Is There Room for Christians in the Middle East?

Michael J.L. La Civita, K.C.H.S.

Eminence, excellencies, members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.

A friend suggested I should follow the example of Linda Richman from Saturday Night Live, and just come up with some interesting topics for you all to discuss among yourselves. Israel, Palestine. Discuss. But I’m not sure if the lieutenant or the Hyatt would appreciate the bedlam that would follow, so here it goes.

Life in the Mediterranean world moves slowly. Whether the weather or the wine, Rome remains largely intact, and its memory is eternal. In the Balkans, century-old animosities are played out daily. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Arab world measures the sands of time in millennia — despite the oil and its money.

But today, radical changes have engulfed the Arab world. Mobs have toppled tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; civil war rages in Syria; and subversive revolutionaries in Jordan and Saudi Arabia plot to end the rule of kings. What may have been true yesterday may no longer be true today; life is no longer stable or secure, even for the majority of those who stay put in their homes and shops, far from the demonstrations — the various roles of which are usually played by young men.

As knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, the Middle East holds a special place in our hearts. It also forms a part of our human and Christian patrimony. The eastern Mediterranean claims the earth’s oldest civilizations. There converged the development of agriculture and commerce, law and government, the arts and the alphabet, creating the world’s first complex human societies.

The Gospel of Jesus first took root here, and for six centuries it flourished among its peoples as it adapted to the region’s prevailing cultures. Christianity dominated much of the eastern Mediterranean until the followers of an Arab merchant and shepherd, Muhammad, stormed through in the year 634. Fired by the belief that Muhammad had received from the Archangel Gabriel the word of God to restore belief in One God, they conquered Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor and Egypt, then Christian provinces lands of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the span of one century, they created a vast Muslim realm that stretched from China to Spain.

The Islamization of the Middle East took centuries — forced conversions were discouraged — but gradually Christians became a minority. Ascendant Islamic societies respected Christians as “People of the Book,” and the authorities valued their influence, but the followers of Jesus were incontestably relegated to second class status.

The Crusades irrevocably altered this intricate society; Muslims associated the faith of the invaders with the faith of local Christians, whose relationships with the Crusaders of the Latin West were complex and uneasy.

In the modern period, the Christians of the Middle East increasingly looked to Christian Europe for patronage and support, adopting Western habits, languages and customs. The Arab Renaissance of the 19th century, for example, was led largely by Arab Christians influenced by the nationalists of post-Napoleonic Europe.

Today, the descendants of these first Christians are a weary flock, pummeled by the violence some observers cite as a defining characteristic of the region. Their homelands are increasingly inhospitable, for some an unforgivable offense in a culture where hospitality is as profuse as it is predictable.

Is there a future for Christians — indeed for any minority — in this new Middle East? What role will religion play, especially Islam, in governing these peoples? And, is Islam compatible with the so-called democratic aspirations expressed by the reformers leading the “Arab Spring?”

First, it is important to point out the Middle East is not monolithic. While Islam is monotheistic — Muslims worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revere Jesus as a prophet and honor the Blessed Mother with special devotion — it is not monolithic either.

Unlike Christianity, Islam is a religion without sacraments; major life events — such as marriage and legacies — are governed by contracts. Religious leaders are in fact lay legal scholars — “canon lawyers” — who do not form a magisterium or central authority. As a result, Islam has evolved into a belief system that incorporates differing understandings of the nature of Islam and the requirements for one’s salvation. Literal interpretation exists alongside metaphorical exegesis and mysticism.

Sunni Muslims dominate the Arab world, but a number of sects exist, too, such as the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia and the Salafis in Egypt. Shiites live predominantly in Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, though significant populations also live in Lebanon and Syria. Esoteric sects, such as the Alawi and Druze in Israel, Lebanon and Syria, are considered heretical by most Muslims, but Islamic in origin and ethos.

Other religious groups include the Baha?i, Mandaeans, Yazidis and Zoroastrians — religions that incorporate Gnostic, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and indigenous forms.

