"We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians.”

This was Pope Francis' appeal last week during an audience with participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

Prior to that audience, the Holy Father met with the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of the Middle East to discuss the violent situations faced by many in countries such as Syria and Iraq. Attacks targeted towards Christians have caused many to flee their homelands, prompting what some fear will be the loss of Christian identity within the Middle East.

Louis Raphaël I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, is one of the many voices urging Christians to stay in their homeland. Patriarch Sako spoke with ZENIT on his recent meeting with Pope Francis and the current situation facing the Church in the Middle East.

Part 1 was published on November 26th, 2013.

ZENIT: As Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, how do you encourage Christians, who live in fear of the increasing violence, to stay?

Patriarch Sako: They have to read the history of Christianity there. We’ve had challenges in the centuries and difficulties throughout the centuries but our followers stayed and gave witness to human and Christian values. Now there are problems but we are a part of this nation, of this country. As a Christian, if truly I feel that I am Christian, I am also, even if a lay person, a missionary. So, they [Christians] have this responsibility to spread the Gospel in many ways. Maybe not to preach the streets but to live in a Christian way. That is a very important witness.

There are problems, but we can also resolve them. If there are problems of security, they can go to other secure cities or areas. In the North it is very safe. And also, if they need help, as Church we are helping them. We can help them stay and build our future together if they want it, even with others. The Iraqi population, the Muslim population, is not bad. All Muslims are not fanatics or violent. It is only some groups. Also the population is against them. If we can unite our communities with patience and hope, I’m sure we can help build a better future.

ZENIT: You have done much to improve relations with Muslims, especially with religious leaders in Kirkuk. Are there any initiatives you have in place to continue dialogue with the Muslim world?

Patriarch Sako: You know, in Baghdad we tried to establish relationship with the Muslim authorities, even the government. I met three times with the prime minister and I tried also to reconcile the government with a Muslim leader. I offered them that after our Synod [on the Middle East in 2010]. We also visit [them] when there is a problem or an opportunity to meet, also when there are attacks. I send a message of solidarity to our Muslim brothers. And from when I was elected until now, no Christians have been attacked. But for 10 years, Christians lost their trust in the situation, the government there hear explosions and are afraid. So they are worried but right now no one is against them. Even before, when there were attacks and a kind of persecution, it was politicized. There are some cases because you can find fanatic people that don’t like Christians being there. This is not a policy though.

ZENIT: Is there anything in particular in Pope Francis’ words or actions regarding the Middle East that has struck you?

Patriarch Sako: I have always spoken about a project to integrate all citizens in their citizenship, to be able to live with the same standard as that of the majority religion. The Pope really underlined that. He said that we have to support the project of citizenship, equal citizenship of all. I wrote an article maybe seven months ago saying that our countries should now move on from tolerance to citizenship, because tolerance is very bad. Tolerance means “I am not liked.” This is offensive to minorities, for those who are not Muslim. But citizenship means that we are all equal. Religion is something personal between me and God. Okay, there is a Muslim background culture, we are not against it but to impose Islamic law, the Sharia, upon all is unacceptable. It is not logical, it cannot be done.

ZENIT: What are your hopes after this three day meeting with the Holy Father?  

Patriarch Sako: Well there are many hopes. First, the solidarity and closeness of all participants in the plenary assembly. All of them showed us their solidarity, solidarity we can express on many occasions or in many ways. To visit us for instance, from the Holy See or the bishops conferences, to support or finance our projects. We have asked many to open a dialogue with Muslim authorities, to change interreligious dialogue, not to be provoking tensions. Religious dialogue would be for peace for dialogue, passive coexistence and collaboration with all. Also the Holy See and the international community can have an impact, to respect human rights in those countries in the Middle East - reciprocity. Also to encourage our churches to be stronger and more united and maybe to encourage them to stay, but also to train them, to form them as leaders. We have had many priests from Iraq who have left the country and this is a scandal. Now we have churches without parish priests. A priest should be there and be a pastor even if it's just up to him, to be just like a good [shepherd].

ZENIT: Many of our readers have been following the situation in the Middle East. How can they help their fellow Christians?

Patriarch Sako: First, I think to pray because there is a spiritual communion. You know the miracle of Syria was that it came about through prayer and fasting. And this can be repeated. But also to spread this culture of dialogue, to ask others to help to respect diversity. Maybe where there are attacks, you can also manifest your support by condemning the attacks against innocent Christians in Syria and Iraq.

Also to ask your government to be honest and to be beside those who are suffering or being persecuted. They are not only leaders of a flock but they are also responsible, for instance through the United Nations and other international agencies. [Christians must] make their voices strong and loud.

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For Part 1, go to: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/defending-christianity-in-the-middle-east-part-1