2011/08/20

Arab Christians shake off fear at Catholic youth gathering

MADRID, August 20, 2011 (AFP) - Fade Sarkis, a Christian who fled Iraq after receiving death threats, says he has finally found a sense of safety in Roman Catholic youth festivities in Madrid.

"I am very, very happy here. I have never seen so many Christians in one place," he said as lounged on the grass of Madrid's central Retiro park surrounded by dozens of other pilgrims.

"It helps me feel more Christian, everyone here is Christian, I feel relaxed, I feel good," added the 23-year-old who moved to Paris from Mosul as a refugee two years ago after receiving several letters from Islamists warning that he would be shot because of his religious beliefs.

He is one of about 200 Iraqis who have come to Madrid for the six-day World Youth Day festival, which wraps up Sunday with a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI and is expected to draw around one million faithful.

Christians are a small and vulnerable minority in many Arab countries, except for in Lebanon where they make up about one-third of the population and wield political power.

And those from nations like Iraq where Christians routinely suffer attacks, or countries like Syria where there is a growing risk of violence against them, say taking part in the gathering helps ease feelings of isolation.

"Here we do not feel so alone," said Bassam al-Ahmad, a 21-year-old business administration student from Damascus as he left a mass held in Arabic Thursday at Madrid's San Jeronimo el Real church for pilgrims from the Middle East.

"Of course we are afraid. We see what is happening in countries around us and we fear that the same could happen in our land," added al-Ahmad, one of around 640 Syrians taking part in the festivities.

Syria's Christians fear their religious freedom could be threatened if President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic but secular rule is overthrown by the violent protests sweeping the country.

In Egypt, attacks against Christians have increased since a popular uprising overthrew strongman Hosni Mubarak in February.

Hundreds of faithful sang songs and waved flags from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan during the Arabic mass on Thursday, which was presided over by Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad.

"The situation is not good for all Iraqis, not only for Christians, because there is no peace. Because we are a minority it is worse for Christians because there are many fanatics that want to do bad things against us," he said.

Warduni’s Church of Our Lady of Sacred Heart in east Baghdad was itself hit by a suicide car bomb in July 2009 that killed four people and wounded 21.

He warned that the unprecedented pro-democracy uprisings sweeping through the Arab world could lead to more violence against Christians in the region by Islamic fundamentalists.

"For me it doesn't help, on the contrary it is very bad. The strong fanatics are becoming even stronger but we trust in God that he will do something to protect us," said Warduni, the second-most-senior Chaldean bishop in Iraq.

Iraq's Christian population has halved since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003 and now stands at around 400,000, he said.

Many Iraqi Christians have moved to parts of the country that are perceived to be safer.

Steven Jaleel Mansoor, a 22-year-old student, fled to the northern city of Mosul from Baghdad with his two sisters, his mother and his father last year seeking greater security.

"Iraq is dangerous because Muslims bomb Christians in Iraq, they don't want Christians in Iraq," said Mansoor, who is the only member of his family attended World Youth Day.

Some Iraqi Christians though said they saw improvements to their situation, despite the challenges that they face.

"We have Christian televisions stations, radio, newspapers. This is my first time at World Youth Day because during the Saddam era we could not get visas to travel," said Matti Ismael, 42, from the northern Iraqi town of Karemless.