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Why the Middle East matters

Since his election Francis has found ingenious ways of presenting the plight of persecuted Christians to an indifferent global audience. On Sunday he found a new one: canonising two 19th-century Palestinian saints and, in the process, prompting hundreds of reports and feature articles on the beleaguered Middle Eastern Church.

According to the Pope, each of the two new saints embodied an important aspect of the Church’s presence in the Holy Land. Sister Mariam Bawardy stood for “encounter and fellowship with the Muslim world”, while Sister MarieAlphonsine Ghattas showed “the importance of becoming responsible for one another, of living lives of service to one another”.

Sister Mariam’s life also illustrates the challenges of being a religious minority in the Middle East. An angry suitor once slit her throat when she refused to convert to the Muslim faith. (She was saved by a mysterious “nun in blue” and went on to become a Carmelite.) Sister Marie-Alphonsine, meanwhile, was a visionary educator of women, opening girls’ schools, fighting female illiteracy and co-founding the Congregation of the Sisters of the Rosary.

Francis is right to cast the spotlight on the Middle Eastern faithful through acts such as Sunday’s canonisations. In the very cradle of Christianity – Israel and the Palestinian territories – the baptised comprise less than two per cent of the population. Elsewhere, the figures are deeply troubling. In 2003, there were

Francis is pushing hard for an end to the region’s many overlapping disputes nearly 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Almost half the 300,000 who remain today have fled their homes in the past year. In the 1920s around a third of Syrians were Christians, but just one in 10 were at the start of the present civil war.

Given these figures, it’s easy to see why Francis is pushing so hard for a peaceful settlement of the Middle East’s manifold, overlapping disputes. That drive got him into trouble last week when the media presented a draft agreement between the Holy See and the “State of Palestine” as a dramatic recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The truth was more prosaic: the Holy See has spoken of the “State of Palestine” since the UN general assembly voted to recognise the territory as a nonmember observer state in 2012. Nevertheless, initial reports about the draft agreement provoked a backlash, with Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, saying the treaty marked a new outbreak of the “historical Catholic enmity towards Jews”. Thankfully, that is not the case.

This is not the first diplomatic incident associated with Francis in recent months. In April he provoked a ferocious response from the Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan when he observed the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. But the Pope is likely to consider such diplomatic disturbances a small price to pay for keeping suffering Christians and the quest for Middle East peace before the world’s jaded eyes.

Unnerving the abortion lobby

It is, alas, one of the features of public discourse in Britain that whenever a politician expresses even the mildest support for reducing the country’s appalling number of abortions they are jumped on by the “pro-choice” lobby.

Last week it emerged that Ben Gummer, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health, had told The Guardian in 2008 that he believed “abortion is too high in Britain and that something does need to be done about that”. That prompted a director of British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the abortion provider, to say: “It is concerning that ministers with roles that involve women’s health and equality apparently oppose abortion – their stance does not reflect the view of their electorate.”

This comment reflects two conceits of the abortion lobby. The first is that the British public supports the current situation where there is abortion on demand up to 24 weeks, and up to birth for even mild disabilities. In fact, all opinion polls show that a plurality of the British public favours a reduction in the limit over the status quo, although the percentage who want it reduced varies from between 41 and 53 per cent. Most feel deeply uncomfortable at the ease with which Big Abortion ends 200,000 lives a year.

And contrary to what is lazily assumed, opinion polls suggest that women are more opposed than men to easy access to abortion, and Labour voters are just as opposed to the practice as Tories, despite the influence of the abortion industry on their party.

The second conceit is that everyone in a position of power regarding public health must toe the line on this subject. British health ministers are expected to follow some sort of Test Act on abortion, and are not permitted to find the practice abhorrent. This reflects the way that the pro-abortion side has, up to now, controlled the debate by fighting for every inch of ground and presenting even the most modest attempt to defend unborn life as an assault on women and individual rights.

Mr Gummer has responded to critics by stating – correctly – that abortion law is a matter for Parliament, not for the Government. It is all too easy for politicians to abandon principles when faced with the hostile spirit of the times, so Mr Gummer’s response is an encouraging start.


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