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Vatican Bishops Ponder Middle East Christians


Vatican bishops are going into the second week of a synod to discuss the future of Christians in the Middle East, amid scattered persecution and an ongoing exodus from the region.

The Sunday service at the old Anglican church in Cairo's Garden City was sparsely attended. Sunday is not an official holiday in Egypt and many Christians cannot take time off from their jobs to attend church. Some churches in the Middle East hold worship services on Friday, the Muslim sabbath, instead.

As a Vatican synod enters a second week of deliberations over the thinning ranks of Christians in the Middle East, many Christians say life for them in a Muslim environment is becoming more difficult.

Theologian Paul Haidostian, president of Haigazian University in Beirut, says Christians tend to leave the Middle East, especially in times of political turbulence and war. "Minorities in general, and in this case Christians, always pay a certain price any time there is instability or there are wars - even when the wars are not religious and are not against any Christian. So they look for better ways of living elsewhere, thinking that new countries, other countries will provide safety," he said.

Since the end of Lebanon's civil war two decades ago, large numbers of Christians have emigrated to the West.

A young man who lives in Beirut's largely Muslim Hamra district, Ziyad Hajjar, says being a Christian in the predominantly Muslim Middle East, is not an enviable position.

"[Muslim] people have the power here in the Middle East and we cannot say anything. We cannot talk about our religion because here it is dangerous. Here, [Muslims] can easily make problems for you if they found out you are Christian."

In Cairo, Samir, a Christian refugee from Sudan, says that Christians are persecuted in Egypt and in his homeland.

He said it is difficult for a Christian to find work because many fields are closed to them. Samir complains that people tell him and other Christians that they will not get jobs if they are not Muslim. He adds that the situation is similar in the Sudan and that Christians often are told they have the choice of converting to Islam or dying of starvation.

Samir says that many families face the stark choice of sending their children to Islamic schools or not sending them to school at all. "Many Christian families," he says, "are thinking of leaving because they do not want to send their children to an Islamic school."

Samir says the worst form of persecution is the killing of converts to Christianity. Some Christians, like himself, have converted to Christianity, but they face an uncertain fate. "Islam forbids conversion," he notes, "and they often kill apostates.

Despite the slow exodus of Christians from the Middle East, Paul Haidostian of Haigazian University says he is optimistic. "As a Christian, I do not want to connect everything with numbers. Human beings are not static; they are dynamic. They have mobility of various sorts and I think we always have to find genuine ways of being effective, positive witnesses of our faith, with whatever numbers we are," he said.

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