ROME (CNS) — “Extremist political Islam is growing in the Middle East,” prompting Christians to flee and causing death and upheaval among Christians and moderate Muslims alike, said the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad said moderate Muslims must be more courageous in defending a pluralistic Middle East and the region’s Catholics should consider writing a document that explains to Muslims the Christian faith and the importance of religious freedom using terminology familiar to Muslims.
The patriarch spoke Dec. 14 in Rome at an international conference on “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” The conference was sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.
More than 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, “we don’t have security yet,” the patriarch told conference participants. “In 2013 alone, 6,200 persons were killed. There are daily attacks, explosions, kidnappings and murders.”
“In 1987, the community of Iraqi Christians included over 1.2 million adherents,” he said. “Today less than half remain. Even more troubling is that the numbers continue dropping.”
In Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, he said, fighting between different Muslim groups has created openings for extremist Muslims to exercise increasing influence, threatening even simple tolerance of Christians and making full religious freedom a distant dream for many.
The extremists, he said, “are afraid that Muslims will lose their morals through modernism and globalization exported by the West. They reject a secular state or a multicultural society and other Western values.”
What is needed, he said, are efforts on the local, national and international levels to help all the peoples of the Middle East understand how their cultures benefited from a mix of ethnic groups and religions, especially Christianity and Islam, and that protecting the conscience rights of one group strengthens the protection of all.
“We earnestly hope that it is still possible to achieve a harmonious way of living together — perhaps to establish a criterion of citizenship that enables all to be integrated, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and based on the idea that all people are created equal,” he said.
“We need a way to help Muslims reconcile Islam with citizenship based on full equality,” and not on special categories for minorities, including Christians, he said.
Patriarch Sako suggested that the Catholic Church “produce a new document addressed only to Muslims. It is important to clarify with them both our fears and our hopes. Among other things, this document should explain — in language compatible with Islam — the magnificent doctrine of religious freedom as it is articulated in ‘Dignitatis Humanae,’ the declaration on religious freedom from the Second Vatican Council.”
In addition, he said, “the time has come for moderate Muslims, who constitute the majority of Muslims, to start promoting civil harmony and religious freedom in their societies. They must prove to the world, through deeds, that Islam is not a religion of terror and killing of innocent civilians.”