Catholics in the Middle East Today

I’d like to begin this evening with an anecdote. In the last week of January — Super Bowl week — the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the hopes of the National Football League’s Arizona Cardinals to take on not just the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the entire “Steeler Nation,” as fans of that legendary team style themselves.

The Journal, reporting on the woes of the Cardinals to develop a solid fan base, compared them to the Steelers and how effective the Pittsburgh franchise had developed a nationwide following.

The Wall Street Journal got it wrong.

While, yes, there are plenty of Steeler fans who admire the team’s style of play or the athletes who make up its roster, most citizens of Steeler Nation were born into it. Many were born in Pittsburgh; many more claim a parent or grandparent as a Pittsburgh native. One thing is certain, the Steelers symbolize not just the hard-working blue collar values long associated with Pittsburghers, but Lenten fish fries, halupki, tap rooms, onion domes, plentiful employment and family picnics, memories of a now vanished world, recollections from a city before its mills closed and its jobs dried out.

The Steeler Nation gives Pittsburghers exiled far and wide the opportunity to gather once again and to identify proudly — and sometimes loudly — “yes, I’m from the ‘burgh. Never count us out.”

Catholics from the Middle East — in fact, all Christians from the Middle East — may not have the Steelers as a rallying cry, but they have something just as tangible: their culture, their faith, their family and their values. And as with Pittsburghers, their lives now increasingly revolve around questions many parents once faced, “Should we stay or should we go?”

Who are the Catholics of the Middle East?

Gathering statistics on anything connected to the Middle East, even the numbers of Christians, is as futile and perhaps as useless as counting soap suds in a bubble bath. Once, a rather high-ranking hierarch in the Middle East once quipped, “you have to understand that, in our part of the world, numbers have a very symbolic value.”

In other words they are not accurate. But we have to start somewhere. Utilizing census reports as well as numbers gleaned from various sources, including the various churches, there are about 12.5 million Christians in the region:

40,000 in Palestine, about 37,000 in the West Bank and the balance in Gaza

  • 147,000 in Israel
  • 250,000 in Jordan
  • 700,000 in Iraq
  • 1,170,000 in Lebanon
  • 1,850,000 in Syria
  • 8,500,000 in Egypt

Christians make up less than one percent of the total combined population of 150,600,000 in the above-named countries. But what Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. They are a diverse lot: Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholics are the bulk of the remaining Christians in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Chaldean Catholics dominate Iraq, Maronites Lebanon, Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox Syria. Coptic Orthodoxy is by far the largest Christian community, making up 10 percent of Egypt’s population.

Complementing these larger faith communities are smaller groups. Many Armenian Apostolic Christians found refuge in Lebanon and Syria after the horrors of World War I in Ottoman Turkey; Assyrians, those who belong to the ancient Church of the East, are scattered throughout Iraq and Syria; Armenian and Syriac Catholic communities have thrived in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Anglican, Reformed and evangelical Protestant communities may also be found in the region.

Unlike the strong denominational divide here in North America, the Middle East’s Christian communities (while steeped in their own histories, traditions and rivalries) are considerably more inclusive. Intermarriage is the norm and not an issue — wife and children follow the rites of the father — thus complicating efforts to gather accurate numbers. But intermarriage also contributes to a marked degree of fluidity amongst the region’s Christians and a greater awareness of one another’s own histories, rituals and traditions.

While the region’s many Catholic churches are, with few exceptions, smaller than their Orthodox counterparts, their social service institutions play a disproportionate and crucial role in shaping the attitudes and the forming the minds of the entire society, Christian and Muslim. Catholic clinics, Catholic colleges, Catholic orphanages, Catholic schools, Catholic soup kitchens and Catholic homes for the aged, the infirmed and the handicapped pepper the landscape, contributing invaluable services to a population weary of discord, economic stagnation and violence.

Movement of Christians

Throughout the Arab world, historians, sociologists, politicians and clergy — Christian and Muslim alike — maintain that the role of Christians is an important one throughout the Middle East:

“The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises, fills the void and gains the upper hand,” said Muhammad Sammak, a political adviser to Lebanon’s grand mufti and a participant in a recent forum on the subject in Rome. For Christians to disappear from the Middle East, he said, it would be like “pulling out the threads of a cloth,” so that the whole social fabric risks unraveling and dying.

But for many Arab Muslims, Christians of the Middle East are identified with Westerners. Despite their apostolic roots, Christians are perceived by some Muslims as no more integrated with the community than the expatriates who live in the various capital cities.

The well-know Arab journalist Daoud Kattab, profiling the work of the Iraqi Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena among the impoverished living in Zerqa, Jordan, writes, “While the Dominicans enjoy a warm rapport with the local population, they note that children often mistake them for Westerners and greet them in English. The sisters,’ he continues, “quickly reply in perfect Arabic that they, too, are Arabs.”

A mistake such as this would not be particularly problematic if the Arab and Western worlds understood one another. But as we all know, the lives of the Middle East’s Christians are always adversely affected after the West “comes crashing in.”

The Middle East’s Christians have been on the move since the apostles left Jerusalem after Pentecost. Whether hiding from persecution by Jewish leaders, Roman emperors, Persian forces, Byzantine bishops or Arab Muslim invaders, the region’s Christians have demonstrated agility and a tremendous will to survive. Maronite Catholics abandoned their monastic center in Syria for the safety of Mount Lebanon. Armenians have more than once shaken the dust off their feet and moved to more friendly terrain. Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox left their ancestral villages for the economic potential in the regions’ larger cities of Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

In the last hundred years or so, Christians of all varieties — even as a sense of Arab nationalism matured in the Ottoman world — began leaving the region. Why? While there had been cases of persecution, this should not be exaggerated. “Most Christians feel a sense of exclusion from the predominantly Muslim or Jewish societies in which they live,” wrote Msgr. Robert Stern in a recent article in ONE magazine. “But that there is discrimination against Christians in most Muslim countries is absolutely incontestable.

