Arab-American Christians and high hopes for the pope

As conflict surges in the Middle East, American Christians press the pontiff to fight for their rights.

Pope Francis
Christians of Middle Eastern origin hope the pope will raise awareness of the plight of their communities [Mandel Ngan/AFP-Getty Images]

Chicago, United States – Arab Americans and Middle East Christians have urged Pope Francis to use his influence to rally US public support of their rights during his six-day tour of the US this week.

The pope arrives in Washington DC on Tuesday to meet President Barack Obama, then address the US Congress, and later the UN General Assembly. The pope will hold a public mass at Madison Square Garden and lead Catholic services in Philadelphia before leaving on Sunday.

Arab Americans and Middle East Christians say the pope – the religious leader of more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide, including 51 million in the US – can influence Christian Americans to do more for Christians in the Middle East.

Leaders of Arab and Middle East Christian communities in the US Midwest agreed it won’t be an easy task for the pope. But they said if anyone can do it, it is the pope, who has already shown sympathies for many of their issues and concerns.

Archpriest Nicholas Dahdal [Ray Hanania/Al Jazeera]
Archpriest Nicholas Dahdal [Ray Hanania/Al Jazeera]

The pope will need to speak to both mainstream American Christians and to Middle East Christians, who are ethnically and religiously divided.

Many Middle East Christians are not Arab, and community diversity has created divisions.

Archpriest Nicholas Dahdal, Economos Pastor of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, called the pope “a courageous man who is not afraid to speak out, especially on issues of justice for people”.

“Unfortunately, Americans have no clue about what is going on in the Middle East,” Dahdal said, noting the challenge is to overcome the disconnect that exists between Christians in the US and Christians in the Middle East. 

“We need to educate the people, especially the Christian Americans, that as Christians, their roots are in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria.”

Dahdal, who immigrated from Taybeh in the Israeli-Occupied West Bank, has led protests in support of Palestinian rights in Chicago.

“The pope can send a strong message to American Christians that the Christians of the Middle East are your brothers and we need to protect them,” Dahdal told Al Jazeera.

Dahdal urged the pope to push the US Congress “to treat people with dignity”.

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Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun, a leading voice for Christian activism in the US and the pastor of St Maron’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis, agreed.

“Most American Christians do not recognise their own connection to the Middle East. They have lost their connection with their roots and with the land of their ancestors,” Maroun told Al Jazeera.

“The majority of Americans think the Middle East is Muslim. They fail to understand that Christianity was born there and that the Bible was spread from the Middle East to the world. American Christians, in my opinion, have not done enough to support their brothers and sisters in the Middle East, financially or spiritually,” said Maroun.

Fanaticism or extremism is the biggest challenge facing Christians in the Middle East today.

by Rateb Y Rabie, Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation

The pope’s voice will resonate with Americans, Dahdal and Maroun said. More than 70.6 percent of the US’ 319 million population is Christian. American Roman Catholics, who look to the pope for religious leadership, comprise the largest Christian denomination.

In contrast, the Christian population in the Middle East has dwindled to about 5 percent.

That’s still far more than the estimated 1.8 million to 4.2 million Arabs in the United States, the majority of whom are Christian, which does not include the hundreds of thousands more Christians from the Middle East who are not ethnically Arab, such as the Iraqi Assyrians and Chaldeans.

As a consequence, organisations representing Middle East and Arab Christians have weak voices in the US.

Mainstream Americans have broken their ties to Middle East Christians. Worse is that many mainstream American Christians discriminate against Middle East Christians and don’t see Arab Christians as being Christian at all, according to community leaders.

Jordanian Christian Mansour Tadros, publisher of the Chicago-based English-Arabic language newspaper The Future News, said what the pope says will be heard in different ways because of the diversity and divisions in the Christian religions.

“The pope is only one leader of a Christian faith that has many different denominations, although the Catholic Church is the largest,” Tadros said.

“When the pope speaks, the Christian world tends to listen. Middle East Christians are hoping that American Christians will hear his message and start speaking on behalf of Middle East Christian rights,” Tadros told Al Jazeera.

In addition to pushing Israel to recognise Palestinian rights, Tadros said, the pope must convince elected US officials to be less partisan towards Israel, more sympathetic to Arab concerns, and more willing to help refugees in Syria and Iraq, many of whom are Christian.

“I think the pope needs to be aggressive. He needs to give President Obama more support and push the president to be more aggressive in solving the Palestine-Israel conflict, much the way Obama settled the long-standing conflict between the United States and Cuba. If we can put aside differences and make that work, we can do the same with Palestine and Israel,” Tadros said.

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The pope came under fire last May for describing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as “an angel of peace” and for officiating over the first-ever canonisation of two Palestinian nuns.

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A month later, he formalised the Vatican’s 2012 recognition of Palestine as a state by signing an official treaty, the contents of which have yet to be made public.

The pope’s actions immediately riled Israel’s leadership, but it gave Christian Arabs in the US hope.

“I applaud the pope for recognising Palestine as a state. And I applaud the pope for stopping at the Segregation Wall built by Israel and to show the devilish face of the state of Israel,” Dahdal said.

Rateb Y Rabie, president of the Washington DC-based Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, told Al Jazeera the pope’s actions show he has the power to refocus American Christians on the desperate plight Christians face throughout the Middle East.

“Fanaticism or extremism is the biggest challenge facing Christians in the Middle East today,” Rabie said. 

“Christian communities are being wiped out in Iraq and Syria. ISIL is the victimiser. Copts in Egypt have gone through episodes of discrimination. Palestinian Christians are caught between a rock and a wall.”

Rabie said challenges facing Middle East Christians also include the difficulty of emigration and the lack of adequate housing or funding for education.

“Middle East Christians are on the horns of a dilemma, trying to be true to their heritage, culture, surrounding on one hand and struggling to survive, on the other hand,” Rabie said. “It is a nightmare from which they are desperate to awake.”

Amir Denha, publisher of the Chaldean Detroit Times, urged the pope to speak out more forcefully on what he said is the popular view that the Arab and Islamic world also have done little to protect Middle East Christians and confront rising religious extremism.


“I think so far Pope Francis has done a lot. He is the pope. The whole world is listening to him. But there is still more he needs to do,” said Denha, who immigrated from Baghdad in 1943.

“The pope can force the Arab governments in the Middle East and the Islamic world to condemn what ISIL has done to Middle East Christians more effectively. The voices of the Arab governments on this issue have been weak. They have not done enough.”

Denha said the pope can also push the US to do more for Middle East refugees.

“American Christians will listen to the pope. But he needs to speak out more, and he needs to be more inclusive [of all the Middle East Christian denominations],” Denha said.

Source: Al Jazeera