By Carl Hétu, National Director of CNEWA Canada
One year ago, in Bari, Italy, at an important ecumenical prayer meeting gathering Christian leaders from the Middle East, Pope Francis made a jarring reference to a Middle East without Christians:
“This region, so full of light, has been covered in recent years by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect. All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many…There is also the danger that the presence of our brothers and sisters in the faith will disappear, disfiguring the very face of the region. For the Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East.”
While the address evoked strong emotions and planted a seed for introspection and anticipated changes, one year later, things appear to many to remain the same. ISIS has indeed been defeated but palpable tensions and posturing for power among groups remains.
Syrian refugees aren’t going back as hoped. Tensions in Lebanon between locals and refugees appear on the rise. Job losses and unemployment levels are rapidly increasing. Families can be seen queuing up at food banks for hours.
In Iraq, the social and religious discord between residents has left the economy and country in disarray. Many fear an incident between the Kurds, Sunni and/or Shiite Muslims can lead the country to a second civil war.
Palestinians are challenged by a seemingly endless status quo and deep divisions in their own political leadership; while Israel continues to establish settlements considered illegal under international law.
It’s easy to understand why Christians remain uncertain about their future in the region. In the last 15 years, 2.5 million of them – from different Churches, rites, ethnic composition and language – have been uprooted from their lands with no prospect of returning. This is a great loss for the region. Many of those who left were the advocates of peace.
As a collective, these groups provided and continue to provide the lion’s share of education, healthcare and care for the marginalized, refugees, displaced migrants and other essential social services to ordinary citizens and vulnerable groups from all walks of life. These peacemakers and bridgebuilders played and continue to play an active role in interreligious dialogue. In a very real way, many communities are left with a large void in areas of social and political action.
This June, I participated in a conference at the Vatican at which Pope Francis spoke. Not surprising, he reverted to the opening statement made in Bari one year ago.
Pope Francis shared, “I think sometimes of God’s anger that will blaze out against the leaders of countries who speak of peace and sell arms to make wars. This hypocrisy is a sin.”
He also reinforced the important role that international Catholic Charities, like ours (CNEWA), are delivering every day in the region.
“In these days, together with voices of sorrow and lamentation, you will also hear voices of hope and consolation,” he said. “They are the echoes of that tireless charitable outreach that has been made possible also thanks to each of you and the agencies that you represent. “
Despite the dark clouds of war and destruction looming over the lives of many, there is hope. We cannot be overrun by despair. The work done in recent years, supported by Canadian Catholics and non-Catholics, has been a lifeline to Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Palestinians and so many other Middle Easterners, giving them and those who live with them great courage and a real measure of hope.
The path toward peace is still in its preliminary stages, but it has been initiated and we need to dedicate time and attention to moving the momentum forward.
Last month, at the Vatican, I was called to continue to spread hope and consolation and to relay a message to you from Pope Francis: continue your show of commitment to rally for peace so that our lives, even here in Canada, can shine as a light that pierces through the dark clouds of division and greed.