Nederland raakt ieder gevoel kwijt van de positieve betekenis die religie kan spelen in de samenleving; in een dergelijke omgeving kan je blijkbaar ook moeilijk solidariteit en betrokkenheid verwachten bij de kerken in het Midden-Oosten. Die conclusie trekt drs. Geert van Dartel, directeur van de Katholieke Vereniging voor Oecumene, in een lezing voor de Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Berlijn afgelopen weekend over christenen in het Midden-Oosten.
Geert van Dartel heeft in Duitsland een analyse gegeven van de campagne ‘Hoop voor de kerk in Syrië en Irak’, die de Raad van Kerken, MissieNederland en andere organisaties hebben gestart. Van Dartel stelt vast, dat de grote nationale kranten geen berichten meer opnemen over religie in Nederland en dus ook zwijgen over de campagne. Kerken acteren in de marges van de samenleving. De noodkreet van patriarch Sako die vroeg om aandacht en bescherming voor de kerk in het Midden-Oosten wordt gesmoord en dringt niet door in krantenkolommen die vol staan over Johan Cruijff, de vluchtelingenproblematiek en het referendum over Oekraïne.
Van Dartel ziet vijf obstakels in de Nederlandse samenleving: Het publiek heeft geen kennis meer van de geschiedenis van de kerken in het Midden-Oosten, men is er niet in geïnteresseerd, men wantrouwt de informatie als zou er hulp nodig zijn, men is oorlogsmoe en men heeft in het algemeen moeite met religie. Van Dartel: ‘Sommige politieke partijen proberen iedere verwijzing naar religie uit het publieke en politieke domein te verwijderen’.
Geert van Dartel kondigde aan dat zijn eigen organisatie binnenkort een tijdschrift over de campagne zal versturen naar alle parochies. Hij informeerde de bezoekers ook over de campagneweek die de EO begin mei voert om de thematiek onder de aandacht van een groter publiek te brengen. Van Dartel: ‘We hebben grote verhalen nodig van sterke persoonlijkheden die in het publiek de zaak van de christenen in het Midden-Oosten willen bepleiten’.
Hieronder het verhaal dat drs. Geert van Dartel in Berlijn heeft gehouden.
Hope for Christians in Syria and Iraq
How to reach public opinion and politics in the Netherlands?
A cry for help
“Stop this genocide before it is too late” was the alarming title above an interview with the Chaldean patriarch Louis Sako, made in Rome by Marta Petrosillo and published in the week of Easter. In this interview patriarch Sako gives a strong testimony of the faith in life stronger than death and hope. ‘We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair’ he quoted from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 4,8). He speaks about the Christians that two years ago were expelled from Mosul, about their hardships as refugees. He summons, though, no to forget the suffering of others, the 4.000 Sunnites that have been expelled and without housing as well as the victims of the terrorist-attacks in Brussels. In the middle of distress he tries to speak a word of hope rooted in his faith in the risen Lord. The second part of the interview deals with the responsibility of the international community. The international community should, because of its moral and historical responsibility for what happened in Iraq, find a way to build up peace in the Middle-East instead of contributing to the departure of people. They have to make it possible, says patriarch Sako that people can stay. ‘We have a right to be defended and protected.’ Although with hesitation and a certain distrust to the intentions to political powers he affirms the significance of the recent statement of US secretary of state, John Kerry, that IS is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities. This declaration can be a support as long as these statements are not made out of personal or political interests. ‘We beg you to do everything to end this genocide, before that it is too late’, says patriarch Sako to the Dutch audience.
It would be great that this interview would have been on national television or at least in the national newspapers. Then it would be noticed better and have more effect on public opinion and politicians. But that was not the case. The interview was translated and published in the Netherlands in a weekly magazine, the so called ‘Catholic Newspaper’ (Katholiek Nieuwsblad). This magazine has a strong Roman-Catholic profile and about 15.000 subscribers. It regularly and already for many years informs its readers on the developments of the Churches and Christian life in the Middle East.
