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VATICAN LETTER Jan-22-2010 (900 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Stay or go: Christians in Mideast battle tough choices amid violence

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A recent preparatory document for an October Synod of Bishops for the Middle East made a forceful appeal to the Christian minority there to resist emigration and to openly give witness to the Gospel values of hope, joy, justice and forgiveness in their native communities.

But like most commandments -- that's easier said than done.

The synod outline said a strong faith would provide the courage for enduring the violence, persecution, prejudice and poverty that Christians in the Middle East often face today.

It's a drama that has already changed the Christian landscape in the region, according to church experts.

"To stay today in Iraq, you need to have a very profound conviction of the value of your faith" and a strong sense that the Christian presence is important for the country, said Father Leon Lemmens, secretary-general of the Vatican coordinating body of church funding agencies for Eastern Catholic churches, known by its Italian acronym, ROACO.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, said that when Christians feel threatened or that they don't belong, "you need a heroic sense of commitment on that occasion to say, 'I'm going to stay and I'm going to give witness.'"

The two priests spoke to Catholic News Service Jan. 20 during a break in a ROACO assembly at the Vatican.

Father Lemmens said he was amazed by the resolute dedication of the Christian leaders he met during a mid-November visit to Arbil in northern Iraq.

"We all know it's not an easy choice, it's a risky choice" since people are keenly aware that priests and bishops have been threatened, kidnapped or killed because they were Christian, he said.

The targeted killings and abductions have forced many priests to flee Iraq, resulting in a critical shortage, he said. For example, he said, it's estimated that there are only about 14 priests left to minister to perhaps 100,000 Christians in Baghdad.

"This is discouraging also to Christians; they say, 'The pastor has fled, why should the flock stay?'" he said. Local bishops need to be very close to their priests, encouraging them to stay and bringing them together as a family, he said.

So many Christians in the Middle East "are very often struggling alone and it should not be," he said. While many require material assistance, they also really need spiritual support through prayer and receiving letters, phone calls and visits from Christians from around the world, he added.

Father Lemmens said Christians in the Middle East are accomplishing "an important, difficult mission." The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and it's critical that Christians continue to be present in order to witness the Gospel, showing compassion for the poor and dedication to justice, reconciliation and peace, he said.

An active Christian presence in the Middle East can also help reverse the prejudice against or misinformation about the Catholic faith, he said. It's better that Muslims "really know Christians in a concrete way" and not through some distorted image given by the media, he said.

But more importantly, if Christians and Muslims can live together in the Middle East, then it shows the rest of the world that they can live together peacefully in Europe, the Americas and Asia, he said.

"Living together with people who are very different is part of globalization," and part of the way the future of the world is heading, said Father Lemmens. Peace is not achieved with ethnic cleansing or forcing parts of a community to leave, he said.

While strengthening Christian communities in the Middle East must be the church's first priority, Msgr. Stern said there comes a point in some situations when it must be decided what is more important: the people or the place they live.

"Because if you are concerned about the people you want to make life as good as possible for them where they are," he said. But if people feel they must leave and there is no alternative, "then perhaps you assist them to migrate," he said.

Even though the Holy Land and holy sites are "a very precious part of the world for us," Christians are "not as land-bound as the Muslims and the Jews," he said, because Christianity is called to be universal and to exist anywhere and everywhere.

"I think that it would be sad if the homeland of Christianity and the lands of the Bible had no Christians at all, but if it happens, we can live with it," said Msgr. Stern.

He recalled the Gospel account of Jesus telling the Samaritan woman "the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem ... when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth."

"I think our first concern is the people -- Christians and all the people ... -- and if there is room for us to be there, fine. And if there is no peace for us to abide there then we, again like the Gospel, must shake the dust off our feet and the Christians move to where they can find peace," he said.

"Christians, by being really authentic followers of Jesus, have a very powerful message. And like the Lord they don't necessarily come out on top winning in a political or social sense, but ultimately they do" win new life, he said.


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