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Friday, 11 December 2009

The Exodus of Christians from the Holy Land: A Challenge for a Sustainable Peace

Last week on December 4th, Cardinal John Foley, the cardinal protector of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, delivered an address at a conference at the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo on "The Exodus of Christians from the Holy Land".

Here is his full address, courtesy of Zenit.org.

In summary:

Christianity & the Middle East's Culture
Christians in the Middle East must build bridges with the cultures around them rather than emphasizing differences. Indeed for Christians to thrive in the Middle East, they must integrate more into the culture.

"Christianity is trans-national, trans-ethnic and trans-cultural... It should not be tied to an ethnic group" or "any one culture... It is for the whole world," he affirmed.

"The tendency of Christians in the Middle East is to identify with Western ways and Western styles," but that they "must not cling" to this identity. "One of the problems in the Middle East is that Christians have asserted Western culture against Islamic culture ... It's a sense of, we have to be us and they have to be them."

Cardinal Foley acknowledged that this is "understandable," but that "Christianity doesn't have to be -- and shouldn't be -- tied to the Western way of doing things." And "Christianity is not tied to geography ... Judaism is focused on one piece of land ... the small strip of land, the Holy Land, because of the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, because of the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel." And "Islam is very tied to territory, ... "shrine-bound" to places like Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. But Christianity is different, as "Jesus is not buried in the Holy Sepulchre ... We find him everywhere ... Christianity can flourish anywhere."

Yet Christians, especially from the Western world, are a "bridge to the future for the Muslim Arab world." "Christians from the Western world have learned certain things and bring certain values and perspectives that are vitally important for the growth and maturation of the Arab world." Among these ideas are the understanding of the separation between church and state, the prelate pointed out, or the value of reconciliation and forgiveness. "If the Islamic world is to join fully into modern society, it has to integrate these values into its daily life," he said.

While he expressed concern about dwindling numbers of Holy Land Christians, their emigration is not necessarily negative. Cardinal John Foley said, "I think that we can say without qualification that the presence of Christians in the Holy Land today is a source of hope for understanding, peace and reconciliation." "In the entire traditional Holy Land area you are looking at a population of over 10,000,000 peo ple, and a total Christian population of less than 200,000 [or 2%], the smallest percentage of Christians of any country in the region ... Christians are leaving the Holy Land, leaving the Arab world, leaving the Middle East." "Socially, among Christians, there is a sense of exclusion, if not discrimination, in many countries."

"However, if it should happen that there be not one single Christian left in the Holy Land, it will not hurt Christianity fundamentally, as ... Christianity can flourish anywhere." "When we talk about migration, we need to remember that fundamentally Christianity is a movement. Christians have always spread throughout the world. The mission of Christians is to spread throughout the world. Evangelization is all about spreading the Kingdom of God." "Don't think that the movement of Christians is necessarily bad; the fact that a lot of Christians leave one place and go to another doesn't mean it is an evil, although they may move with regret. It's also a fact of life ... When Christians from Bethlehem emigrate ... they bring their values and history to other lands.

But while emigration is "not necessarily an evil ... it does involve a loss." "There's a patrimony and a culture that is being lost with the exodus of the Christians." "On the other hand, it is understandable that Christians and other people in the Middle East want to seek a better life ... It takes a valiant minority to stay simply for the sake of maintaining the Christian presence when there are jobs, educational opportunities, a future and freedom in other parts of the world." "Migration, by the way, doesn't mean you can't come back. One of the challenges, it seems to me, is to create a climate for safe migration. "

"If we are truly concerned with that part of the world, we need to use some of our influence on the governments of the lands in which we live to affect their national policies about the Middle East," he said. Thus "we help ensure that Christian values, Christian ethics, Christian criteria of judgment are being brought to the table, either directly through our home countries or through the advocacy and work of the local church." "A very practical thing we can do is help those who wish to migrate: Welcome them, facilitate their arrival and the presence and establishment of Middle Eastern Christians who wish to come to our home countries."
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