The European refugee situation is highlighting an issue that has been simmering for some time: the tug of war over Christians in the Middle East.
While many Christians from trouble spots such as Syria and Iraq have decided to seek a more stable life in the West, Christian leaders fear an exodus that might drive the final nail in the coffin of a two-millennia presence in the Holy Land.
Patriarch Louis Sako, the Baghdad-based head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, is the latest to voice his concern. In an interview Monday with La Stampa‘s Vatican Insider, he argued strongly against Christian emigration and criticized anyone who would give a preference to Christians seeking refuge in the West.
And, the bishop who earlier this year ordered overseas Iraqi priests to return to their homeland called priests and religious who went abroad without their superiors’ permission “luxury emigrants.”
In response to a question about Christian nations giving Christian refugees priority, the patriarch said, “This should not happen.”
“It would pose a problem for us too,” he said, referring to the dwindling Christian community that is left behind, adding that those most likely to go abroad are the young and able Iraqis who can help rebuild society.
“It will encourage those who say they want to give a religious justification to war,” he went on. “Those on either side who say Christians cannot stay.”
While admitting that it would be unfair of him to stop Christians who feel they need to leave, he said he could not give in to requests the Church is now receiving from local Christians to help them find flights and visas and “welcome centers” in foreign countries.
“A Christian community that was born in this land cannot set to organizing an exodus that will pave the way to its extinction,” he said. “We can respect the choice to leave as a personal choice but we cannot instigate it.”
Since a massive influx of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries has put pressure on European nations, the United States and other Western states have announced increased quotas for refugees and asylum seekers. On Sunday, hundreds of people crowded the Assyrian Resource Centre in Sydney, Australia Sunday in the hopes of bringing asylum-seeking relatives to the country as part of the government’s plan to settle 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. The news was reported by the Australian and republished by the Assyrian International News Agency, which serves a diaspora made up of Assyrian Christians from the Middle East.
“Young and old waited anxiously from the early hours, clamoring at the entrance of the centre, desperate to submit letters of acknowledgment from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection on behalf of relatives marooned in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon,” the article said.
But Patriarch Sako said that any declaration “that may incite our people to emigrate is irresponsible at this time. One cannot speak before they take all factors and possible consequences into consideration, as well as how our words might be interpreted.”
He also argued that the Middle East will be the worse off without Christians, who live in a spirit of “openness and humanity, who are able to live alongside others.”
“In time, they could also have helped their Muslim fellow-citizens to free themselves from jihadist ideology that causes great suffering to them as well,” he said. “We have opened churches, schools, clinics and hospitals. There is a network of bodies that did a great deal to improve peaceful coexistence and social life among communities, making services available to everyone. Now, it looks as if all of this is destined to disappear as well.”
In regards to priests and religious who have left Iraq without proper authorization, the patriarch commented: “They take advantage of their status, contacts and Church support to escape, passing themselves off as persecuted people and use this label even to make money in some cases. Sometimes, they manage to set up profitable and sacrilegious businesses using the persecution keyword. Many of them have escaped from safe havens where there is no persecution and have then helped their entire family settle comfortably in North America. Without authorization from their bishop and betraying the spirit of the good shepherd.”
Patriarch Sako said the defeat of the jihadist ideology that has spread throughout the Islamic world “requires the involvement of Muslim authorities and Arab governments.”