Carl Hétu, Canadian national director of CNEWA (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) – an organization that is devoted to working with the poor and marginalized through the local Church – shares his insights below on the current realities in the Middle East.
What is the current situation for Christians in the Middle East?
Daily life for Christians in the Middle East has been difficult. Things took a turn for the worse in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq by the U.S., Great Britain and their allies. Iraq spiraled into internal tribal conflict and anarchy. Christians were stuck in the middle – often being victims of threats, kidnapping, torture and assassination. As a result, approximately 1.2 million Christians were forced to leave the country since 2003. Some 250,000 Christians remain in Iraq today. The unresolved Israel-Palestinian conflict has also caused economic and political hardships. Only 55,000 and 1,100 Christians remain in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. In Syria, the civil war has practically destroyed the country. Christians have certainly not been spared from the violence. The Christian population has gone down to 1 million from 2 million since 2011. More are fleeing. In Egypt, attacks on Christians are common. We believe that some 400,000 have left the country in the last seven years. Christians live in greater security in Jordan and Israel; but there has been a recent rise in internal tensions.
An Iraqi father at the Saint Anthony Community Health Centre in Lebanon, supported by CNEWA, which Hétu visited on a trip to Lebanon last spring.
How does your most recent trip to Lebanon in April compare to your last visit to the region?
The Lebanese people seem anxious, tired and increasingly frustrated. The population of Lebanon is 4 million. There are more than 1.3 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, plus 500,000 Palestinian refugees, in the country. The impact on the local economy and social services is overwhelming. Local aid organizations are exhausted and lacking in resources to support refugees but also there is an increasing number of Lebanese people who are getting poorer, losing their jobs and in need of support. It's a very alarming and potentially volatile situation.
How does CNEWA Canada plan to use Canadian donations to help affected Christians?
CNEWA is blessed to have three offices in the region and some 30 devoted staff who work with the local churches on a daily basis to tend to the many social service-related and spiritual needs of the local populations. This is our strength and, through them, we can ensure that funds are used wisely and effectively.
Is there anything else that you feel it's important for Canadian Catholics to know about the realities on the ground faced by Christians in the Middle East?
Some people wonder why it's important to support Christians in the region. The reason is simple: wherever the Church exists you will find people working to build up the kingdom of God on earth. When Christians are forced to flee, or weakened in their vocation, the local community tends to experience a reduction in social services and, oftentimes, instability. As religious freedom is threatened across the globe, Christians in Canada need to keep watch on events in the Middle East. What happens there is not isolated to their region. Helping Christians in the Middle East also strengthens our own faith and determination to live in a better world with peace for all.
For more information on CNEWA's year-long campaign to raise awareness on the struggle of Christians living in the Middle East, or to support CNEWA's work, please visit http://bit.ly/CNEWAMiddleEastDonations.