Declining in number, Christians form a diverse yet influential community. There are roughly 16 million in the Middle East. Never prone to exaggeration, the Holy See estimates that perhaps as many as 20 million Christians live there, making up 5.62 percent of the region’s population. These include: 8 million in Egypt, 2 million in Syria, about 2 million in Lebanon, an estimated 1.5 million in the Arabian Peninsula, nearly a million in Cyprus, perhaps 365,000 in Iran, some 300,000 in Jordan, fewer than 300,000 in Iraq, 147,000 in Israel, 138,000 in Turkey, some 45,000 in Palestine and 12,000 in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

What Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. In the areas traditionally defined as the Holy Land, most Christians are Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic Arabs. Chaldean Catholics stand out in Iraq. Maronites dominate Lebanon. Antiochene Orthodox and Syriac Christians comprise significant groups in Syria. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church is by far the region’s largest community.

Many Armenian Christians found refuge in Lebanon and Syria after World War I and many now live in Iran. Assyrians, especially those who belong to the ancient Church of the East, are scattered throughout Iran, Iraq and Syria. Even Anglican, Reformed and evangelical Protestant communities are present in the region.

There are 2 million Filipinos, about 80 percent of whom are Latin Catholic. There also are tens of thousands of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics from India, Latin Catholics from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, and Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, too. A significant number of undeclared Christians, married to Jewish spouses, live in Israel.

So, will Islam have a role in forming governments? Which form of Islam will govern Egypt: the Sunni orthodoxy of the coalition government or the Salafist extremism responsible for the torching of Coptic churches? What will prevail in Iraq: the long-oppressed Shiism of the majority, or a coalition of minorities such as the secular regime of Saddam Hussein? And what will happen in a post-Assad Syria, long a model for Christian ecumenism and Christian-Muslim coexistence? Should Islamist revolutionaries topple the moderate king of Jordan — himself a descendant of Muhammad — and will militant Wahabi Sunnis, who inspired Osama bin Laden, govern instead? What is in store for Lebanon’s delicate confessionalism, with its Maronite Catholic president, Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker of parliament?

Much as Christianity did before the Enlightenment, the Islamic faith views the world as a “seamless garment,” in which all aspects of life are united and seen through the lens of submission to the will of God. Whether affairs are public or private, matters of the spirit or of the body, all are governed by the same attitudes and laws. “As a result,” writes Col. W. Patrick Lang in CNEWA’s ONE magazine, “Muslims do not readily accept ideas that seek to separate various spheres of human activity.

“The separation of church and state,” he continues, “is not a concept readily accepted by pious Muslims, and it is often true that the zealous among them experience little remorse in the application of personal or state retribution against those seen as ‘impious’ or ‘disrespectful’ of God and his law.”

But, writes John Esposito in the same magazine, “some scholars believe that Islam is inherently democratic, basing their views on the well-established Quranic principle of shura (“consultation” in Arabic). However, they often disagree about the extent to which ‘the people’ should exercise this duty.

“They also stress,” he continues, “the Islamic principle of ijma (“consensus” in Arabic). They argue that rulers have a duty to consult widely and to govern on the basis of consensus.” But as with consultation, scholars and activists have widely different views on the role consensus should play in society.

“Islam lends itself to different and multiple interpretations,” Dr. Esposito concludes. “Islam has been invoked in support of monarchy and dictatorship, democracy and republicanism. The 20th century bears witness to all these.”
Holding “widely different views,” therefore, should not come as a surprise. Remember, this is a belief system governed by “canon lawyers.”

With the collapse of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Qadafi and undoubtedly Syria’s al-Assad, there is a great deal of talk about Arab democratic movements. Democracy, however, does not have a single meaning or one form. France, Israel, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States all define themselves as democracies, but not one is alike. And do those activists who loosely throw around the term “democracy” even know of what they speak?

“Democracy,” as we know it here, did not come into being overnight. Our American experiment continues to evolve; sometimes we are forced to move forward and other times we are yanked backwards. To expect the countries of the Middle East, long the bastion of secular dictators, to develop problem-free democracies overnight is unrealistic.