Within this circle of this magazine a genuine interest in the situation of Christians in the Middle East does exist. But if you realize that Catholics in the Netherlands make up still 12% of the population according to the last research, that is about 2 million people, than you know that the voice of patriarch Sako had a very limited reach.
This is also true for the few Protestant newspapers (Reformatorisch Dagblad, Nederlands Dagblad) in the Netherlands. To give an idea about their publication policy on Christians in the Middle East: The Nederlands Dagblad published in the period of Lent every day a fact about the decline of the Christian Churches in Syria and Iraq together with a significant picture to attract the attention of the readers to the drama in Syria and Iraq. On their website they offer a dossier of articles on the Churches in the Middle East. The position of these Protestant newspapers is stronger than the Catholic newspaper because they publish on a daily basis and have respectively about 45.000 and 20.000 subscribers. Their basis is in the smaller Protestant churches. They represent together about 4,2 % of the Dutch population. Their communities are more resistant to the secularization process, and the younger generation is stronger represented than the bigger Protestant Church in the Netherlands (8,5 %) or the Roman Catholic Church (12%). But although their presence is stronger than that of their Catholic counterparts, nevertheless the impact of these media on public opinion is quite marginal.
The national media
For the bigger national newspapers counts that the link to a philosophy of life, religion let alone Church, has been given up almost entirely. In a way the daily newspaper Trouw with about 90.000 readers has still the image of a Christian newspaper, but at the same time it is often very critical to institutionalized forms of Christianity. The end of 2015 the EO, a Christian broadcaster, organized a week for the persecuted, with a special focus on the situation in Iraq. On national TV, radio, website and in their own publications they paid attention to the position of Christians.
Stories about the hardships and sufferings of Christians in Syria and Iraq are published incidentally, dependant of their news relevance in relation to our society. The brutal murder for example of the Dutch Jesuit Frans van der Lugt on April 7 2014 in the garden of the house of the Jesuits in Homs was an important news fact that was on the front-pages of many newspapers and broadcasted on television as well. However, the attention focussed on this very special person that lived in Syria for 34 years. He loved this country and its people so much that he refused to leave Homs and until the very end of his life he made an appeal for peace and religious tolerance in his second fatherland. Other examples that can be mentioned here are the stories of the kidnapping of the Jesuit Paulo Dall’Oglio and the Syrian Catholic priest Jacques Mourad (both members of the famous Mar Musa monastery near Nebek in Syria). The impressive statements of Jacques Mourad after his escape from Raqqa (October 2015) also went over the world. The media reported about the atrocities that have been committed against Christian communities by IS after 2013 like the conquest of Mosul in Iraq (June 2014) when thousands of Christians were expelled and fled to Erbil and the appalling persecution of Assyrian Christians in the Khabur region (North East Syria) in February 2015. But it were merely news reports that didn’t raise a general public or political indignation and awareness that this has to be stopped and can be stopped. At least not in public discussions.
The question we are dealing with is how to make the cry of Christians in the Middle East better heard and taken seriously in public discussions and especially among politicians of the leading political parties.
The situation is that there is on the one hand a clear commitment by specific, relatively small numbers of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants who with personal interest follow the developments in the Church in the Middle East. They support and donate for the work of organisations like Aid to the Church in Need and Open Doors who are advocates of persecuted Christians world-wide and especially in the Middle East. A week before Easter Aid to the Church in Need organised in Amsterdam a long and well attended prayer evening for the present martyrs of the Church. Next month Open Doors organises a Sunday for the persecuted church. Christians (mainly Orthodox) with roots in the Middle East of course are engaged and informed through contacts with family and friends.
This however occurs more or less at the margins of society. The majority of the Dutch population, including Christians, I am sorry to say, is not really committed to this need and cry for help of patriarch Sako. There are many other topics that attract more attention. The refugee crisis, the referendum on the treaty with Ukraine, the death of Johan Cruijff and of course daily economics and politics that always attract mass interest.
