Religious Leaders Assess Causes, Consequences of Christian Exodus
Religious leaders met in Detroit, Lebanon and Rome in February to address the accelerating emigration of Christians from the Middle East, an exodus that seriously threatens the survival of Christianity in the region. Currently between 12 million and 15 million Christians reside in the Middle East, almost half of them in Egypt, and in most Middle Eastern countries less than 10 percent of the population is Christian. The Christian population in the Middle East has been in steady decline since the Young Turks Revolt in 1908 and the subsequent persecution of Christians. While persecution is still a contributing factor, most participants in the February meetings agreed that the causes of migration today are primarily social and political. Tarek Mitri, Lebanon’s minister of information, said Christians, who are among the better-educated classes, are “victims of their good education” in that they are able to provide a better standard of living for their families by emigrating to where there are better career opportunities. In this way, the increasing rate of migration is in part a consequence of globalization. “If a young Palestinian—Christian or Muslim—can get work in the United States or Dubai, then they will go,” said Bernard Sabella, a Catholic member of the Palestinian parliament and former professor at Bethlehem University.
Causes. Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad said that while economic and political problems are the major reasons for leaving in most areas of the Middle East, Christians in countries like Iraq and the Palestinian territories leave out of “fear of Islamic fundamentalism and being legally discriminated against” in an Islamic state. In Iraq the problem is particularly acute: at least half of all Christians in Iraq, an area inhabited by Christians since the first century, have left that country in the last five years. The crisis has become so severe that the bishops of Iraq have called on Pope Benedict to convene an extraordinary regional synod to address the problem.
Consequences. Another area of agreement that emerged from the meetings is that it is desirable for Christians to remain in the Middle East not simply because of their long history in the area or because they are lawful citizens. Archbishop Sleiman said Christians help preserve peaceful coexistence in religiously and ethnically diverse societies. Christians possess a unique culture that displays “the willingness to mediate,” and therefore they “could do so many things because reconstruction [of a war-torn nation] deals above all with souls, culture, mentalities,” the archbishop said.
Some participants in the meetings also said a strong Christian presence could help moderate Muslims to counter the rising wave of Islamic extremism sweeping the region. Mohammed Sammak, a political adviser to Lebanon’s grand mufti and a participant in the Rome meeting, said, “The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises,” fills the void and gains the upper hand; “that is why as a Muslim, I am opposed” to Christians emigrating. For Christians to disappear from the Middle East would be like “pulling out the threads of a cloth so that the whole social fabric risks unraveling and dying.”
Another danger is that if Muslim-majority nations do nothing to protect and encourage their Christian minorities to stay, then Western countries will think that Islam does not accept or respect Christianity, Sammak said. If people living abroad see that Muslims are unable to live with Christians even when they share the same culture, language and citizenship, he said, “then they’ll think, ‘so how can we Europeans live with Muslims?’” Tensions and restrictions against Muslims living in or immigrating to Europe may be exacerbated as a result.
Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of Aleppo appealed to Muslim nations and authorities, telling them that their role is “to safeguard Christians. It is up to you. We don’t believe our protection can come from outside.”
Doctors Defend Regulations Protecting Conscience Rights
The Catholic Medical Association has joined forces with the Christian Medical Association and the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists to combat what they see as a major threat to the conscience rights of health care professionals. The groups are joining in an effort to intervene legally against lawsuits filed by the attorneys general of eight states, Planned Parenthood of America and the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association.
The suits seek to overturn a Department of Health and Human Services regulation that prohibits discrimination against health professionals who decline to participate in abortions or other medical procedures they believe to be objectionable for moral or religious reasons. Without the regulation, pro-life health professionals would be subject to “the imminent threat of being forced...to perform abortions, assist in abortions, train for abortions and refer individuals for abortions despite their religious, moral and ethical objections to the practice of abortion,” said court papers filed with the U.S. District Court in Hartford, Conn.
