Iraq, Syria, Israel, Palestine are ‘powder keg’

The last Iraqi Christians in Mosul are fleeing the city amid threats of violence by members of the group Islamic State, who are telling the few Christians left in Iraq’s second largest city that they will be killed if they stay unless they convert to Islam or pay a tax.

“Our brothers and sisters are persecuted; they are chased away,” Pope Francis said July 20 before leading pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square in a moment of silent prayer.

Along with the sectarian violence in Iraq, conditions have deteriorated once again between the Israelis and Palestinians. It seems like these Middle East conflicts have been going on for centuries. But this is incorrect. Conflicts between Muslims and Jews date only to the 20th century.

‘Ignite a wick’

The artificial geopolitical construct that is the Middle East — with its national borders drawn arbitrarily by the Western Allied powers after World War I — is collapsing. In an article for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, a French seminarian working with the patriarchate writes that a number of factors have contributed to the latest conflicts.

An Iraqi man attends Mass in Baghdad July 20. CNS photo

“Recently we witnessed the end and the failure of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, in particular because of the refusal of Palestine to recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ and the continued construction of illegal Israeli settlements, which led to a new wave of pessimism and despair,” Pierre Loup de Raucourt wrote. “The discovery of the three dead Israeli teenagers and the revenge that followed, leading to the horrific death of a young Palestinian, were sufficient to ignite a wick. And one does not know how big the powder keg is to which this wick is attached.”

That powder keg is huge.

In Iraq and Syria — by far the largest states created from the smoldering remains of the Ottoman Turkish Empire — the powder kegs have exploded, unleashing violent forces so extreme even al Qaeda has repudiated the bloodletting.

Iraq, once awash in cash thanks to its oil reserves, has collapsed — its people exhausted by more than 30 years of constant war. Syria, once the bedrock of regional stability, has disintegrated — its people maimed and displaced. Meanwhile, extremist militias have overrun vast swaths of devastated territory and proclaimed an Islamist caliphate, an empire akin to those that dominated the region for centuries.

In Israel and Palestine, (as of this writing) leaders on both sides remain unyielding.

Christians endure

Hopes for the success of the two-state solution in the Holy Land faded there years ago. Despair and despondency have settled in as we in the West try to figure out what is to be done.

And what is to be done?

During his recent trip to the Holy Land, Pope Francis gave a pointed answer: Deny combatants their weapons.

“Who is selling arms to these people to make war?” he said. “Behold the root of evil!”

But all is not despair. Despite their small numbers, Middle East Christians play a significant role in society.

Through their schools, hospitals and social service initiatives that serve those living in the margins, Christians restore dignity, self-respect, trust and even bring joy to persons robbed of these basic human values by the destructive ideologies plaguing the region. These ministries — the work of thousands of priests, sisters and dedicated lay leaders of the Church — reach people of all faiths and communities, and are recognized and held by them in great esteem.

This is why it is imperative Christianity survive and thrive in the Middle East. As children of the Resurrection, Christians instill and inspire hope, which all of the peoples of the Middle East need in order to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

Michael La Civita, KCHS, is communications director for Catholic Near East Welfare Association and oversees the publication of its magazine, ONE.