My Lords, in the Arab village of Ibillin in northern Israel, students of all religions gather daily in the classrooms of Mar Elias Educational Institutions. They receive a well rounded education, but importantly, they also work together to promote peace, justice and reconciliation. MEEI was the inspiration of Father Elias Chacour who realised that the future of all God's children in the Middle East would depend on the education of the young in the ways of peace, reconciliation, respect and justice. His life's work was devoted to building schools to educate children of all religious and ethnic backgrounds based on these principles.
Dialogue is essential for religious leaders in the Middle East-a land that is sacred to the traditions of all these religions. As Pope Benedict told religious leaders in Israel, the movement towards reconciliation requires courage and vision as well as trust that it is God Himself who will show us the way.
As we have heard, the Christian population is declining in the Middle East. That decline has two main reasons: emigration and declining birth rates. Emigration represents the end of a long process of exclusion and persecution. On the West Bank, a nearly permanent boycott of Christian businesses is the problem. In Egypt, fundamentalist Muslims constantly target Christians and the worst situation is in Sudan where civil war has raged since 1956 and led to wholesale atrocities. Declining birth rates can be seen throughout the whole of the region. At present, the Middle East has 14 million Christians but that is likely to drop in 2020 plus to 6 million. With time, Christians will effectively disappear in the region as a cultural and political force. There are more Christians living in Sydney, Australia, than in Jerusalem itself.
For many years, the plight of Middle East Christians attracted little or no attention in the outside world. Many Governments turned away from the current problems. Christians in the Middle East face continuous persecution and are often isolated. Suspicion of the West so prevalent in much of the Middle East shows itself as outright hatred because of perceptions of western colonialism and imperialism. Derogatory words and insults are often used against Christians and they face many difficulties in terms of housing and jobs.
As I said, for many years the plight of Middle East Christians attracted little interest in the outside world. Their interests seem to being ignored by the British, French, Russian and Greek Governments as well at the Vatican itself. But Christians are an important part of the fabric of the Middle East and a crucial part of the social, religious and moral well-being of the region. We must not only be aware of the problems facing Christians but work and pray for their continued important presence. Solutions must not be imposed from outside. We must ensure that the problems facing Christians are constantly in our thoughts, constantly in our minds and constantly in our deliberations. Like Father Chacour, we must realise that the way forward is to understand each other and respect each other and to work alongside each other.
I am always reminded of my own city where, on Remembrance Sunday, the leaders of the six faiths not only take part in that act of remembrance but together say a common prayer. I am also reminded that my own city was once riven by sectarianism that was driven out by Christian leaders of different traditions such as the Archbishop Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard working together. The bigotry and hatred disappeared. Now we have Europe's only ecumenical university where not only Christians of different faiths work together but Muslims, Hindus and Jews. It is by working and learning together that we can change things, and it could be the same in the Middle East. Respect and understanding drive out fear and hatred.