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10-24 OCTOBER 2010

The Catholic Church in the Middle East:
Communion and Witness.
"Now the company of those who believed
were of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32)

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Translations are not official.

English Edition


20 - 21.10.2010




The speech of the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, on the occasion of the Conference at the Campidoglio “Middle East Christian Witness at the Service of Peace” on 19 October 2010 is published below.

Thank you first of all for this further opportunity for reflection. I have already had the honor of speaking with the patriarchs and H.E. the Secretary General of the Synod. We are now continuing these reflections in public on a theme that the organizers, when we think about it, have done well this morning to place before such a well-qualified assembly. I believe it is a theme we should all be aware of, one that is crucial for the future of our world.
Father Lombardi has just said that it was in the Middle East that Judaism, Christianity and Islam not only were born, but developed over many centuries following a path of spiritual maturing that undoubtedly favored a profound development of ideas, experience, and individual and collective life. Unfortunately, especially since the tragedy that marked our recent past (September 11th), a tendency has appeared in the world of defining identities of belonging in an exclusive, or worse, exclusivist way. There are those who spoke, and are still speaking, of conflict between religions and civilizations, those who speak of conflict between Christianity and Islam, between Islam and the West. I am convinced that if there is a conflict in our world it is between tolerance and dialogue on one side, and intolerance and extremism, on the other. Personally I reject the thesis according to which an unresolvable clash is under way today between cultures, religions and civilizations, but it is undeniable that the conflict with tolerance and extremism has had a particular impact on Christians. Often what occurs is a situation that can be symbolically described quoting the title of a recent book on the subject: Christians and the Middle East. The Great Escape (by Fulvio Scaglione, 2008, pp. 235, Edizioni San Paolo, editor’s note). The title of the book gives a dramatic idea of something that could and might happen. H.E. Mons. Eterovic recalled how the number of Christians had already dropped during the last century. Today it is falling dramatically. More generally, the Christian communities are at risk of seeing their presence and territorial diffusion reduced.
Episodes of violence against Christian minorities are on the increase and this is a phenomenon which we have to view with great concern. I read a recent report on religious restrictions, published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a dependable American institution. This investigation reveals how in general for every 100 deaths caused by religious hatred and intolerance in the world, 75 are Christian. This is a percentage that terrifies us. Tens of thousands of Christians every year are the subject of persecution, violence against their person, confiscation of possessions and intimidation. Their desire to live in peace and alongside other religions is denied, and indeed they are often punished for the simple fact of being Christian.
What also emerges from the interventions in this assembly is a general picture of a situation of great suffering among the Christian communities severely struck in Iraq, divided in Lebanon, subject to the repercussions of Islamization in many Arab countries, forced elsewhere to resist the abuses of authoritarian regimes, of full-blown dictatorships that persecute and strike out against Christians. I do not believe it would be too strong an expression if I said that “Christianophobia” is a growing and very real risk today, that in some way we have been concerned about in recent years, but that today we have to fear day after day. Christian communities today face a great challenge, that which comes from living in countries where there are internal political divisions and international crises and a challenge rising from the sometimes fanatical presence of fundamentalist movements that often tend to confuse Christians, the bearers of the Christian faith, with a cultural characteristic of the West to be struck at and opposed. This is a particularly dangerous phenomenon.
In many contexts Christian communities live in a condition of isolation and alienation that is totally absurd, despite the fact that throughout history it was the Eastern Churches which were the centers of propelling and spreading Christianity. This happens despite the fact that the Christian communities have been present in the territory long before the arrival of Islam. These are phenomena we have to view with concern. In some cases the greater involvement of the population in political life has led to an exasperation of both the contrasts between the various communities as well as religiously inspired identity, confusing religion with the state and therefore compromising that respect for freedom and equality in the personal, social, civil and religious rights of all minorities and not just of the Christian minority. I believe this respect should be an indicator of the maturity, of the health of a democracy.
