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Bishops: Middle East May Soon Be Empty of Christians

Chaldean Catholic leaders have said that Iraq's diminishing Christian population should be an "alarm bell" for the rest of the world and could foreshadow the transformation of the Middle East.

Chaldean Bishop Michel Kassarji of Beirut said at a conference that the Iraqi model of depleting Christians could extend to the whole of the region.

He said the mission of the conference was to "sound the alarm bell ... to avoid the transformation of the East into a desert of Christianity".

The bishop said "international religious authorities look at the Iraqi Christian situation as hopeless" and view Christians' departure "as something imminent and unavoidable".

"Our fellow Muslim brothers must be aware of these dangers and must take responsibility in turn. The Arab and Muslim countries have to make a serious move to stop the extermination of the Christian existence in Iraq," he said.

"Many Muslim officials have acknowledged that the persecution of Iraqi Christians is actually taking place and it is a practice that is foreign to Islamic traditions," Bishop Kassarji added.

Maronite Fr Walid Mousa, president of Notre Dame University, Louaize, which hosted the conference, told participants: "Christianity is not the one who invaded Iraq and led to the fall of Saddam Hussein. So why is it now a victim?"

The conference, under the patronage of Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, was organised by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Lebanon. About 400,000 Christians have fled Iraq since 2003 and about 300,000 remain. One bishop and three priests are among the 500 Christians who have been killed.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said the reasons Christians were fleeing Iraq were complicated.

"Tragic mistakes were committed in Iraq, which created huge chaos," he said.

"The occupation of Iraq by the Americans resulted in fatal mistakes, such as the dismantling of organisations, including the army and police forces, and the opening of borders without monitoring them."

In addition, neighbouring countries have had a direct influence on Iraq. Internally, political parties vying for power have taken advantage of minorities, the archbishop said. "Extremist Islamic rhetoric and the call for establishing a theocratic ruling system has played a huge part in the agony of Christians," he said.

"They [Christians] have been associated with the occupier without having any relation to it, or to the crusaders from whom they suffered. And they have been accused_of_blasphemy_and polytheism and are innocent of such accusations.

"The idea of emptying the East of Christians is a deadly sin."

"We need to reject all forms of oppression, suppression and terrorism in the name of religion, and the Church has a big responsibility for open and sincere dialogue with Muslim authorities," Archbishop Sako added, noting there is also a need for government institutions to help to protect minorities.

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