(Terrasanta, Rome) – “Make no mistake”, said Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, “a Middle East without Christians would be just like the Taliban.”
Addressing a Dec. 13-14 conference in Rome organized by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, part of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Patriarch Sako warned that war “remains one of the greatest challenges of the Middle East” and that “some powers are pushing for tensions.”
Moreover, he said some countries in the West are encouraging emigration of Christians. He stressed that further emigration would have “great historical significance” for Muslims, as Christians would take with them their “openness, their culture, their qualifications, and their commitment to religious freedom.”
Many Muslims respect Christians but attempts to repress them are “a great crime against them” and a “blow to national unity,” he said. A Middle East without Christians “loses its beautiful multi-identity.”
He urged Muslims to “get involved in dialogue” and said that countries of the region need a cultural and social model that promotes unity through pluralism, religious freedom and harmonious coexistence among various religious and ethnic groups.
He concluded by recommending that the international community increase their efforts to assist Muslim nations of the Middle East in modernizing Islam’s approach to religious freedom, and try to convince them that repression and persecution of Christians not only harms Christians but Muslim societies themselves. “All should work to stop the mortal exodus,” he implored.
The conference itself, which marked 1,700 years since the Edict of Milan ushered in the concept of religious freedom, reflected on Christianity’s contribution to liberty over two millennia. In doing so, experts touched on the current situation in the Middle East.
Todd Johnson, director and associate professor of global Christianity at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, said that persecution of Christians, though currently proportionately less than when communism was still in force in 1970, is now on the rise again.
Mariz Tadros, a political specialist on politics and human development in the Middle East and a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, dispelled several prevailing myths concerning Coptic Christians.
She said it is a myth that Copts are “one of the happiest” religious minorities in the world (sectarian violence against Christians in Egypt has increased); that Copts have contributed to their own predicament by calling upon Western intervention (she blamed Islamization of society, discrimination, and poor security); that Copts’ exposure to rights infringements is part of a broader phenomenon not related to religion (Tadros said Christians are being targeted on the basis of their religion); that Christians tend to be economically privileged and this has provoked animosity among the wider poorer population (she said this is “questionable” in the light of the widespread disenfranchisement of millions of Copts who have had to internally migrate); that Islamist movements endorse a kind of “home-grown democracy” (she noted a correlation between rising Islamism and increasing sectarian violence against Christians).
Tadros argued that since 2010, Egypt has witnessed the formation of several Coptic movements. She warned that if Coptic emigration continues, the loss to civil and political society will be immense, and those wishing to homogenize Egypt’s religious identity would be “deeply strengthened.” This would undermine the “culture of tolerance and respect” in the longer term.
Former professor of history at the University of Virginia, Robert Louis Wilken, spoke about the Christian roots of religious freedom as understood in the west. He recalled that it was the early Church father Tertullian who was the first to use the term” religious freedom” and that it was he and Lactantius, who advised the Emperor Constantine, who made the case that religion, because it springs from inner conviction, cannot be coerced. Their thinking later formed the basis of some Protestant thinkers.
Although many think religious freedom as understood in the West was the product of the 18th century Englightenment, Wilken said most original thinking on the subject took place in the early 17th century by those who were persecuted.
He said it wasn’t not possible to “draw a straight line” from the 18th century back to the early Church and the Scriptures. Wilken said “the breakup of the medieval order as the result of the Reformation, the proliferation of religious communities, were powerful factors in shaping thinking on religious freedom.”
Even so, he said ideas about a freedom of religion as a natural right, and the non-coercion of religious conviction “have their ultimate roots in Christian tradition.”