ROME (CNS) – In a conference dedicated to promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue in the Middle East, an Iraqi archbishop quoted U.S. civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said the pressures of war and the general political situation in the Middle East lead many people to believe that the region “is destined to be emptied of Christians.”
The archbishop was one of the participants in a conference in Rome Feb. 22 sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay group.
Archbishop Sako told Catholic News Service that the atmosphere in Iraq in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 7, is “an atmosphere of tension.”
Five seats in the parliament have been set aside for the Christian community and the various political parties are courting Christians, trying to get them on their side, he said.
The archbishop said Iraq’s Christian churches must speak with a united voice in defending religious freedom and the full citizenship rights of all Iraqis, but it would be improper and ultimately futile to try to form a Christian political party.
“Religion is something personal” and is not an appropriate foundation for a party or for a state, he said.
The only way to improve people’s lives and encourage Christians to stay in Iraq “is to improve security. We have a lot of freedom now,” but the lack of safety and stability means “people cannot go out, cannot work and cannot live normally,” Archbishop Sako said.
Restoring normal relations between different religious and ethnic groups “will take time,” he said, “because the whole of Iraq was destroyed” in the war following the U.S.-led invasion.
He also said Iraqis need to be educated in “open-mindedness and loyalty to the country,” rather than just to their religious group.
Tarek Mitri, the minister for information in Lebanon’s government and formerly coordinator of interreligious relations for the World Council of Churches, told the conference that interreligious dialogue is essential in the region.
“I do not claim that dialogue has fulfilled many of its promises,” Mitri said, but “without dialogue the situation would be much worse.”
Mitri told the conference that dialogue is essential not only for getting to know each other and identifying common values, but it is also needed around the world to counteract what he sees as one of the biggest dangers of globalization: giving global importance to local problems.
Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, told the conference that the fact that Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land are both Palestinians means “they have the same problems and the same hopes.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict absorbs almost all of their energy and leaves little room for conflict among them,” he said.
Since 1809, he said, the Catholic schools in the Holy Land have been the primary places for promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue and for putting it into practice. For more than 200 years, Catholic schools have been open to Muslim students. The schools try to ensure a mix of about 60 percent Christians and 40 percent Muslims, although in places like Jericho and Bethlehem the percentage of Muslim students is higher, he said.
The mixed schools create a space where children grow up knowing each another and learning and playing together, he said, and they also bring the children’s parents together in a common project of creating a better present and future for their children.
Mohammed Esslimani, a Muslim theologian who lives in Saudi Arabia and in Rome, said religious and civic leaders “need to prepare the cultural groundwork for dialogue.”
Too often, he said, “religion has been deformed” by fundamentalists on both sides who claim to speak for their faiths or by those who paint a false picture of the other’s faith.
In addition, both Christians and Muslims “need to have a clear understanding of the differences between the truths held by the other religion and the actions – often erroneous – of the religion’s followers,” he said.