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A tragedy to be borne by all

· Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches speaks on the situation in Syria and Iraq ·

One of the most detestable forms of violence, learned from the dissemination of information by the militants of the self-styled Caliphate “the barbaric indoctrination of children of about ten years old, forced to sing out against the presumed enemies and to carry weapons at an age when they should be able to play and to go to primary school with their peers”. This strong denunciation was made by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, at the Inaugural Summit of the “In Defense of Christians” Association held in Washington, D.C. on 9 September.

Standing before the heads of the Eastern Churches, Catholics and Orthodox, and other representatives of social and political life gathered to reflect on the Middle East, the prelate seized the occasion to renew the request for the explicit rejection of all direct or indirect political, economic and military support of the so-called Islamic State (isis). He also appealed for the interruption of the “widespread silence that is enveloping the conflict in Syria”, with particular reference to the tragedy of the teen-aged girls taken from refugee camps and sent as “goods” to certain countries.

Facing these deplorable events the Cardinal called attention to the risk of feeding the “theory of the clash of civilizations” or of the war between religions, stating that he does “not share this position” and asking on the contrary “that it never prevail”. In fact, he added, “in these months certain people are unfortunately intending to destroy not so much a ‘foreign’ Christian culture in comparison with a native Islamic Arabic culture as, rather, the clear reality of a respectful and useful cultural coexistence”. In Syria and Iraq, after the great Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires, he observed, the Christian presence in all its manifestations has been a constitutive element “for two thousand years, just as the Muslim culture has developed after six centuries, likewise in accordance with different denominational divisions. The same applies to the [Jewish] religious presence that preceded Christianity and continues to exist to our day, in certain Middle Eastern contexts, in such consistent and obvious terms”.

The Cardinal cautioned that the West often “falls into the trap of viewing the Arab culture as entirely Muslim — forgetting that most Islamic believers do not speak Arabic and do not belong to the Arab culture”. Moreover, he said, in text books, the arrival of Aristotelianism in the West, “thanks to the mediation of Arab and Islamic philosophy, is often mentioned but almost nothing is said of the preceding indispensable work carried out by Syriac-speaking Christian monks who translated the works of the giants of Hellenistic thought from Greek into Arabic”.

Another aspect to be condemned is that of the immense economic interests underlying the conflicts. Among these are the control of oil wells and of gas deposits, the safety of the petroleum and gas pipelines, the supremacy of one area of free commercial trade over another. And, he indicated, this is not only in the Middle East but also in Eastern Europe and in other regions of the world. It is the culture of waste, often denounced by Pope Francis: “in the face of personal economic interests, in the face of one’s own idea, the other person with his or her life and inviolable dignity becomes secondary and can even be annihilated, or at least not taken into account. On the contrary”, Cardinal Sandri stated, “the other person is a human being ab origine, and not because the State, the Constitution or any other group must recognize him as such”. Therefore, he continued, it must be insisted that it should be the United Nations in New York, “to become increasingly and transparently the place where decisions are made in which all peoples not only proclaim but also defend in practice with adequate resolutions and actions the dignity of the Christians in the Middle East, together with those who belong to every other minority”.

Picking up on what Pope Francis has previously declared, the Cardinal stated that unjust aggression must be halted, and that decisions on the means to do so must involve the international community, including the Arab and Muslim countries. The Cardinal then recalled the destruction of the mosque of the Prophet Jonah, “a symbolic place for the three great monotheistic religions”, blown up in Nineveh, today’s Mosul. “Let us forcefully repeat with our brothers and sisters”, he said, “that their return to that city and to their lands must be guaranteed, on pain of the dissolution of a society that was capable of reciprocal coexistence for centuries”.

Earlier in the day, the Cardinal had been invited by Archbishop Joseph Edward Kurtz, President of the Bishops’ Conference of the usa, to participate in the Permanent Council. During that event the Cardinal spoke on the Iraqi situation, which is “still one of extreme emergency: the refugees of the Plain of Nineveh need all sorts of basic necessities to ensure their survival, also in Erbil and Baghdad”. Moreover, no less urgent is the need to make every effort “to prepare for their return to their own homes or, if necessary, to relocate them in more secure parts of the country”. Cardinal Sandri acknowledged being conscious of the fact that “no one should be forced to remain in the country against his will”, however, he echoed the call frequently expressed by Patriarch Louis Raphaël i Sako of Chaldeans that “neither should the Christians of Iraq be constrained to flee”, as “this would only lead to a still more destabilized future” for the country. The Churches, which gave rise in great part to the diffusion of the Gospel in the Apostolic era, he said, “are now shaken at their foundations and threatened in their very existence”.

Indeed, “we know the difficulties of the Church in Jerusalem, and we are always more convinced that a durable peace in the Holy Land would contribute significantly to the stability of the whole Middle East”. Just, he concluded as “we see the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, now called the Church of Babylon of the Chaldeans, the fruit of evangelization of the Church of Antioch, which once played a key role in the East, we fear now for its loss of active presence”. If these churches, which are “the historic mothers of the evangelizing mission, are struck at their foundations, we, as their children, cannot be silent”.

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