PHILADELPHIA – As debate continues in Europe and the United States about admitting immigrants and refugees from the Middle East when terrorists attacks have occurred in both countries, it’s worth remembering that most newcomers to the U.S. are not terrorists.
They are simply men and women looking for a better, safer life for
themselves and their children.
Many are Muslims, but others are Christians who were especially vulnerable because of their minority status in their homeland.
A common denominator among immigrants is the perils they have experienced firsthand and perhaps a different perspective on the situation in the Middle East than that of native-born Americans.
After Mass at St. Maron Church in South Philadelphia April 3, some immigrants were willing to share their insights with CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Many were hesitant to give their full names.
“John,” a Maronite Catholic, has been in America for 30 years. He left after high school, at a time when the Lebanese Christians, Muslims and Druze were fighting.
“If I didn’t come here, most likely I would be dead,” he said.
He sees the Middle East conflicts as a struggle between the Sunnis and the Shia, with minorities such as Christians caught in the middle.
“Russia is supporting the Shia and the U.S. is supporting the Sunnis,” he said. “The U.S. is also supporting Saudi Arabia and the Emirates; Russia is supporting Iran. As long as there is oil in the Middle East, there is going to be a push to control it on the part of the superpowers and it is the minorities that are affected the most. The solution is to figure out a way that all can coexist but that is not the case.”
St. Maron Church is the place of worship for many Christians who come from various Middle East countries. Many are Maronite Catholics.
The Maronite Catholic Church is one of 22 Eastern Catholic churches that are in union with Rome. With more than 3.3 million members, it is one of the largest such churches in the world.
The Mass celebrated at St. Maron Church by Fr. Vincent Farhat is a blend of English and a form of Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus himself.
Other worshippers may be Latin-rite Catholics, members of other Eastern churches and even Orthodox Christians drawn to the little church by the Middle Eastern flavor of the rituals.
Like “E,” who is Orthodox Syrian. He was working in Saudi Arabia in the computer field as matters were going from bad to worse in his homeland and came to America last year with his wife and two children.
“It was not a good atmosphere to raise children where not only Christian teachings were not accepted but also any teachings that weren’t Muslim,” he said. “It was a closed society, which was OK for me but not my children.”
His home village, mostly Syriac Christians, was overrun by militants in 2013 with a number of people killed and homes destroyed. Although the Syrian army recaptured the village it is still dangerous.
“We were always protected by the government, but it is an uneasy situation,” he said. “As Christians we were second-class citizens; some people in society think Christians are pro-Western. We did not think that. We were living among Muslims who were are friends but in a civil war nothing is guaranteed.”
Philip, who is a Latin-rite Catholic, was born and raised in Lebanon although his parents were Palestinians from Bethlehem in the West Bank who fled after the 1948 war between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
“If there was peace nobody would leave their homeland,” he said. “Palestinians, including Christians, left for Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the West.”
Now most of his family is in the United States, although one sister is in Dubai. “My grandmother has 52 grandchildren here,” he said.
Like many of the immigrants he believes the United States and Russia are at least partly to blame for what has been happening in the Middle East. “We never had ISIS (Islamic State) or al-Qaida. You are supposed to support, not destabilize,” he said. “We would love to see the big powers play fair and square, not support one against the other.”
Vivian, Philip’s wife, is a Syriac Catholic from Iraq, and her family is scattered. Her view of the situation in Iraq is based mostly on her perception of then-President Saddam Hussein and his treatment of Christians.
“In my opinion, when we had Saddam in Iraq, we were all at peace as Christians. Saddam was very kind to the Christians and when he died everything got worse,” she said. “His main bodyguard was Christian and the nanny for his kids was Christian. At Christmas and Easter he would go congratulate the bishops. He was one of the only ones to open the doors to Palestinian people when they had their war.
“We used to sleep with the doors unlocked, both Christians and Muslims. Now you can’t,” she said.
“Joe,” who also is from Iraq, came to America 20 years ago. “We did have family members killed,” he said.
He came here as a high school graduate and is now a doctor and most of his family is in the United States. He now considers the United States his country, but still, if there was peace he would love to visit his old neighborhood.
“We had limitations as Christians, but I had friends that I didn’t know what their religion was,” he said. “We had neighbors who treated each other as brothers no matter what their religion was. We celebrated each other’s holidays together and we were sad when they were sad. “Christians were a peaceful faction and Saddam’s attitude was, ‘If you don’t come after me I won’t go after you.’ Now, as a Christian if I went back I would be questioned.”
The core of the problem in the Middle East, Joe believes, is “greed.”
“Everybody who comes to it wants a piece of it, whether from the West or elsewhere.”
Today, “everyone goes after their own interest. It should be for the common good and following the teachings of Christ, but it’s hard to tell how to do that,” he said. “We all hope for peace and the way to peace is through prayers to make people see peace as the ultimate goal.”
Baldwin writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.