Update on Iraq

ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) — The success of a nonviolent revolution in Egypt is one of “multiple signs of spring in the North African winter,” an expert on the Middle East told participants in a Catholic forum on peace and justice Feb. 12.

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, editor-in-chief of America magazine and former director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, was keynote speaker at the Diocese of Arlington’s annual peace symposium, held at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington.

“I think it’s wonderful that Egypt was a nonviolent revolution. It was so unexpected. For 18 days in a country of 80 million people, how do you get that to happen?” Father Christiansen asked. “Those that preached that nonviolence wasn’t to be found in the Muslim world have been proved wrong again.”

Discussing signs of hope, Father Christiansen highlighted the reports of Egyptian Christians and Muslims working together during the revolution. One photo, in particular, of Christians holding hands in a circle around Muslims while they prayed made its way rapidly through the blogosphere.

As for what’s next for Egypt, he said, “It’s anybody’s guess.” It’ll be a waiting game, with the hope that the country will end up with a responsible democratic government, he said.

The priest focused his talk on religious freedom in other Middle Eastern countries and the role the United States is playing and has played.

U.S. policy in the Middle East has been a “disaster” for Middle Eastern Christians, Father Christiansen said. The United States failed to come to the aid of Christians fleeing Iraq after increased violence and persecution by Islamic terrorists, including last October’s bombing at a Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad that killed nearly 60 people gathered for Mass.

“Jordan and Syria took more than half the refugees, where they remain underground, unregistered,” he said. “What do we owe to Iraqi Christians? American policy seems to answer: nothing.”

Father Christiansen also focused on Christian identity in the Arab-Muslim world, reminding those gathered the Arab Christians have been alive since “the first Pentecost.”

“They are not converts,” he said. “That has not penetrated Western Christian consciousness.”

Though they are a minority, the Christians are an integral part of the society in which they live. The goal is “to live as Muslims and Christians together” with both groups “united by belief in one God and love of God and neighbor,” Father Christiansen said.

Though secularism is not a word often used in a positive context, especially by Pope Benedict XVI (usually in reference to places like Western Europe), the pope has encouraged “positive secularism” in the Middle East — that is, a secular regime that allows religious pluralism and a fully functioning religion.

Encouragement of this “positive secularity” is the constructive mission of the Church in the Middle East, Father Christiansen said. Complicating that mission are Muslims who, because of the close alignment of policy and religion in Islam, sometimes have difficulty separating church and state, he said.

Turning to the situation of Christians in Israel and Palestine, the Jesuit said the “war of competing narratives” that stems from the Holy Land makes it difficult to learn the truth.

“If I had two decades … I would have a hard time sorting out the competing claims myself,” he said. In Israel, it can be difficult to promote Christianity without seeming anti-Semitic, he said.

“(The Jewish people) think we don’t get what Israel means to them,” he said. “We have to show them (we understand) how much it means to them. Without Israel, the Jewish community will be extinct again. We love Israel when it’s truly Israel, when it’s true to its ancient virtues of justice and compassion.”

In follow-up discussions with the symposium participants, Father Christiansen recommended they visit the Holy Land in person.

“Even though it’s a difficult time to do a pilgrimage, there’s nothing like really meeting the people, seeing what they’re doing and also visiting the sites of salvation yourself,” he said. “It’s really important.”

He also recommended joining Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, an organization based in Bethesda, Md., that, according to its mission statement, “is committed to the continued presence and well-being of Arab Christians in the Holy Land and to developing the bonds of solidarity between them and Christians elsewhere.”

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