The impact of extremism on Christians in the Middle East was laid bare by a leading Vatican expert on Islam who appealed for action to safe-guard the Church’s continued presence in a region where its survival is under threat.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Fr. Samir Khalil Samir spelled out the problem of extremism – both in the Middle East and the West.
Focusing mostly on the Middle East, the Egyptian-born Jesuit based in Lebanon categorized countries in the region according to a sliding scale of anti-Christian oppression, with Saudi Arabia being the worst.
Fr. Samir, who is coordinating preparations for this autumn’s Middle East Synod of Bishops, in Rome, said, “Christians in Saudi Arabia cannot even gather in their houses to pray. This is the worst situation, where human rights are practically unknown.”
Underlining how in many parts of the Middle East Christians have dwindled to a tiny minority, he went on, “For many, the only solution is emigration – proselytism, announcing Christ to everybody, is forbidden. There is no equality.”
Fr. Samir described how starting at the end of the 1960s some Middle East countries, especially Saudi Arabia, took advantage of new-found oil wealth to bankroll militant Wahabi Islam, which, he said, has been spread far and wide, including to the West.
“They built mosques, mostly paid by Saudi Arabia but also Teheran, sending with the mosques preachers and imams, and they gave them this very narrow vision of Islam.”
Underlining a dramatic move towards Christian oppression dating back to the 1970s, Fr. Samir went on to stress the need for dialogue with Islam, underlining that the Middle East faithful played an indispensible role in this area.
He said, “The question is: ‘Who is able to dialogue with Islam?’ In fact, although the situation is hard for Arab Christians, the main people dialoguing with Muslims and bringing change are precisely the Arab Christians.
“We are involved in dialogue every day. We work together, we go to school together.”
The priest, who has established 20 schools and authored at least 40 books, underlined the need for joint projects with Muslims, aimed at breaking down ignorance and mistrust and promoting education.
Stating that Islam “is in crisis” amid growing insecurity among Muslims about the
relationship between faith and modernity, he nonetheless made clear that theological discussion was extremely difficult because of differing views on Jesus Christ and the Bible, as well as the Prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an.
Fr. Samir, who is a university professor in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Paris, as well as the Gregorian, in Rome, said, “We need your help – we need your spiritual help, your prayer to support people in a region where there is oppression. We need your support for projects which promote education and peace.”