How then to raise public and political awareness in the Dutch society about the significance of Christian presence in the Middle East. I see four obstacles:
1. Unknown. Although all Churches and jurisdictions from those countries are already a long time part of our ecumenical reality, the public in the Netherlands is not informed about the spectrum and the history of Christian Churches in the Middle East in general and Syria and Iraq in particular. For many people it will be a surprise to discover that intellectuals from these countries are far more familiar with and at home in European history and civilisation than the other way around. I had to discover that myself when some years ago the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, the Dominican Thomas Mirkis, who lived for many years in Paris, visited the Netherlands to speak about the situation of the Church in Iraq. He is at home European history, culture, literature, philosophy and theology.
2. Not interested. The focus of our public and political interest is not on vanishing and persecuted Christian minorities in faraway countries, but on the threatening influx beyond control of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Eritrea. The deal with Turkey on the reversion of refugees that are now in Greece is made under the Dutch presidency of the European Union. This is today’s European policy and has the public support of the majority notwithstanding the dreadful and embarrassing pictures of refugees in Greece or Macedonia. The politicians are very much occupied with the stabilization of the European project that more and more becomes uncertain. How different the situation is now in comparison with 25 years ago, when the European Union still was an open project.
3. Distrust. Attempts by the Syriac Orthodox Church in the Netherlands during the last four or five years, supported by Dutch Churches and the Council of Churches, to ask for a special position for Christian refugees from Syria with family in the Netherlands, regarding asylum status and housing, were not granted by the Dutch government. No way there can be made a distinction on the basis of religion in the treatment of refugees. Mor Polycarpus, the archbischop of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the Netherlands, gave last week an extensive interview to an ecumenical magazine. Two things struck me in this interview: the very positive image of the Netherlands because of security, respect and freedom the Syriac Orthodox experience here (this is their homeland) and secondly the fear that obviously exists in this community for refugees from Syria and Iraq who are predominantly Muslim. They are afraid that problems and conflicts of the past surpass them.
4. What with religion? Our society has difficulties in handling religion and religious convictions in public life. Some political parties are trying to banish every reference to religion from the public and political domain. On the other hand, Islam (5%) is the most sensitive and unknown theme that easily can be politicised in a propagandistic and populist way. There is a big need for understanding Islam and real communication and exchange of thought. In our secularized and former Christian society it sometimes seems that it is easier to advocate for Yezidi’s instead of for Christians.
5. War fatique. With an ongoing war in Syria and Iraq, and continuing turmoil in the Middle East people may become tired of all the atrocities happening and without hope for an improvement. It is then easier to withdraw mentally and emotionally.
Hope for the Church in Syria and Iraq
Within the Council of Churches in the Netherlands the matter of the Christian presence in the Middle-East most frequently has been risen by the representatives of the Syriac Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches. Both Churches arose from immigration to the Netherlands since the Sixties and the Seventies of the last century and are well organised. It is at the incentive of the Syriac Orthodox representative that the Council of Churches with the support of the member Churches and in cooperation with other organisations like the Evangelical Alliance and Open Doors, launched a campaign “Hope for the Church in Syria and Iraq” at the beginning of February of this year. Churches and organisations decided to organise a coordinated campaign to inform the Dutch population on the hope and the need of Christians in Syria and Iraq. Publications, prayer, humanitarian actions, meetings and discussion with politicians should bring about a change in the public awareness. Christians in the Middle East have a right to exist and are important for the future of Syria and Iraq.
It sounds great but it is hard to realise in a way that it goes beyond the reach of our own circles. Decisive are the following factors:
– the way in which Churches themselves take up and promote this campaign
– the presence of the campaign in the national newspapers, on television and in other media,
– the interest of politicians and their parties in this campaign
– and the effect on public opinion.