“Physicians must defend their right to practice medicine in accordance with their consciences,” said John Brehany, M.D., executive director of the Catholic Medical Association. “It’s a very important principle that every physician should support. Without conscience protections, for example, physicians or other health care professionals could be subject to government conscription to participate in the executions of death-row prisoners if the state could not find volunteers to do so,” Brehany said.
The motions to intervene, which were filed by attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund and the Center for Law & Religious Freedom on behalf of the three pro-life organizations, also argue that pro-life medical professionals could be “forced to relocate to jurisdictions that respect their rights or to leave the profession altogether” if there were no federal laws protecting their conscience rights. The motions further criticize the “plaintiffs’ baseless allegations that medical professionals exercising their conscience place women at risk of serious injury and even death by failing to render necessary services during medical emergencies.”
“I’m confident that the court will allow these doctors to intervene be-cause they are the ones who will be forced” to perform or refer or train for abortions, said Matthew S. Bow-man of the Alliance Defense Fund. “It’s a direct attack on the only existing protections” for pro-life health professionals. “When they try to strike down a regulation that implements laws in place for 30 years, it affects every pro-life health professional.”
Meanwhile, on Feb. 27 the Obama administration announced it was reviewing a proposal to rescind the regulation. After the review by the Office of Management and Budget, the proposal is to be published in the Federal Register, opening a 30-day period for public comment. In response, the Catholic Medical Association is also initiating an education campaign to raise awareness about the issue. People need to know that even if the regulation is overturned, “there are still laws that protect conscience rights,” Brehany said. “We need to continue to defend and respect and explain the reasoning behind them.”
Coalition Expresses Support for Sebelius
A group of Catholic leaders, scholars and theologians publicly expressed support on March 1 for the nomination of Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Democrat of Kansas, to be the next secretary of health and human services. In a statement organized by Catholics United, a Washington-based progressive organization, the group said: “In addition to offering our support, we also reject the tactics of those who would use Governor Sebelius’s faith to attack her. As Catholics, we find such partisan use of our religion regrettable and divisive.” The nomination of Governor Sebelius, a Catholic who is pro-choice, has engendered controversy among some conservative groups and with some bishops. The Catholic League has organized against her nomination and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City said, “It is troubling the important influence that she will have on shaping health care policies for our nation.” Catholics in Alliance said in a statement that both the Catholic League and Archbishop Nauman are “doing a disservice to those Americans who will benefit from Governor Sebelius’s leadership as health and human services secretary.”
Snyder Responds to ‘Hate Mail’
Despite receiving what he termed “hate mail” that questioned his appointment to the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, said he welcomed the opportunity to bring the church’s views on serving the poor and marginalized to the national discussion. The letters raised doubts about his role on the council and “told me that I would probably go to hell for accepting this appointment,” Father Snyder said. The correspondence was apparently prompted by the fact that President Obama is pro-choice. “There can be no doubt that Catholic Charities is a firmly pro-life organization,” Father Snyder said. “Let me assure you the administration is well aware of where we stand on this issue. But I believe God will also not forgive us for missing any opportunity to promote the care of the poor and vulnerable in this country,” he continued. “We will be faced with opportunities to do so with the Obama administration, and Catholic Charities will take them.”
Archbishop Paulinus Costa, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh, criticized the “barbarous killing and looting” that left more than 140 people dead or missing following the recent mutiny of the Bangladesh military. • Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said he hopes Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Israel will be an opportunity for the pope to demonstrate to the world his deep knowledge of and respect for Judaism. • The head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X said on Feb. 26 that his order is not ready to accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which the Vatican has set as a condition for full reconciliation of the order with the church. • The latest church statistics show that the number of Catholics remains stable at 1.147 billion people worldwide and that the number of priests and seminarians worldwide has been showing a modest, yet steady increase. • The Vatican has announced that a California woman, Heidi Sierras, will be baptized by Pope Benedict during the Easter Vigil in Rome.