A bomb explosion kills dozens of worshipers at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Refugee Christians express fear about returning home to Qaraqosh, a recently liberated city in northern Iraq. Pope Francis appeals to President Bashar Assad for an end to violence in Syria. Such are the stories that made headlines in early December 2016, the very time when experts from around the world were gathered at Villanova to delve into the complex and often misunderstood crises that have escalated in the Middle East in recent decades.
ADVANCING THE CONVERSATION
The conference “Christians in the Contemporary Middle East: Religious Minorities and the Struggle for Secular Nationalism and Citizenship” shed light on how declining pluralism, geopolitical tensions, Shiite-Sunni conflicts and other factors are threatening the region’s ethnic and religious minorities, especially Christians. In certain sections of the Middle East today, Christians live in dire circumstances. Yet, as the conference emphasized, their roots in the Arab-Islamic world run deep, and their cultural contributions have been considerable. Raising awareness of this historical context can lead to a more tolerant tomorrow.
“In the politically and religiously charged Middle East, there is no better way to look forward to a future of coexistence and mutual respect than to look back at its history,” says conference presenter Sami El-Yousef, a regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association–Pontifical Mission for Palestine. “The conference was a great opportunity not only to look back, but also to offer ideas on how we can move forward to ensure that this precious Christian presence is maintained and flourishes.”
El-Yousef and other invited guests traveled as many as 6,000 miles to Villanova to share their perspectives. A breadth of voices received air time. Attendees heard from a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council; a scholar of conflict resolution at Tufts; and a special adviser in the US Department of State, among others. One of the presenters was especially familiar: retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni ’65 VSB, whose former roles include that of special envoy for the US to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and commander-in-chief of the US Central Command.