Within the Churches at the level of the leadership, people are informed, engaged and prepared to help and support the Churches in the Middle East where they can. I know from my friends in the Protestant Church about their contacts with several partners in Syria and Lebanon and the projects of the Antiochian Orthodox Church they support. On the Catholic side the Dutch Bishops called upon the Catholics to donate for Syria, especially for Aleppo. First results are there. Thanks to a fund of the diocese of Rotterdam relations have been established with Caritas Syria in order to support their work (nutrition, education). With the help of other funds support was raised for a diocese of the Greek Catholic Melkite Church in southern Syria. Several organisations like Aid to the Church in Need and Open Doors, and also our Association offer documentation on their websites about the Churches in Syria and Iraq. So did the Christian newspapers I mentioned above. Next week we send a magazine about this campaign for Hope for the Church in Syria and Iraq to all Catholic parishes.
As for the broader presence of this campaign within the daily newspapers and other media one has to admit that this enterprise is not a success yet because it is almost fully absent. From the broadcasting companies in fact only the so called Evangelical Broadcasting Company (EO) took a serious interest and sent, during this week, a team to Erbil and Kirkuk in Iraq to report on the life of Christians there. Some days ago I read a story about the resilience of the people in Kirkuk that despite the hardships they went through manage to survive and start anew. Things are improving slightly there also thanks to the strong leadership of Archbishop Mirkis: housing, food, education, medical care etc. The same counts for Erbil where with help from the University of Leuven a Catholic University is organised. I hope very much that ordinary people in the Netherlands also see and hear these stories on television.
Politicians from the three Christian parties in the Dutch parliament were interested in a meeting with the organisers of this Hope-campaign. We spoke in the beginning of March with each other how to raise more awareness in Dutch politics, that the issue of Christian presence in the Middle East is relevant to all parties and not a hobby or group-interest of some Christian politicians. Their question to us was: provide us with relevant facts and figures about the situation of the Christian and other minorities in the Middle East and with recommendations of what should be done. It can help us to break through the isolation we find ourselves in when we address this issue. Social-democrats, liberals and democrats treat this issue as something that is a particular Christian cause that is not relevant for them. The resolution of the European Parliament on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by ‘ISIS/Daesh’ (2016/2529(RSP)) could create the momentum for a change in the perspective of Dutch politicians regarding this issue. Recommendations we spoke about are:
– humanitarian help should also be offered outside the regular refugee camps for people who do not dare to go to the UNHCR camps
– networks of Churches and Church-organisations should be used for the distribution of humanitarian help
– Christians and other minorities should participate in the official negotiations on peace and reconstruction
– suggestions for programmes for dialogue, citizenship, safe havens.
Before the start of this campaign we thought it would be important to investigate the knowledge and engagement people have with the situation of Christians in the Middle East. An extensive survey was developed that was spread through channels of Churches and organisations. Although I do not yet have the outcome of this survey it is very clear that the number of respondents is far behind expectation. With all our efforts perhaps only about 2.000 respondents filled out the questionnaire. Analysis of data is not yet available. At this moment it is hard to say what the effect of this effort on public opinion is. In fact needed are big stories and strong personalities who in public advocate the case of Christians in the Middle East. They have to stand up.
It is not easy to raise commitment and attention in the Netherlands for the Christians in despair in the Middle-East outside our own circles. Some of the reasons are that our Churches are shrinking rapidly and that we lack the capacity to be present in the public domain. Sometimes I think that we lose at all awareness about the positive meaning of religion in society. If that is so, how can you expect a solidarity and commitment from that society with the Churches in the Middle-East?
So the question how the cry for help from patriarch Sako can reach public opinion and politicians stays partly unanswered. The bottom line is do we care when ethnic or religious groups are persecuted and threatened with extinction?
A long time ago I answered that question for myself and try to live up to that. But I cannot answer for others. What I can do is to make the stories known, take part in discussions, organise support in the hope that other people will see and take a stand too.
Is the situation in my an country an exception? Is there more support for Christians in the Middle-East in other countries? I am eager to hear the experience of others in dealing with this.
Thank you for your attention.
Geert van Dartel