Middle East, Middle Ground
Long before the current cycle of violence that started in the Middle East some 10 years ago now, our foundation, Aid to the Church in Need, was helping in Iraq to repair ancient churches and to build catechetical centers for what were then blossoming Christian communities (in Basra in the south and in Levo, in the north). We also made sure that catechetical books were available in Arabic. Local Christians were very proud of their ancient heritage and, although their situation was not always that easy, they considered themselves to be Iraqis -- a bridge between the two main Muslim factions.
Today nobody has exact figures on the number of Christians in Iraq but by some estimates the figure has dropped from some 1.4 million in 2003 to only 300,000 or 400,000. Churches and convents have been destroyed in Baghdad and other cities and huge numbers of Christians have fled the capital or left the country altogether. Still, the new Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Mar Louis Sako, recognizing the importance of preserving the heritage of his Church, has entrusted Dominican Fathers with the task of restoring recently discovered ancient Church manuscripts.
He told AsiaNews that these documents are important, because "there is no present, no future, without a past." The past, he argued, is an invaluable source of learning and of examples to teach the "true faith" and to find ways to arrive at "peaceful coexistence between different communities."
In Syria, among other projects, we supported two initiatives to revive monastic life at sites where there had been a monastic tradition dating back to 1058 -- Deir Mar Musa -- and to the year 475, in the case of a new Syrian Catholic congregation inspired by the spirituality of the St. Simeon Stylites. The founder of this new order, Father François Mourad, established a small monastery in Hwar, just outside Aleppo. He has written: "The charisma of St. Simeon is the charisma of presence, of contemplation, of the essential and of listening. We try to live this way, just by sharing what we have with the families of our village, who for the most part are Muslim, showing in daily life the face of Christ. It is a dialogue of the little things that we believe can bring great fruit."
Sadly, last June Father Mourad was murdered, a victim of the relentless sectarian violence that has the country in its grip. We can only hope that once peace is restored to this country, his brother monks can ensure that his ideas live on. In Aleppo, we contributed to the construction of a center used by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, as an example of ecumenism. Before the war, we contributed several times to a project in Nebek to provide housing for young Christians, so that they would be encouraged to stay in the area. Today, our main help to the Christians from Syria comes in the form of emergency assistance to displaced families within Syria or support for refugees in Lebanon or in Jordan.
But we do not only invest in actual stones -- we support living stones as well, in what we refer to as the dialogue of life. One example is our work with the Association of Christian schools of Upper Egypt that are open to Christians and Muslims alike. The founder of the association, the late Father Henry Ayrout, once told us: "We build our schools in the rural areas, not just to provide the poor with an education, but with the hope that the school in the village would become like the heart to the body, giving it life."
Aid to the Church in Need also funds programs that promote dialogue between the different religions, such as the Al-Liqa Center in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, whose work is dedicated itself to interfaith relationship building. We also help the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, where Jewish and Arab Christian school children come together in an effort to break down prejudices.
Then there is the wonderful work done by women religious in the region, whose work we wholeheartedly embrace and support. By reaching out to the poorest of the poor regardless of their belief, they show the meaning of true Christian witness. For example, in Lebanon, the Good Shepherd Sisters work with battered women as well as with hundreds of refugee families from Syria. Our mandate as a foundation is to help primarily in the pastoral field -- that is, we generally do not help fund strictly humanitarian or social programs -- but in the Middle East such initiatives enable the Church to build a vital relationship with the majority Muslim cultures.
In the Middle East, the Church can play a very important role in the process of bringing about peace and reconciliation. According to Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, the well-respected scholar of Islam, "Christians, with their vision of freedom, can help Muslims find a middle ground, which excludes the secularism and excesses of the West, on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism, on the other."
When Pope Benedict XVI came to Lebanon in September 2012 to promulgate the Apostolic Exhortation summarizing and reflecting on the 2010 Synod on the Middle East, he called upon the Christians of the Middle East -- calling them a people of God with 2000-year-old roots in the region -- to help build a society that welcomes all people, a society based on the teachings of the Gospel. Indeed, Pope Francis this fall called on all religious leaders in the region to promote dialogue and peace, because "a religious leader," he said, "is always a man of peace, because peace is the commandment inscribed in the depths of religious traditions."