Christians under Threat

By Adely, Hannan | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), September 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Christians under Threat


Adely, Hannan, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


The patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, a cleric who formerly lived in Teaneck, recalled his visit recently to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where thousands of Christians have fled for their lives. A young boy in a crowded church threw up his arms and said to the patriarch: "We have no place. We have no space."

He meant a real, physical place for Christians like him and his family, who were expelled from ancient Christian towns in Syria and Iraq. But Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II said he also understood his words to mean a place in the culture, religion and life of the Middle East.

"Their existence is threatened," Aphrem said during an interview last week at St. Mark's Cathedral in Teaneck, where he served for 18 years until his election as Antiochan patriarch last spring. "This has been their home for 2,000 years, and thousands of years before that they were indigenous to the area. There's a real threat that they'll be driven out of the Middle East and there won't be Christians anymore in the area where Christ was born."

About 13 million Christians remain in the Middle East, and make up about 4 percent of the region's population, according to a 2010 Pew Forum report. That population could continue to decline amid rising religious tension and war in the region. Khalaf said the people should be concerned because the loss of Christians would hurt the entire region.

Aphrem and other Middle Eastern Christian leaders joined the In Defense of Christians summit in Washington, D.C., this month and met with top officials, including President Obama, to call for international help to protect Christians and save their communities from extinction.

The message resonates with Arab-Americans -- about two-thirds of whom are Christian -- who worry that their religion is being wiped from swaths of the Middle East. They are calling for understanding and protection to ensure safety for their families still in the region and a place for the world's oldest Christian communities.

Came to U.S. in 1800s

For Middle Eastern Christians, roots are a deep source of pride. Their ancestors were among the first Christians who built the early church, and Sunday services are steeped in ancient Christian ritual and ceremony. Some, including members of St. Mark's in Teaneck still worship in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke.

"The bottom line is this is where God chose to reveal his word," said Samer Khalaf, a Paramus resident who worships at St. Mark's. "It was to us. For us to leave that foothold in the Holy Land, I think it diminishes the entire Christian community. Period."

Arab Christians first came in large numbers to the United States in the late 1800s, mostly from what is now Syria and Lebanon, and many settled in Paterson. They include Christians who are Maronite, Coptic, Melkite, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Many more left the Middle East in recent decades because of warfare, economic problems, territorial strife in Israel and rising religious tensions.

The plight of Christians was thrust into headlines in recent months after they were attacked this summer in their towns and villages in Syria and Iraq. Fighters from the radical group Islamic State destroyed churches, monasteries and religious statues and demanded that people convert, pay a tax or die. They terrorized Christians, Shiite Muslims and other religious minorities with executions and beheadings. …

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