Vatican sources suggest that the meeting between President George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on June 9th was polite but there were serious disagreements over US foreign policy. Benedict has said that there is "nothing positive" coming out of Iraq and has called for an end to the "continual slaughter." In a private thirty-five minute meeting that followed after the largely symbolic public ceremony and photo op, Benedict reportedly demanded US action to protect the dwindling Chaldean Catholic community in Iraq. President Bush informed the Pope that he would take steps to have the "Iraqi people live up to their constitution," which guarantees religious freedom. As Bush was clearly promising absolutely nothing, Benedict reportedly found the response to be inadequate and apparently implied as much to the President. Benedict also asked Bush to take genuine steps to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to continue negotiations with Iran to avoid a possible second war in the Persian Gulf region. Bush, who repeatedly called the Pope "sir" rather than "Your Holiness" and sat across from him with his legs crossed "Texas style," described the meeting with Benedict as a "moving experience."
Benedict expressed particular concern for the plight of the Chaldeans, who are descended from the Assyrians and represent one of the world's oldest Christian denominations. Chaldeans are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to 2003, they numbered two-thirds of the nearly one million Christians living in Iraq and were able to practice their religion and engage in businesses forbidden to Muslims under the protection afforded by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Since that time, they have been systematically persecuted and between half and two-thirds of them have fled, primarily to Europe because the United States has refused to permit large scale entry of Iraqi refugees. Many have wound up in neighboring Syria, which has its own sizable Christian community that is generally tolerated and protected by the authorities.
Iraqi Churches have been torched, worshipers murdered, and a local perception that Christians have more money than Muslims has meant that a disproportionate number of Christians become kidnapping victims. Some Muslim militias have reportedly demanded "infidel taxes" from local Christians and have killed or beaten those who object. In recent incidents, a Chaldean priest and three church deacons were murdered in Mosul in northern Iraq while another priest and five parishioners have been kidnapped in Baghdad and are believed to be dead. Many Christian homes and businesses, particularly those that sell alcohol, have been burned.
Pope Benedict knows, even if the President of the United States does not, that the policies embraced by the White House are rapidly turning the Holy Land into a Christian free zone, and not just in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq and the US failure to support justice for the Palestinians have destabilized the entire region and have unleashed forces that have particularly damaged the Christian minority. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in as a consequence of Iraq and the relentless pressure being exerted by newly empowered Islamist supported governments to introduce legislation more reflective of the religious law or Sharia have constituted the dark side of the pressure for democratization. The green light given to the Israeli authorities in the name of security to dismantle longstanding Arab Christian communities coupled with constant harassment and discriminatory policies have brought genuine economic hardship that has reduced the percentage of Palestinian Christians from 20% of the Arab population under the British mandate to 2% currently.
In many countries, a combination of factors has shredded the sense of security that many Christians once enjoyed. The numbers speak for themselves. In war shattered Lebanon, where half the population was Christian as recently as 1968, the percentage is now less than 35% and declining. In Egypt, Coptic Christians were 13% of the population in 1950 and held many senior government positions. Now they number half that and de facto are not allowed to participate in politics. According to the only reliable census of the Near East, carried out under Ottoman rule in 1914, 24% of the population from Turkey down to Egypt was Christian. Now it is less than 5%.
The emigration statistics from throughout the region reveal that Arab Christians have in at least one sense benefited from being a privileged minority, with some unfortunate consequences. There was a large diaspora of Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians starting at the turn of the twentieth century and continuing until the 1920s. Many migrated to the Americas and Australia. Two thirds of those who left were Christians and, since that time, they have benefited from family reunification immigration laws that have enabled them to flee their native lands to escape economic and political upheaval. This has made it possible for Christians to move elsewhere much more readily than their Muslim neighbors, a benefit when fleeing turmoil, but a liability when it comes to maintaining ancient traditional communities.
The plight of Christians in the Holy Land is largely unnoticed in the United States. Evangelicals, a core support group for President Bush, are curiously indifferent to the fate of their co-religionists in the Middle East and rarely comment on the treatment of the Christian minorities. Fervent supporters of Israel and of war in the Middle East in general because they wish to hasten the second coming of Christ and experience the rapture that will sweep them up to heaven, many have been identified as Armageddonists because they look forward to the scriptural final battle that will end the physical world at Armageddon. They have joined forces with the neoconservative supporters of Israel who are quick to report anti-Christian incidents, blaming the flight of the Christians from the Holy Land on Muslim fanaticism alone. This interpretation fits in neatly with the convenient theory that Islamofascists are responsible for all the region's ills.
As in any conflict, it is sometimes difficult assign blame, but while it is clear that the Iraqi Christians are fleeing for their lives, Israel's Christians are being encouraged to leave in a more subtle way. Opinion polls suggest that while Palestinian Christians are concerned about the increasing Islamization of the Palestinian Authority's government, they tend to get along well with their Muslim neighbors and blame most of the emigration by their co-religionists on the discrimination and regular harassment by the Israeli government. Arab Human Rights groups report that the Israeli authorities have denied Christians access to holy places, prevented repairs on churches and schools, and have tolerated attacks on religious leaders. The security wall being constructed largely on Palestinian land has divided traditional communities, cut off farmers from their fields and water supplies, and destroyed religious property. In a notorious incident in 2004, the Armenian Bishop Nourhan Magnougian was spat upon during a religious procession by an ultra orthodox Jew and had his crucifix torn off of him. He was subsequently arrested when he slapped the perpetrator. According to Christian clergy in Jerusalem's Old City, being spat on or physically attacked by ultra-orthodox Jews is a regular occurrence and the Israeli authorities decry it but do nothing to stop it.
In February 2006 columnist Robert Novak reported that Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois, a consistent supporter of Israel, wrote a letter to President George W. Bush criticizing the Israeli settlement policies that are "irreversibly damaging the dwindling Christian community." According to Novak, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the Washington Archdiocese reportedly made the same point when he met privately with Bush early in 2006. It should be assumed that Bush responded to both Hyde and McCarrick, but what he said has not been made public and he certainly has taken no effective steps to stop Israeli settlements and security barriers. The Israeli lobby immediately struck back at Hyde and McCarrick when Congressmen Joseph Crauley of New York and Michael McCaul of Texas subsequently introduced a resolution blaming all of the persecution directed against Arab Christians on the Palestinian Authority alone. As always, ignorance in Congress is no impediment to taking legislative action.