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May 4 2015 | BARI, ITALY

Press release

Christians in the Middle East, Sant'Egidio: the "Table of Bari" is created to pass from the cry of alarm to the proposal

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 BARI - Designed as a first opportunity to meet and exchange ideas between all Christian churches in the Middle East, with the politicians and diplomats who wish to address the dramatic problems of this martyred region of the world, the first Inter-Christian summit organised by the Community of Sant'Egidio and by the diocese of Bari has ended with an ambitious proposal on which a first considerable consensus has been reached: the birth of what has been called the "table of Bari", an original formula of dialogue between personalities involved in various capacities in the tangled skein of Middle East and "privileged partner" of all small, medium and major powers involved in the issue. And again: to develop concrete proposals of solution for the most difficult situations, starting from Syria, prey for four years to ruthless civil war that has killed tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons". "Maybe - said the founder of Sant'Egidio Andrea Riccardi, at the conclusion of the conference - we could go on with the table of Bari creating an operational problematic link". Here is the path outlined by the "table of Bari": "To pass from the alarm to the proposal, and then to its spread and to the moral and political commitment so that it is accepted". And this process will include even plans for some "safe havens", safe places for Christians and other minorities in the areas of the region such as the plain of Nineveh in Iraq, and the response to the "Save Aleppo" appeal, launched in June 2014 by Andrea Riccardi himself.

 This idea was emphasised, in the middle of the work of the second day of the summit, by the president of the Community of Sant'Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, who underlined that the Colloquium on the future of Christians in the Middle East - the day when the Christian Patriarchs and mons. Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican secretary for relations with States, talked to the Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni and diplomats representing the major Western powers (the US, Russia, France, Germany, UK, Greece) - turned into a large assembly capable of working on unitary proposals: "A big sounding board to break the barrier of European and western indifference in the face of so much suffering and to say that only the end of the war and the establishment of a lasting peace will ensure in the future a free and serene presence of Christians in the Middle East". And of "dramatic ethnic cleansing in entire regions, which perhaps has no parallel in history and is almost the end of history" spoke the founder of Sant'Egidio, Andrea Riccardi, who added: "A world is disappearing: it is a tragedy for Christians, a vacuum for Muslim societies, a loss for the balance of the Mediterranean and for civilisation".

 The leaders of the Christian Churches of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Cyprus, Egypt, and the Custos of the Holy Land Pierbattista Pizzaballa, intervened in a rich and detailed debate, albeit with different accents, they insisted on very similar concepts, becoming advocates of a population exhausted by war, weakened by discrimination, abandoned by the West, at risk of extinction as a community identified by a culture and a religion. The request to the Community of Sant'Egidio to "accompany" the Eastern patriarchs at the Western powers to make their voices reach the highest levels, was made in particular by the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Gregorio III Laham, who called for "an ecumenical initiative of all Churches, able to work out a common peace plan to bring to the table of the great powers", and the Archbishop of Iraq Yousif Mirkis, of the Patriarchate of Babylon of the Chaldeans who, after defining as "a shame" the insensitivity of Europe with regard to the Middle East drama, launched his proposal: "I ask Sant'Egidio to escort us all the Patriarchs in the four major world capitals: Washington, Moscow, Brussels and New York, the United Nations Headquarters to ask to stop the so-called political Islam, which is the source of the plight of Christians and, more in general, of the religious minorities also Muslim". In turn, the Archbishop of Cyprus Chrysostomos II denounced the "Pilate immobility of the powerful of the earth and of the United Nations, which have also been founded in the name of peace".

 Other voices were raised to denounce the plight of the people. The Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch Ignatius Aphrem II wondered if we have to wait again a hundred years, as after the genocide of Armenians, "so that the world reacts and ceases to wash its hands with the blood of our people", and he added controversially: "Will there be a future for Christians in the Holy Land and in the Middle East? Without peace no, but without peace there will be no future for all humanity".

 The condition of the Coptic Christians of Egypt, described by the patriarch of Alexandria Isaac Sidrak, is relatively peaceful while "the whole of the Middle East, said the Syrian Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Ignace Youssif III Younan,"was recently swallowed by a spiral of unprecedented violence, a real nightmare that seems to have no end".

 The answers to this rosary of complaints and alarms came from diplomacy, beginning with the Vatican one. Mons. Gallagher recalled that the Holy See "follows with deep concern the situation of Christians in the Middle East, with particular attention and respect for the life and the suffering of all religious minorities". It is necessary, he added, "to awaken the conscience of the international community because there are fundamental principles at stake, as the value of life, of human dignity and of civil coexistence". Among the key aspects of the situation, he cited: to stop the exodus and "ensure security conditions to the Christians that choose to stay and that have to be protected", to help Muslim-majority countries to "address the problem of fanaticism, to dissolve the node of the relationship between religion and State, as the inseparable link between religion and politics and the lack of distinction between the religious and the civil spheres makes life difficult for Christians".

  In turn, the Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni acknowledged that "Europe is sick of selfishness, laziness and indifference: we often look elsewhere, we also did so even before the massacres of Muslims in Europe, as in Srebrenica; we do it now before the martyrdom of Christians in the East, which challenges our very roots". Thus, "we have to combat the pedagogy of hate, to speak with intransigence against the sloth and indifference that pollute our culture. Justice requires frankness, the courage of truth" and yet often we are prisoners of our egoism, of our illusions". To the most serious crises, it is necessary " to respond with concrete actions of culture and diplomacy", and Gentiloni cited the proposal of a "freeze" plan to save Aleppo: "that of Sant'Egidio, taken by the United Nations, he said, it is perhaps the only option on the table, a difficult goal to achieve but necessary to reduce the level of violence in which we must engage Russia".

  The issue of the protection for Christians in the Middle East is one of the priorities that emerged from the Colloquium. It must, said Andrea Riccardi, "become part of the action of governments". The goal is to create truce areas in Syria, like Aleppo, to help especially Lebanon, to achieve more effective humanitarian interventions". In turn, responding to a specific question from a journalist on the opportunity of the presence of the forces of peace in the areas most at risk, Marco Impagliazzo said: "I think the most useful model is that experienced in Lebanon, where UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force under Italian flag and under UN guarantees peace and could be a model accepted by all because it responds to the logic of international law. What is missing today are international police operations: there is not a structure that guarantees a model of international police that intervenes in emergency situations. We urge the United Nations to identify legal models to arrive at this result".

  Finally, the conclusions of Andrea Riccardi at the end of the work, on some of the issues raised in the debate: "Do not just ask the Christians to stay, we must ensure that they can stay safe". The Community of Sant'Egidio has launched an appeal for Aleppo and other "safe havens" for Christians and minorities; an appeal "that few have taken up", denounced Riccardi: "Support it!". As for what Sant'Egidio can do: "We stand ready, honestly, intelligently, openly, with no hidden agendas and no ideas of hegemony. Help us to help you!"

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