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BBC Radio 4 interview - Middle East Christians Need Support

Saturday 23rd December 2006

Interview for the BBC Radio 4 Today programme with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who were speaking from Jerusalem.

Presenter: Dr Williams, if I may pick up on those very strong comments in The Times, saying that Christians in the Middle East are being put at unprecedented risk. Now could you explain your reasoning?

Archbishop: For several centuries there's been a tradition of pluralism and coexistence in a lot of middle eastern countries and what we've seen in the past year or so in Iraq has been attacks on Christian priests, the murder of some Christian priests and the massive departure of large numbers of Christians from Iraq. And that has something to do with - it's not of course the sole cause but it's something to do with - the way in which Christians can now easily be branded as pro-Western, as unreliable allies in this region.

Presenter: Has the situation been worsened by the war in Iraq?

Archbishop: I think there's no doubt that for Christians in Iraq, the situation has got worse since the fall of Saddam. I'm not saying they had an easy time before, far from it - but it has got worse. The number of attacks increased, the number of people who have left has soared, and since we've been in Bethlehem these last few days we've heard a great deal about the departure of Christians from this region, which is the combination of course of the pressures on everybody in the Bethlehem region and the sort of growing subtle, not always violent, pressure on Christians from the Muslim majority in this area.

Presenter: You're talking not just about Christians in Iraq, but across the whole of the Middle East, aren't you?

Archbishop: Yes, and I'm not talking about persecution by government. As I said in The Times, we're talking about the targeting of Christians by extremists and that's certainly been a problem in Egypt in the last 12 -18 months, which has such a good record, where I myself have had very good relations with the Muslim leadership.

Presenter: Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, you've been in Bethlehem as well, as I said, and you're obviously aware of what Dr Williams has been writing. You've seen yourself, you've talked about, the worries about the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem. Do you share Dr Williams' comments about the fears that have been posed by the war in Iraq and the challenges that poses to Christians in the Middle East?

Cardinal: I think that I should say first of all that the reason why we're here in Jerusalem and Bethlehem is as an act of solidarity....And we feel that this kind of forgotten church here needs to be supported - more pilgrims need to come to the Holy Land. And also we're here I think to express our, well, our anxiety. Our real desire for peace in this land of conflict, is really quite terrible, and the effects on the Christian minority, who are a tiny minority, are very great indeed and therefore I think that the main purpose of our visit, which is to be in solidarity with them, is something that's extraordinarily important. After all we should never forget that in the Holy Land there are three communities - Jews Muslims and Christians and Christians are an important part of this land, and we don't want them to diminish.

Presenter: The Christian and the Muslim communities have lived alongside each other in Bethlehem for a long time, haven't they, with the Christian numbers declining as you've found. You were talking yesterday in Thought for the Day about the sad political reality of the 'Little Town of Bethlehem', referring in principle to the West Bank Security barrier; you both share concerns about that, do you?

Cardinal: I think we do. Of course we understand the fears of the Israelis of the attacks that have occurred; we've also seen at first hand the way in which that barrier has actually stifled the town of Bethlehem and induced a kind of despair amongst its people who feel as if they're under occupation.

Archbishop: It's a sensitive time in Israel, of course, because just a couple of weeks ago we had the notorious conference about Holocaust denial, essentially, in Tehran, and that has made Israel particularly sensitive at this moment on the question of security. And it's undoubtedly a fact that suicide bombing attacks have gone down since the barrier was erected, but the cost, the human cost that we've seen, has to raise the question 'what alternatives is there now, how does the long-term security implication of the barrier work out?'

Presenter: Do you think though that you have been able to make any difference? Would your pilgrimage - of course it's short and your message is strong - but what do you feel you've achieved in these past few days?

Cardinal: Well I think two things. First of all we haven't come to provide a political solution; we are Christian leaders and we think that our presence here is not just symbolic; but do you know I think the only way there's going to be any difference out here in the Middle East is what I will call a change of heart. By that I mean both governments and I talk also about the international community who could indeed raise its voice and action to have a solution that's just here in the Holy Land (is just for the Israelis but also just for the Palestinians) - we have been praying for and we're going to pray for this. And I think to say that 'our visit would not affect anything' - I don't think that's true.

Archbishop: Certainly we haven't been looking for a quick fix here - we wanted to cement relationships with Christians here, we wanted to encourage Christians in the West to visit Bethlehem, to visit the Holy Land generally. We've also been able during this time to bring some groups of local Christians together and indeed religious leaders.

Presenter: Dr Williams, can I just ask you again? Just to go back to your comments in the Times saying that Christians are being put at unprecedented risk in the Middle East by the government's policy in Iraq? Now you both issued a joint statement in February 2003 doubting the moral case for war; do you then Dr Williams, now think in light of what we know in the wake of the Butler report and various accounts that you were right to issue those warnings?

Archbishop: It's also too easy to use hindsight and say 'I told you so', but I think I can only say I haven't yet seen cause to revise my views at that point.

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