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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: The struggle of Christian communities in the Middle East: an interview with Bishop Ghattas Hazim

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 12 July 2016
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016 - Case study: The struggle of Christian communities in the Middle East: an interview with Bishop Ghattas Hazim, 12 July 2016, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/57960802c.html [accessed 25 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

By Joana Dabaj

Ghattas Hazim, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Baghdad, Kuwait and their dependencies, plays an important role in supporting Christian communities across the Persian Gulf (also known as the Arabian Gulf ). Extending across Iraq, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia, the Orthodox presence was originally established in 1961. Today, however, the difficulties facing Christians in the region are increasingly acute, even in areas where they have long lived in relative stability. Hazim's own home city of Mhardeh in northern Syria, where for centuries tens of thousands of Christians resided, is now at the centre of the Syrian civil war.

Supporting the existence of Christian minorities in the Gulf region is no easy task, particularly with the rise of militant groups such as ISIS. According to the Bishop, more than 90 per cent of Orthodox Christians in Iraq have been displaced, leaving a much reduced community to maintain their historic presence and rich cultural traditions in the country. But the pressures facing Christian communities in Iraq are echoed in other countries too, and the recent rise of extremism is not the only challenge they face.

In Iraq, the Orthodox Church is allowed to own land, but in other Gulf countries it is denied property rights and its presence is dependent on the continued allowance of the state. As Hazim highlights, 'Our churches in the Gulf are not owned by us. As a result we are at the mercy of the landlord, since there are no rights for us to buy in our names.' Furthermore, the Orthodox Church is largely dependent financially on personal donations, and in some areas this source of revenue is increasingly under threat. The lack of fixed legal status for many Christians in the Gulf, such as migrant workers, reinforces the feeling of being a nomad even in one's country of residence. 'Everyone', says Hazim, 'feels they are in a transitory state and may have to move on at any moment.'

Despite the significant cultural contribution Christians have made in the region, Hazim now sees the Christian presence under threat as external migration, much of it forced, has increased. 'We feel there is a project to empty the Middle East of Christian people,' he says, arguing that certain groups are actively attempting to trigger population movements. To halt this, governments in the region must first of all support the agreement of a ceasefire in Syria to halt the violence. Providing adequate humanitarian assistance to those displaced by conflict is also essential in ensuring their survival and the eventual possibility of return. 'The current situation of families who fled their homes – our responsibility lies with providing them with shelter, food, water and medication. The needs are very high and we need to mobilize all organizations, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and CBOs [community groups] to join these efforts.'

While forced migration is displacing whole communities, the physical destruction of churches, monasteries and shrines by extremists is destroying evidence of their long history in these countries. From Mosul and Nineva in Iraq to Aleppo and Damascus in Syria, the devastation of their unique Christian heritage is designed to permanently erase the identities of these communities. As Hazim highlights, the speed and scale of this assault means that Christians, like other threatened religious minorities in the region, need the full support of governments and the international communities. 'What is needed,' he concludes, 'is far greater than what we could ever provide.' This article is based on an interview with Bishop Ghattas Hazim, conducted in January 2016 and translated from Arabic to English.

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