Washington D.C., Nov 15, 2019 / 04:28 pm (CNA).- The U.S. bishops and the Knights of Columbus have professed their solidarity with the people of Iraq and Lebanon, telling the Catholic patriarchs of the region that they are praying and working for peace and security.
“The Catholic bishops of the United States and the Knights of Columbus stand in prayerful solidarity with you and your people at this difficult time,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services U.S.A., and Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said in a Nov. 13 letter.
Broglio signed the letter in his role as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace. Anderson heads the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world, with close to 2 million members worldwide.
“Today, in Lebanon and Iraq, we are witnessing critical moments as protests grow against corruption and foreign interference,” Anderson and Broglio’s letter said. “We pray that the effect of these protests will be a more just society for all the citizens of these two countries.”
Their Nov. 13 letter was addressed to the leading Catholic patriarchs of the region: Cardinal Bechara Rai, Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites and All the East; Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Primate of the Syriac Catholic Church; Patriarch Youssef Absi of Antioch of the Greek Melkites; Cardinal Louis Sako, Patriarch of Babylonia of the Chaldeans; and Gregory Petros XX Ghabroyan, Patriarch of Cilicia of the Armenian Catholic Church.
In their letter, Anderson and Broglio stressed the need for an outcome in Iraq and Lebanon that respects “the sovereignty and autonomy of these two countries.”
Protests in Iraq began in Baghdad Oct. 1 and have spread to the south of Iraq. They are dominated by young people who object to the poor response to government corruption and a lack of economic growth and proper public services. Protesters are calling for reform of the country’s sectarian power structure. They want the resignation of the Iraqi government, the Associated Press and Reuters have reported.
More than 300 Iraqis have been killed in clashes with security forces.
Anderson and Broglio’s letter cited Pope Francis. In the Oct. 30 Wednesday general audience, the pope called for the Iraqi government to “listen to the cry of the people who are asking for a dignified and peaceful life.”
On the matter of events in Lebanon, Anderson and Broglio acknowledged “growing instability” there but noted that the protests have generally not suffered from violent opposition.
They echoed the pope’s Oct. 27 Sunday Angelus address, in which he said that a resolution to the Lebanon crisis would work “for the benefit of the entire Middle East Region, which suffers so much.”
Protests in Lebanon began Oct. 17 after the government announced a new tax on internet-based calls made over WhatsApp. Lebanon has high levels of public debt and low employment. Protesters called for the removal of corrupt government officials.
Government riot police intervened after Hezbollah supporters attacked and injured non-sectarian protesters Oct. 24-25.
On Nov. 12 one protester, a supporter of Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, was shot dead in an altercation with soldiers. The soldier who fired on him has been detained.
Several leading politicians have warned that the protests are comparable to previous times of serious tension.
Lebanon’s caretaker defense minister Elias Bou Saab said the situation is “very dangerous,” Reuters reports. The unrest reminded him of the start of the country’s devastating civil war, which lasted from 1975-1990.
In their letter, Anderson and Broglio cited the words of Pope John Paul II: Lebanon “is more than a country, it is a message of freedom and example of pluralism for East and West.”
“We pray that peace and security may come to this region, and that those who have suffered so much may be able to rebuild their lives in an environment consistent with their rights to human dignity,” they added.
“We continue also to watch closely and with concern the situation in other countries in the region where so many have suffered from war and violence, and in the case of Christians, have been targeted often simply for professing their belief in Christ.”
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 destabilized the region and led to many Iraqis – Muslim, Christian and others – fleeing their country. A March 2011 revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad quickly drew support from the U.S. and regional powers, with Russia and others siding with Assad against the rebels. The resulting civil war, which is ongoing, has killed an estimated 400,000 people and forced millions to become internally displaced persons or refugees who fled abroad.
As of Oct. 31 there were about 1 million U.N.-registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon alone, a country of fewer than 6.9 million residents. Its political and social systems are a sometimes delicate, always complex balance of rival factions splitting the loyalties of Christians and both Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In 2014, the Knights of Columbus launched an advocacy campaign for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. The organization has given about $25 million to support persecuted religious minorities from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region.
The fraternal organization launched a successful effort to secure the U.S. State Department’s recognition of the Islamic State group’s crimes against Christians, Yazidis and others in Iraq and Syria as genocide. In 2016 the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution declaring that the Islamic State group had committed genocide. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry recognized the group’s actions as genocide as well.
Advocates of the official designation said it could aid investigation and indictment of those responsible for genocide and would emphasize the obligations of the U.S. government under international conventions against genocide.
In a separate Nov. 15 opinion essay at the New York Post, Anderson said that a mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East would be catastrophic.
“What happens in the next few weeks in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is crucial for Mideast Christians — and the stability and pluralism of these countries and the wider region,” he said.
While Christians made up about 20% of the population a century ago, they are now 5% or less, he said.
“In Iraq, protesters are demanding an end to sectarian government and equal citizenship for all regardless of ethnicity or religion,” he said, blaming protester deaths on “Iran-backed militias.”
“The future of the Iraqi state hangs in the balance,” he continued. “Either it will become more sectarian under the influence of its more powerful neighbors — or it will become the pluralistic country sought by thousands marching in the streets, including Christians.”
In Lebanon, Anderson said, Christians fear an economic collapse that could result in the fall of the largely Christian Lebanese Army, resulting in crisis and mass emigration.
“Many Christians persecuted elsewhere in the region have fled to Lebanon,” Anderson said. “If Lebanon were to lose its gift for pluralism, that could spell the end of the concept in the rest of the region.”
Anderson also objected to incursions from Turkey in northeastern Syria.
He said the U.S. must play a “decisive” diplomatic role and must make the wellbeing and physical security of Christian communities in the Middle East “a permanent agenda item in all U.S. aid and military assistance discussions with regional governments.”