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“Christians urgently need assistance in the Middle East,” was the key message at a high-level conference in Budapest

We pray that this International Conference on Christian Persecution in Hungary will result in genuine action from other nations all over the world, to save the world’s persecuted Christian populations. For too long the persecution of Christians has been met with indifference from governments the world over and the international media. We hope this heralds a change in that.

For previous coverage of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the imminent disappearance of Christianity from some of its ancient strongholds, see here.

“‘Christians urgently need assistance in the Middle East,” was the key message at a high-level conference in Budapest,” by Hans Not and Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers, December 2, 2019:

HRWF (02.12.2019) – The killings of Christians and general decline of Christianity in the Middle East were at the heart of the 2nd International Conference on Christian Persecution convened on 26-28 November by the Hungarian government and gathering 650 participants from over 40 countries.

In his opening speech, State Secretary Tristan Azbej declared that 250 million Christians are persecuted around the world, pointing, among other things at the high number of attacks against churches (1200) and of killings of Christians (11,000).

Hungary’s assistance to Christians in the Middle East

The Hungarian government claimed that it has allocated 580 million forints (EUR 1.9m) to rebuild damaged homes and churches in Tesqopa in northern Iraq. It has also supported the humanitarian activities of the Syriac Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.

Additionally, the Hungarian government, with the assistance of an ecumenical charity organisation, is building community homes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, also noted that the government had also set up a special scholarship program for young people from persecuted Christian families. Hungary is also working on establishing a university in the Middle East in collaboration with Budapest’s Pázmány Péter Catholic University.

At a previous conference held at the end of October in Budapest on the occasion of Vladimir Putin, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Szijarto, noted that the government’s “Hungary Helps” humanitarian aid program has so far spent 40 million dollars on rebuilding homes, churches and schools in the Middle East to enable Christians to remain in their homeland. Approximately 50,000 people have been assisted through this scheme, the minister said, adding that more could be helped if the international community followed Hungary’s example.

Patriarchs, bishops, cardinals, politicians, field experts, NGOs and Christians from across the world launched a unanimous call for large scale help, not only for persecuted Christians in the Middle East but also in some African countries, like Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Persecutions in Iraq and Syria

Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) that he hoped to see more European leaders acknowledge and respond to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

“I would ask European leaders to realize the fact that Christians are being persecuted because until now this voice is still weak,” Warda said, “Hungary and Poland have done the right thing to say clearly and loudly: Christians are being persecuted.”

Gewargis III, Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, stated that “What brings us together is the cause of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and our search for the elements that bring about these dire situations for the most ancient Christian communities of the East.”

Iraq’s Christians now face extinction. Since the US-led invasion toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Christian community has decreased by 83%, from around 1.5 million members to 250,000.

Christianity in Iraq, which is one of the oldest Churches in the world, is perilously close to disappearing. Following the initial assault of ISIS in 2014, more than 125,000 Christians were displaced from their historic homelands.

The Hungarian government and the US-based Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organisation, spent two million EUR to rebuild towns in the Iraqi Niniveh Plains and finance education programs promoting tolerance between Christians, Muslims Yezidis and others.

Amash Nalbandian, Bishop and Primate of the Armenian Orthodox Diocese of Damascus, stressed that the international community should view local Middle Eastern churches as partners. He stated that the stronger these churches are, the less likely it is that their members will emigrate.

Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and all of the East – Ignatius Aphrem II – congratulated Hungary for organizing a conference on Christian persecution and for saving Christians in Syria and Iraq. 90% of Iraqi Christians and 50% of Syrian Christians have left their historical lands. He praised Hungarian donations that have been used to help displaced Christians return to their homeland.

Rev. Haroutune George Selimian, President of the Armenian Protestant Community in Syria, lives in Aleppo. He referenced the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago when discussing the persecution of Christians in the region. He advocated for Western governments to be more active in efforts to protect Christians in Syria and Iraq and he finally, he praised Hungary for its assistance.

Persecutions in other countries

The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary – Rev. Dr. Tamas Fabiny – stressed that Christians have to wear their cross in many other countries, such as Iran and Nigeria.

Other religious leaders, such as Ignatius Aphrem II, highlighted the persecution of Christians in Libya and Egypt.

Rev. Joseph Kassab, Head of the Evangelical Community of Syria and Lebanon and Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of the Republic of Lebanon, highlighted the threats hanging over the heads of Christians in Lebanon.

Oliver Dashe Doeme, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri in Nigeria, denounced the systematic persecution of Christians in Nigeria and the responsibility of the government in this regard. For the past decade, Boko Haram has destabilized the country. This terrorist group, which is against the school education of girls, has kidnapped numerous Christian girls from schools to forcibly marry them to Muslim men and thus converting them to Islam.

Within the framework of the conflict with Boko Haram, more than 2,000 Christians have been killed and over 150,000 have been displaced, including 90 priests and nuns. However, Muslims have equally been victims of this conflict. He added that there are more 15,000 orphans and 5000 widows in the Catholic community.

Freedom of religion or belief for ALL

Prioritising the protection of Christians in places of armed conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere does not automatically exclude the defense of the rights of other people belonging to other faiths.

György Hölvényi, Member of the European Parliament, declared that freedom of religion or belief is for all, and that Christian persecution does not necessarily mean the destruction of Christianity. “While we need to openly discuss Christian persecution, we should not create double standards and only fight against Christian persecution. All people and peoples are equal. That is the message of democracy.”

Jan Figel, EU Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the EU, reinforced MEP Hölvenyi’s position with a post that: “Freedom of Religion is for each individual, and is all inclusive, for all believers of any religion, for non-believers, and for atheists.” He insisted that: “The EU can and should do more about religious freedom, also within its own borders but there is too much to do.”

HRWF comments

At the end of October, Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, organized a conference to which he invited Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and leaders of various Christian denominations from the Middle East. The purpose was to pave the way to an international alliance of European and other governments ready to prioritise support to the Christians in the Middle East and Africa persecuted by the Islamic State and other driving forces of political Islam.

A number of European governments – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – are planning to join. The Vatican and the US are interested in these developments.

It appears that Christian religious leaders in the Middle East do not believe any more in a direct support of the EU and some of its prominent member states to preserve the existence of Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq. Their massive participation in the 2nd International Conference on Christian Persecution in Budapest in November conveys that they will rather rely on Budapest and Warsaw moving forward to consolidate their presence in the Middle East, to help the internally displaced Christians, to favor the return of Christians from refugees camps in the region and from Europe, to rebuild their towns and villages, their churches, their schools and their community buildings.

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