Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, said yesterday that Christians persecuted in the Middle East should not be singled out for special protection.
The archbishop was speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London’s Whitehall about the "foreign policy" of the Holy See under Pope Francis. Archbishop Gallagher was asked whether the recent joint statement of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, that emphasised a joint Orthodox-Catholic commitment specifically to defend persecuted Christians, meant special attention should be paid to their plight.
The Christian population in the Middle East has decreased dramatically in recent years. According to figures published by the New York Times, a third of Syria’s 600,000 Christians had fled by July last year; Lebanon’s Christian population has shrunk from 78 per cent to 34 per cent over the past century; and only a third of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in Iraq in 2003 remain today. The primary cause of the exodus has been targeting by jihadi groups and more recently Islamic State.
The archbishop would only say that "all minorities", including Christians, needed protection. The joint statement made in Havana on 12 February said: "Our gaze must firstly turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution. In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed. It is with pain that we call to mind the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Middle East, and the massive exodus of Christians from the land in which our faith was first disseminated and in which they have lived since the time of the Apostles, together with other religious communities.
"We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East. In raising our voice in defence of persecuted Christians, we wish to express our compassion for the suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence."
The meeting yesterday was organised by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and St Mary’s University Twickenham, London. The FCO refuses to name Middle Eastern Christians as requiring special protection, instead referring to the importance of protecting "all minorities".
It was pointed out to Archbishop Gallagher that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Christians of the region are in need of special protection, and that therefore – leaving aside how sincere these statements might have been - Syrian Christians might look to Mr Putin as a defender rather than the US or UK. The interventionist policies of the US and UK have helped precipitate the exodus of Christians, and in Syria today they both express support for a "moderate" opposition that has made no meaningful commitment to protecting Christians. The Archbishop made no comment on who Syrian Christians might see as their likeliest defenders.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg unanimously passed a resolution on 4 February recognising the Islamic State’s systematic killing and persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East – the majority of whom are Christian - as genocide.
Archbishop Gallagher said that since the territorial loss of the papal states in 1870, the diplomatic activity of the Church has increased exponentially: today it has relations with 186 states. Its mission, through its 5,000 bishops and 400,000 priests as well as its nuncios, is unique, he said, because it is "spiritual rather than in defence of commercial or economic interests." Pope Francis, he said, always puts respect for human dignity before all other considerations.
This, he said, is the principle that underlies his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. The global economy, the Pope wrote, is "an economy that kills", generating a throwaway culture that creates human outcasts as well as a level of waste that drastically harms the environment. Inequality, Pope Francis says, and a forgetfulness of solidarity, lie at the root of the major social evils. The Church must propose all that supports human dignity and the common good.
Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’, Archbishop Gallagher said, was not simply an environmental treatise, as is often suggested. "The key word in the encyclical", he said, "is relationship". It is about people relating to one another and to Creation, he said, and the health of the one relationship is deeply bound up with the health of the other.
It is a flaw in contemporary culture that the individual is the "measure" of all things, he said, and "integral ecology is inseparable from the principle of the common good".
The problems of humanity "cannot be solved exclusively by politics and economics", Archbishop Gallagher pointed out. We all belong to the same human family and therefore a "culture of care is the path to follow". As Pope Francis said in Nairobi in November last year: "Nothing will happen without a culture of care in place of a culture of waste."