Friday, June 14, 2013

Christians face being driven from the Middle East

Orthodox priest Fr. Peter-Michael Preble is featured in this good overview:

Christians face being driven from the Middle East
by Simon Kent - Toronto Sun

This could be the greatest story never told.

The Arab Spring has turned to bitter mid-winter for Christians across the Middle East.
Members of orthodox faiths are being driven from their biblical heartlands by hard line Muslim governments with no toleration of religious diversity.

All behind the increasingly opaque veil of chaos and civil war as the rest of the world looks the other way.

The exodus comes just 24-months into the biggest political upheaval in a generation, according to Father Peter-Michael Preble, an Orthodox priest with the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas.

He says Christians are the single most persecuted minority in countries including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria Iraq, Iran and the Lebanon.

The Southbridge, Mass. priest points to the recent kidnapping of two prominent Orthodox bishops by rebel Syrian fighters as evidence of the bind Christians find themselves in.

“Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji were both taken after they were tried to negotiate the release of two other Orthodox priests being held for ransom,” Preble told the Toronto Sun.

“Sadly, they were also outspoken in highlighting the threat to religious tolerance from the conflict engulfing their country. “They were warning against a Christian holocaust.

“Look across the entire Middle East and you see flames and war with radical Islamists fighting either governments or each other with Christians in the crossfire.

“At the political level it is the Muslim Brotherhood making life very difficult for the faithful. Christians have made their lives in those countries for millennia yet now face the prospect of either being murdered or banished forever.”

Preble says the entire Judeo-Christian heritage that once underpinned the region is threatened with collapse.

A century ago, more than 20% of the region’s population was Christian and as recently as the 1980s, places like Lebanon had a Christian majority. Now, with Christian numbers fading, it’s split between brawling Shia Hezbollah and Sunni fanatics.

Estimates put the Christian population in the Middle East at under 5% and sinking rapidly — and the figure only remains that high because of the Coptic Christians who remain, for now, in strife-torn Egypt.

All are part of the largest and most widely spread faith in the world.

Christianity has an estimated 2.2 billion followers or 32% of the world population, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Despite these numbers, Christianity faces restrictions and hostility in 111 countries around the world, ahead of the 90 countries limiting or harassing the second-largest faith, Islam, another Pew report reveals. Father Preble laments the plight of followers caught up in war-torn states has been little remarked in the west’s mainstream media.

“It seems to be very much out of sight, out of mind,” Preble said. “Followers have to tolerate a host of restrictions in many countries that include — but are not limited to — laws prohibiting conversion to Christianity under penalty of death, state destruction of churches even when they have been approved, torture of Christian dissidents and often socially sanctioned vigilante violence.

“The latter has been most widely seen in Egypt where Coptic Christians have been targeted by gangs eager to drive them from a land they have lived for almost 2,000 years.”

In an effort to raise public awareness of the plight of the faithful, Father Preble has written to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and asked him to work for the release of the captive priests.

So far he has heard no response but warns the fate of Christians in the Syrian city of Homs may be one that awaits all followers in the area.

“Opposition fighters have driven out 80,000 Christians from the Homs region alone and they know they can never return,” Preble said. “Their churches have been destroyed, businesses taken and their future denied. What if this pattern is repeated across all of Syria and the persecution of the Copts in Egypt goes on?

“These are the very places that gave birth to Christianity and sheltered Jesus when His family was on the run. Now they are a killing field for Christians.”