VILLANOVA, Pa. – Day after day, haunting images of abject human misery pour out from Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and numerous other Middle Eastern towns and cities—each more heartrending than the last. Sectarian violence, escalated by extremist groups like Isis, threatens the very existence of religious minorities, especially those steeped in Christian heritage and tradition. On Dec. 5-6 Villanova University will convene a conference attended by international scholars, government officials, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to raise awareness and seek solutions that will protect and preserve the human and civil rights of religious minorities in this fragile region.
Titled “Christians in the Contemporary Middle East: Religious Minorities and the Struggle for Secular Nationalism and Citizenship,” the conference will be held in the Villanova Room of the Connelly Center on the University’s Main Campus. The event is free and open to the public, with advance registration required.
“We—Christians and Muslims—share in a unique heritage in a civilization that we have both enriched by bringing to it our own contribution. Christians and Muslims are not in conflict, but actually share a common history and existence that is now threatened,” said the Rev. Kail Ellis, OSA, PhD, Special Assistant to the President and Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. “It is especially appropriate for Villanova, a Catholic university in the Augustinian tradition, to host a conference that explores in some detail the history of the Christian presence in the Middle East.”
He added, “It is important to bring together thought leaders to engage in dialogue as we seek practical solutions that will advance the quest for equality and justice, not only for Christians and other minorities, but for all communities in the Middle East.”
The goal of the conference is to examine the forces that have shaped and perpetuated the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in order to develop strategies capable of combating the ongoing violation of human rights.
Some of the subjects that will be explored during the conference include: reasons for the decline in pluralistic spaces in the Middle East; the historic role of Christian intellectuals, their contributions to Arab politics and the promotion of religious freedom; prospects for securing the equality of citizens, given current interpretations of Islamic law that tend to segregate and marginalize; strategies to combat the persecution of minority and religious communities, enabling them to remain in their homelands; geopolitical and regional tensions that threaten the presence of Christians and other vulnerable communities in the Middle East; the conflicting objectives of Russia, the United States and their allies; and the impact of the Shia-Sunni conflict on the status of Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in the region.
The keynote speaker is Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, U.S. Department of State. Thames will speak about “U.S. and International Efforts to Address the Situation of Religious Minorities in the Middle East.”
Other conference presenters include:
- Anthony Zinni, United States Marine Corps General (Ret.), former Commander in Chief of the U.S. Central Command; Special Envoy for the U.S. to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and former head of the Central Command
- Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress;
- Rami Khouri, Senior Public Policy Fellow, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut;
- Tarek Mitri, Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy & International Affairs, American University of Beirut, Lebanon;
- Sami El-Yousef, Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, CNEWA – Pontifical Mission, Jerusalem;
- Dr. Bernard Sabella, Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, representing Jerusalem;
- Sidney Griffith, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, The Catholic University of America;
- Fateh Azzam, Former Founding Director, Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, American University of Beirut;
- Alon Ben-Meir, Professor and Senior Fellow, New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute
- Elizabeth H. Prodromou, Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution, The Fletcher School for Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University.
- Ussama Makdisi, Professor of History, Arab-American Educational Chair of Arab Studies, Rice University.
Moderators at these sessions include Hibba Abugideiri, Center for Arab & Islamic Studies, Villanova University and Nabeel Haidar, American University of Science and Technology, Beirut. Fr. Ellis will moderate an open discussion with panelists and a question and answer session that will address ideas for increasing national and international support and awareness of the challenges facing Christian and other minority communities of the Middle East. A full listing of the program sessions titles and descriptions is listed on the website.
Also, held in conjunction with the conference will be a Special Opening of an art exhibit titled, “Mary Queen of Peace: Liturgical Objects from the Middle East.” On display at the Villanova University Art Gallery in the Connelly Center, the exhibit will feature icons, vestments and artifacts. A reception, free and open to the public, will be held from 4-6 p.m. on December 5 in the lounge adjacent to the art gallery. The exhibit will run through Dec. 20.