary. For love of God and humanity, thus honoring Christ’s two natures, and with eternal life in view, Christians have built schools, hospitals and institutions of every kind where all people are welcomed without discrimination (cf. Mt 25:31ff.). For these reasons, Christians are particularly concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person. It is wrong to claim that these rights are only “Christian” human rights. They are nothing less than the rights demanded by the dignity of each human person and each citizen, whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.