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Villanova Magazine - Proceed with Candor

Villanova Convenes International Panel For Compelling Views Of Peoples In Peril (Voices for Religious Freedom)

By Suzanne Wentzel

Image of icon of Mary Queen of Peace

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.


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.

“Christians are original inhabitants of this region. They ... are ... the heirs to apostolic origins and the guardians of ancient traditions.” —Excerpt of a letter from Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, read at the opening of Villanova’s Christians in the Contemporary Middle East Conference

Sobering exchanges, occasional heated debates and positive participant feedback signaled the conference’s success. That was great news to the Rev. Kail Ellis, OSA, PhD, ’69 MA, assistant to the president and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. For more than a year, Father Ellis and colleagues had planned what proved to be, according to presenter Rami Khouri, a noteworthy forum that set new standards for how to discuss these issues.

“First, the organizers consulted with colleagues from across the Middle East and in the US to shape an agenda that touched on several critical dimensions, rather than pursuing the traditional pattern of organizing panels in response to Western assumptions on a narrow issue,” says Khouri, a senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut. “Second, the panels addressed the dynamics that shape the conditions of minorities in the region, including new vulnerabilities that all Arab citizens face in today’s political climate.”


Villanova’s ability to raise the bar of discourse about the Middle East stems from its commitment to understanding the peoples and movements in that part of the world. In 1983, Father Ellis founded the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, one of the first of its kind in the country. The center steeps learners in multidisciplinary coursework, topical programming and cultural events. It encourages them to study abroad and connects them with leading scholars, including those at Villanova.

Two faculty experts moderated sessions at the conference. The center’s director, Hibba Abugideiri, PhD, an associate professor of History, has carved out a niche in the area of Islamic feminism with her seminal research on how the rise of modern medicine shaped gender roles in colonial Egypt.

Co-director Catherine Warrick, PhD, looks through the lens of political science to study comparative law and gender. With previous funding from the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright Scholar Program, she is focusing on the uses of Sharia, or Islamic law, in Western democracies, particularly the United Kingdom.

Speaker Ussama Makdisi talking amongst a crowd of people
Speaker Ussama Makdisi, PhD, the first Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University, directs a question to one of the panels.

One of the benefits of the conference, says Dr. Warrick, is that it debunked the oversimplified “cartoon version” of complex realities in the Middle East. “The notion that all minorities are Christian, that they are always marginalized, that it’s always for doctrinal reasons, and that it’s consistent everywhere and over time is inaccurate. There are huge variations.”

For Brian Katulis ’94 CLAS, taking stock of these variations is part of the job. A senior fellow at the think tank Center for American Progress, Katulis advises policymakers on US national security strategy in the Middle East and South Asia. To collect data for the 2015 report “The Plight of Christians in the Middle East,” Katulis, the lead author, met with faith leaders, refugees and victims of persecution in Iraq, Egypt and other countries.

He shared lessons learned when he spoke at Villanova’s conference. Katulis, who testifies before Congress and offers commentary via sources such as PBS NewsHour, NPR and The Washington Post, was honored to present at the institution that had nurtured his fascination with the Middle East and prepared him to become a respected expert. “I arrived as a freshman never having flown on a plane,” says the world traveler. “Because of Villanova, foreign policy is my life’s work.”

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