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Middle East, Holy Land Christians Are Suffering Most

Minority religious groups face the reality of targeted violence against them in the region

The leader of the Maronite Catholic Church has said that Christians are suffering the most from the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï said that the situation in the Middle East is worsening, and that 'whenever a conflict breaks out in the Middle East, whenever chaos ensues, Muslim groups attack the minority Christian community, as if they were always the scapegoat.'

The patriarch, whose church is in full communion with the Vatican, said Christians were 'paying the price' of outside interference in both Egypt (above, Egyptian soldiers stand guard at an entrance to Tahrir Square in Cairo) and Syria.

"I have written to the Holy Father twice to describe what is happening. I appeal again to the Holy Father, who only talks about peace and reconciliation," said the Maronite leader, who was made a cardinal in 2012.

He also accused the international community of 'total silence' over Iraq, where he said 1.5 million Christians had fled in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall.

Holy Land custodian

The cardinal's concerns were echoed by Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, the custos of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, who said that religion is being attacked by parties in several conflicts.

He believes Christians are facing the spectre and often the reality of targeted violence against them.

"What I see is a kind of instrumentalisation or manipulation of religions," he said. "Of course there are problems, but there [is] also great peaceful coexistence among [different religious groups]."

Fr Pizzaballa also said the words and example of Pope Francis in favour of peace and concord among people across religious lines have been well-received.

"We need to stress, following his example peaceful coexistence and the need of dialogue among all of us," he said.

Rabbi's view

Closer to home, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East was also raised this week by Lord Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom

"I think this is a human tragedy that is going almost unremarked. I don't know what the name for this is, it is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing," he said. "We are seeing Christians in Syria in great danger, we are seeing the burning of Coptic churches in Egypt. There is a large Coptic population in Egypt and for some years now it has been living in fear. Two years ago the last church in Afghanistan was destroyed, certainly closed. There are no churches left in Afghanistan. "

Lord Sachs said as a Jew he felt sorrow at this 'very deeply and personally.'

"I think sometimes Jews feel very puzzled that Christians do not protest this more vociferously," he added

"Between half a million and a million Christians have left Iraq. At the beginning of the 19th century Christians represented 20 per cent of the population of the Arab world, today two per cent.

"This is a story that is crying out for a public voice, and I have not heard an adequate public voice."

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