Lebanon's Christian leaders strongly denounced Tuesday the bloody terror attack on an Iraqi church in which 52 people were killed, echoing calls from across the country's sectarian spectrum which emerged following the atrocity.
A further 67 people were wounded after gunmen from the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliated organization, stormed Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church during Sunday Mass, taking some 100 people hostage and leaving the future of the country's Christians in further doubt.
"Our numbers may be small but we sacrifice a lot," said Béchara Rai, the Maronite bishop of Jbeil. "[We have to ask] how much can we sacrifice and how long for?"
Calling on the Christian community to endure all hardship as a means of true salvation, Rai expressed solidarity with the Iraqi people and urged them not to let the incident diminish their faith.
The incident has terrified people and may scare them into not going to church and could lead to them losing their sense of community and identity out of fear, he said.
"We must act together to stop this from happening."
The number of Iraqi Christians has shriveled from over 1.5 million before the first Gulf war to only some 500,000 today, with 300,000 plus thought to have left since the 2003 US-led invasion and the subsequent rise in sectarian and religious violence.
Their falling numbers are mirrored by those across the Middle East which have experienced mass Christian immigration spurred by increased instability, religious persecution and economic underdevelopment. According to the Vatican, only some 20 million -- including Lebanon's estimated 1.5 million -- are now thought to be left in a region of 356 million people.
The issue dominated last month's Middle East Synod, which saw 200 bishops from otherwise Muslim countries, gather in Rome to discuss issues facing local congregations of the 22 Eastern Churches.
The two-week meeting ended with the pope calling for an end to Israeli occupation of Arab lands, increased cross-communal dialogue and for co-religious harmony to prevail.
"In the pastoral level the church has agreed to organize its institutions to help Christians to stick to their religious identity," Rai, who recently returned from the Synod, told The Daily Star.
"Their mission in the Middle East is to shine light on the word of God, and their historic roots in contributing to the social, cultural and economic development of their countries," he added. "We urge for dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews in order to work together for peace, unity and for the fundamental respect for the dignity and rights of all human beings."
Governments must do more to protect the rights of their Christian citizens and improve the economic and security situations which can disproportionally target religious minorities, he said.
The Islamic State of Iraq has vowed to continue its attacks, and is allegedly targeting Egypt's Coptic minority for its supposed mistreatment of Christian women who convert to Islam, while a succession of bomb blasts once again rocked Iraq Tuesday evening, raising additional questions about the security services' ability to cope.
"We urge authorities in the Arab world to address terrorism on their territories because fundamentalist groups are tarnishing the image of Muslims," said Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church Gregorios III. "These groups are the enemies of Muslims and Christians and they are the enemies of these religions' values and faith."
The patriarch has addressed a letter to all Arab heads of state calling for them to guarantee religious freedom and to improve religious dialogue across the region. Despite major restrictions freedom of worship is officially allowed in all Arab countries, except Saudi Arabia which only permits Islam to be practiced on its territories.
By Simona Sikimic
Daily Star, Lebanon