Democracy requires that its citizens understand the concept, obligations and responsibilities of citizenship and participate in it fully — and universal education has assisted in this endeavor here in the states. Citizenship is a crucial element in civic and political development and measures how democracy is evolving.

“Citizenship as understood in modern democracies,” writes CNEWA’s Father Elias Mallon, “expresses a relationship of mutual rights and obligations that exist between an individual citizen and the state. That relationship is built not on religion, race, gender, wealth or education, but on participation in public life.

“In contemporary democracies,” he concludes, “citizenship has been separated from religious affiliation. One must not lose sight of the fact that the separation of citizenship and religious affiliation has been a long, painful process within most Western democracies.”

In his recent apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, Pope Benedict XVI weighed in on the issue:

“The Catholics of the Middle East ? have the duty and right to participate fully in national life, working to build up their country. They should enjoy full citizenship and not be treated as second-class citizens or believers.

“It is because of Jesus that Christians are sensitive to the dignity of the human person and to freedom of religion that is its corollary. For love of God and humanity ? Christians have built schools, hospitals and institutions of every kind where all people are welcomed without discrimination (cf. Mt 25:31ff.). For these reasons, Christians are particularly concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person. It is wrong to claim that these rights are only “Christian” human rights. They are nothing less than the rights demanded by the dignity of each human person and each citizen, whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.

“Some Middle Eastern political and religious leaders,” he continues, “whatever their community, tend to look with suspicion upon secularity (laïcité) as something intrinsically atheistic or immoral. It is true that secularity sometimes reduces religion to a purely private concern, seeing personal or family worship as unrelated to daily life, ethics or one’s relationships with others. ? These theories are not new. Nor are they confined to the West or to be confused with Christianity.

“A healthy secularity,” he adds, “frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.”

So, do the Middle East’s minorities, especially our Christian sisters and brothers, have a future in their homeland? Yes and no. There is no question they are gripped in a vise that could crush them. But throughout the Middle East, historians, sociologists, politicians and clergy — Christian and Muslim — believe Christians have an important role to play still:

“The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises, fills the void and gains the upper hand,” said Muhammad Sammak, an adviser to Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim grand mufti. 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.

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 Ottoman generals, the region’s Christians have demonstrated agility and a tremendous will to survive.

Emigration continues. Again, from the pope’s apostolic exhortation: “Many Christians are now seeking more favorable horizons and places of peace where their families will be able to live a dignified and secure life, and spaces of freedom where they can express their faith openly without fear of various constraints.

“This is a heart-rending decision. It has a profound impact on individuals, families and churches. It dismembers nations and contributes to the human, cultural and religious impoverishment of the Middle East. A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region.”

Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity is not tied to a place, be it a land or a shrine. Nor is mature Christianity bound by tribal mores or ethnic customs. Christianity transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. And while particular churches may at times become entangled with a certain culture, ethnic group or even political party, these churches serve the whole world, particularly as they envelope the whole world.

And so this remains true, especially in the Middle East. Perhaps the critical mass of a faith community that gave us the origins of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation theology will evaporate. But hopefully the seeds of hope and social justice sowed by generations of Christian teachers — priests, religious lay men and women — will germinate and take root.

A month after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006, I toured the length of the country, destroyed bridges notwithstanding, and found Lebanon’s Christians rolling up their sleeves and working. My colleagues and I met with community leaders and 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 their villages, schools and churches.

While funds and personnel remained in short supply, these Christian witnesses and their works of mercy instilled solid values, introduced strangers to one another, fostered dialogue, healed the sick, fed the hungry and housed the homeless — almost all of whom were Muslim. These Christians offered a message from Jesus, countercultural for sure, but a powerful weapon that transcends even the hardest hearts: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The Christian faith will survive. Perhaps a greater danger is the emigration of all moderates in the Middle East — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — leaving behind extremists of all kinds, fomenting rage and change.

Thank you.

Michael J.L. La Civita
CNEWA-Pontifical Mission
Vice President, Communications

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