Christians in the Middle East: Contemporary Human Rights Issues

October 21, 2010

Christianity was born in the Middle East and has survived there for millennia. Yet, today, Christians in the region are increasingly under threat. Although some countries tolerate Christianity, in other places Christians endure serious repression. This was the take-away message from the Center for Law and Religion’s October 21, 2010 panel discussion, Christians in the Middle East: Contemporary Human Rights Issues. Moderated by the Center’s Director, Professor Mark L. Movsesian, the engaging program drew more than 100 attendees from the Law School and wider community.

Panelist Michael J.L. La Civita, Vice President for Communications at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, opened the event by describing the different Christian communities in the Middle East − their numbers, histories and geographic distribution. He also highlighted issues faced by Christian migrant workers who have arrived in the region recently. Caroline Labib Doss ’99, an immigration attorney, then detailed the long history of Christianity in Egypt and the discrimination and violence experienced there by present-day Copts. Fr. Vahan Hovhanessian, Ph.D., Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, discussed Christianity in Iraq. A native of Baghdad, Fr. Vahan described how current security conditions, the enactment of a constitution that declares Islam the official religion, and increasing reliance on Sharia law all serve to undermine respect for minority faiths. These factors are pressuring Christians to leave Iraq, he said, citing the telling statistic that Christians make up about half of all refugees who have left the country since the war began.

The panel conversation continued with a presentation by Fr. Frank Marangos, D. Min., Ed.D, Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, who addressed problems that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople faces today in Turkey. He described government interference with the internal workings of the Patriarchate, regarded as the leading see in Orthodox Christianity, as well as problems involving property rights, taxation, and the lack of independent legal status for churches.  Piero Tozzi, J.D., Senior Legal Counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, rounded out the conversation by profiling a human rights case in Morocco involving foreign religious workers who were deported for allegedly violating anti-proselytizing laws. Explaining that the country’s Christian population is primarily foreign, he indicated that Morocco’s constitution promotes freedom of worship and an adherence to international human rights standards, but that recent political changes have resulted in an increase in religious repression.

Photo Gallery
Panel Program

Audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Professor Marc DeGirolami observed, “Each of the panelists brought a unique and important perspective on the plight of Christian communities in different Middle Eastern nations. Together, they shed light on issues of persecution and religious liberty that do not often receive the attention that they merit.” Andrei Pascariu ‘11, reflected on how the conference demonstrated the difference between religious freedom in theory and in practice. “All the countries have some form of constitutional protection for freedom of religion,” he observed, “but not all of them honor it in reality.” Dean Michael A. Simons noted that the program spoke to the importance of creating and maintaining a collaborative, scholarly arena for addressing the many important issues at the intersection of law and religion. “Drawing on the rich array of expertise and perspective that can be found right here in New York City as well as throughout the country and the world, the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s Law School provides a common ground for this vital dialogue,” he said.

Established in 2010, the Center for Law and Religion provides a forum for the study of law and religion from domestic, international and comparative perspectives.  In addition to hosting conferences and speakers from academia and public life, it coordinates the Law School’s law and religion curriculum and promotes dialogues among scholars with different viewpoints, both religious and non-religious.  For more information about the Center, please contact Professor Movsesian.