I am convinced that a political analysis of the Christian presence in the Middle East has to be articulated in the political-international dimension (ongoing and latent conflicts); the symbolic-identity dimension (the prevalently religious characteristics of a number of movements that are born in and unfortunately feed off extremism) and the democratic dimension (that of rights and therefore the crucial theme of religious freedom). The great objective of peace, which is the objective of the patriarchs, of the Church, but I believe should also be that of all the democracies, has to be pursued by promoting a synergy between all these dimensions. We have to have an overall vision both of the challenges that we have before us as well as the contribution we can make. We need to reform a tissue of relationships between states, within communities and between communities, in such a way as to avoid the lacerations of both ancient and modern origin. All these points are dealt with with great far-sightedness in the Instrumentum laboris. The document of participation and preparation of the Synod for the Middle East touches on questions of primary importance such as reciprocal awareness among the three monotheistic religions, the need for a shared undertaking for peace, agreement and the promotion of spiritual values, as well as that concept that is particularly dear to me of positive laicity as the contribution of Christians to the promotion of a healthy democracy, lay in a positive sense, but that also recognizes, because of this, the role of religion in public life.
I was very struck by the appeal to Christians not to bend, not to retreat under the blows of adversity, but to continue to behave actively to spread a spirit of reconciliation. I was particularly struck by that most beautiful phrase in your document about the ‘pedagogy of peace”. This means denouncing violence, wherever it comes from, in the name of that value you teach us about and that is fundamental for our Christian faith: forgiveness. This is obviously an extremely difficult task that requires courage, but it is indispensable to recuperate that sense of dialogue between the faiths that is essential to achieve peace.
Christians will certainly have to become increasingly aware of the essential value of their presence in the Middle East, a widely recognized value. Christians also have to be aware of the need to seek with Muslims an understanding about how to oppose those aspects that threaten society just as much as extremism. I refer to atheism, materialism and relativism. Christians, Muslims and Jews can work together to achieve this common goal.
I believe that a new humanism is required to oppose these perverse phenomena, because only the centrality of the human person is an antidote that will defeat fanaticism and intolerance. This is why Italian foreign policy sees the promotion of religious freedom as a fundamental point, since this deals with a fundamental right of each human person. This is not a collective issue, but a question relating to the person.
The Italian government has done a lot. We have been busy in the European Union. I promoted a course of action that might lead to European support for religious freedom, promoting the rights of people who belong to religious minorities, thinking obviously of the Christian minority that suffers in many countries of the world. I believe that every state should be vigilant about this question in order to avoid intolerance.
I also acted at the United Nations in September. Speaking on behalf of Italy I promoted a resolution on religious freedom and the rights of all minorities to express their religion at the General Assembly. I hope that wide support will be given to this possible resolution (so far almost 30 countries have indicated their willingness to support it), and for this reason I launch an appeal. So far not all the countries of the European Union have taken this step. I say this with a certain sadness, but I hope that to these 30 countries many others will be added and that this resolution might be approved in the session of the General Assembly that has just opened.
We also had to act as the Italian Government against a sentence, which you will all be aware of, of the Court of Strasbourg that forbad the exposition of the Crucifix in public places. I am convinced - and this conviction is shared by the Italian Government - that the Crucifix represents the right to express one’s faith and that there is no contradiction between this symbol, which is a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and the lay state that protects all religions; a state that also protects my religion, though, which I therefore have the right to profess publicly as well.
Italy’s action (the first of its kind at the Court of Strasbourg) was supported by ten countries, small ones like Cyprus and large ones like Russia. It is with great sadness that I note that only Italy, among the founding countries of the European Union, subscribed to this appeal, because the very nations that felt Europe was worth founding did not participate in this action in favor of freedom with us, which is after all one of the pillars of the Charter of Rights that the European Union wanted to establish.