“Further,” he adds, “the West has its attractions. Most Middle East Christians have family or friends living freely in Australia, Scandinavia, Latin and North America.”

Two years ago, the world watched as Iraq’s Christians, Chaldean Catholics, Armenian and Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, fled for safety in neighboring Jordan and Syria. Not since the World War I era — the last major Western incursion into the Middle East before the present — has a Middle Eastern Christian community battled extinction.

In the waning days of World War I, as the British and French poised their troops to carve up the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish and Turkish nationalists accused their Christian minorities of complicity and treason. Up to two million Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians died: Hundreds of thousands were murdered; others died of starvation, disease and exposure to the elements as entire villages were uprooted and deported.

“History is repeating itself,” said “Aunt” Shimuni, a centenarian who as a child survived this slaughter of Christians and now lives in exile in Amman. “What is happening in today’s Iraq is the same as what happened to us 90 years ago. And again the rest of the world has shut its eyes.”

But over time, even as these communities moved from place to place, leaving their ancient centers of Ani or Antioch, Edessa or Etchmiadzin, Nisibis or Seleucia-Ctesiphon, they maintained their identities, their cultures, their languages, their rites and their unique approaches to the Christian faith. These faith communities, Catholic and Orthodox, defied death and prospered, founding new centers, new monasteries and convents, new churches and schools.

Take the Armenian Church, for example. Thousands of tribes and peoples litter the pages of world history. After most have distinguished themselves, usually as conquerors or settlers, they pass from the scene, leaving as their legacy a tablet, a ruin or a reputation. The Armenians, whose ancient homeland now encompasses eastern Turkey, the Caucasus and northwestern Iran, have endured for more than 3,000 years — despite the challenges of living along the crossroads of East and West.

Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Armenians have outlived more powerful neighbors, who repeatedly and relentlessly sought to subjugate them. How have the Armenians survived, when far more powerful peoples — Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Sassanids — vanished? Most historians would credit the resolve and resourcefulness of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has either defined or impacted all aspects of Armenian society and culture.

Is there a future for Catholics, for all Christians, in the Middle East?

Yes and no. First, the nature of Christianity is for it not to be tied to any one government, ethnic group or culture. “Christianity,” writes Msgr. Stern, “transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. Christianity is for the world. Jesus came to save the whole world. The Holy Spirit was poured out on the whole world. The mission of the church is for the whole world — that is why it is called catholic, or universal. Human nature being what it is, the church may be at times entangled with a particular culture, ethnicity or politics, but it serves the whole world.”

Not long after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, I traveled there with my colleague at CNEWA, Chorbishop John D. Faris. We traveled throughout the country, destroyed bridges notwithstanding, and found that country’s Christians, Maronites and Orthodox, Melkite Catholics and Armenians, rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. We reviewed plans for the reconstruction of irrigation dams in the south, visited facilities for the handicapped and marginalized, winced as farmers cleared their fields of mines and cluster bombs, spoke to bishops passionate about rebuilding villages and schools and churches.

“Gentlemen,” said Michel Constantine, our colleague in Beirut, “if it wasn’t for the church, who would do this for Lebanon?” A veteran of Lebanon’s civil war, Mr. Constantine participated in rebuilding his country after its descent into a 15-year hell and he witnessed its sudden fall back into violence with real grief. His question has remained with me everyday, as my colleagues at CNEWA grapple with the flight of Christians from the Middle East.

But CNEWA, as an agency committed to help the churches of the East, remains constant: these activities and works need more than sentimental support; they need prayers, they need funds, they need help. These apostolates of the Middle East’s churches, Catholic and Orthodox, serve not just Catholics and Orthodox, but men and women of all faiths. They inculcate solid values, introduce strangers to one another, foster coexistence and heal the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless and educate the uninformed.

The Middle East’s Christians also offer a message, countercultural for sure, but a powerful weapon indeed: Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Christians possess a unique culture that displays the willingness to mediate,’ said the Latin Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Sleiman. We, therefore, “could do so many things because reconstruction [of a war-torn nation] deals with souls, cultures, mentalities.’

The challenge of Christians in the Middle East is to bridge misunderstandings and differences. As bridge-builders, Christians have an important role to play, even if they are a tiny minority and perhaps do not value this role. “It’s important,” Archbishop Sleiman continued, because “churches have to be convinced their role is important. When I see emigration, I’m not sure Christians still believe their role is important.”

From our places of security here in North America, it may be easy to urge the Middle East’s remaining Christians to stay put. But it takes a valiant spirit to ignore the lure of stability elsewhere, the temptation of steady employment, educational opportunities and freedom. It is understandable that Catholics, indeed all Christians, as well as Muslims, want to seek better lives elsewhere.

Clearly, the migration of Christians from the Middle East has weakened the universal church in the land of its birth. Perhaps, ultimately, the church will lose a rich patrimony and culture. But perhaps the migration to the West of Armenians and Assyrians, Chaldeans and Copts, Maronites and Melkites, Syriac and Greek Orthodox Christians will leaven churches and faith communities lulled by complacency.

Thank you.

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