As regards the conditions of Christians in the Middle East, we watch carefully and follow, through Italian foreign policy, the Christian presence in the Middle East which, despite an overall drop in numbers, still represent s a fundamental element in those countries today. You are well aware of the statistical data about the reduction in the Christian presence, but we are concerned that this reduction is often generated by political instability in those countries, by the lack of economic prospects and by the radicalization that is spreading in some countries. The Christian presence is a great resource for that region and for this reason it must always be safeguarded. This is why Italy strongly agrees with appeasing action of the Synod for the Middle East in favor of safeguarding the Christian presence in the lands where Christianity was born.
We hold very dear this witness that, above all, in the Holy Land, Christians and the Catholic institutions in loco carry out. We believe, for example, that the hoped-for and unfortunately delayed peace settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will certainly be an element, when peace comes, that will greatly improve the condition of Christians in the Holy Land, contributing to preserve that multiconfessional and multicultural character of the Holy City of Jerusalem. This is a fundamental theme that we Christians hold very dear, as do the faithful of other religions.
Of course I think of Italy’s commitment in Lebanon, a commitment that will continue, and that cannot disregard the special nature of that country. I remember the definition of the Holy Father who called Lebanon a “message country” precisely because of its example of peaceful coexistence between religions and I believe that Italy has to continue to commit to help Lebanon, not only in areas that are prevalently Christian, but also there where all those who live in that country are present (Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Christian, obviously), so that the multiconfessional nature of Lebanon might be safeguarded.
I think of Christians in Iraq. I have visited that country a number of times and on each occasion I asked for an end to violence and persecution (I remember, in particular, the massacres in Mosul). Again as regards the commitment of the Italian Government I would like to remember my recent meetings with the President of Iraqi Kurdistan and the mission to Baghdad as soon as the new Iraqi government is established. I will emphasize on that occasion that the Christian minority in Iraq is an essential component of the history and society of that country.
I think of Egypt, a country we love and that has a long shared history with Italy going back centuries and millennia. We are always encouraging the government there to make the most of the Coptic community that lives in Egypt, in the framework of an equality among religions that, on the basis of the Constitution, our Egyptian friends have always reaffirmed. I remember the day after a tragic incident that led to the violent deaths of a number of Christians in Egypt, I went to where it happened and was met by President Mubarak, who once more expressed a powerful political message when he told me, before repeating it in public: “We all live, Muslims and Copts, beneath the same flag of the same country based on the principle of citizenship”. This is the sentiment that in Egypt I believe has to always be repeated and confirmed.
We look to Turkey, a country whose approach to the European Union Italy has always strongly supported. We support it because we are encouraging a process of modernization and reform in that country. We obviously look at the Christian community in Turkey, a community that has been greatly reduced in number, that has suffered from the violent deaths of some of its exponents of extraordinary spiritual value. I think obviously of Mons. Padovese. We encourage Ankara to take further steps to safeguard religious minorities and, in particular, the Christian minority. We hope that the constitutional referendum that certainly helped Turkey take a step towards Europe will bring benefits.
But we also look to Iran, a country with which the world is trying forcefully to reopen a dialogue on delicate issues, but where the Christian community represents an important social component. In respect of the autonomy and independence of all countries and therefore also, obviously, of Iran, we look very carefully at the requests of the Iranian Christian and the will of all the minorities who wish to have a role in society.
I conclude these reflections of mine with the hope that the efforts of the Synod for the Middle East, the commitment of Christian communities throughout the world and of governments that, like Italy’s, are sensitive to these themes, can work to promote living together. We have countries that are a positive example in the Middle East. Among these Syria and the Kingdom of Jordan. Countries that we look on with affection also for this element that characterizes them, but let us not forget that at the level of local realities, the level of communities, of the young and very young, Christians and Muslims have long learned to live together in peace. Let us avoid that government and political conflicts be allowed to divide what in the community at the level of day-to-day living is often united. Thank you.

[00203-02.13] [NNNNN] [Original text: Italian]

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