ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Middle East Society

Are the threads unraveling?

Of the many prized articles produced in the Middle East, among the most precious and renowned are carpets. “Persian carpets” or “Oriental rugs” are not only useful, but offer artisans opportunities to create objects rich in brilliant color and complex patterns. In a way, that sums up the complicated life of Middle Eastern society: a beautiful and intricate creation, with many interwoven strands of culture and belief.

It is a creation CNEWA prizes — and seeks to preserve. As an agency of the Holy See, CNEWA has worked in the Middle East for more than 80 years, supporting initiatives of the churches that not only strengthen the Christian community, but also the non-Christian majority, especially in the areas of health care and education. By supporting generations of priests and counselors, doctors and nurses, midwives and sisters, therapists and teachers, a tightly woven society would, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, lead to “positive secularism” and thriving Middle Eastern societies “concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person … whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.”

In recent years, however, the great carpet of Middle Eastern society has begun to unravel. There are many reasons for this, and it is at times difficult to separate cause from effect. But it is useful to look at how history led us to this point — and what may lie ahead.

For thousands of years, caravans moved through the Middle East, exchanging not only the goods of the great civilizations of Greece, Rome, India and China, but peoples, ideas and beliefs. The Middle East was no mere passive recipient; the region gave birth to three religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — whose members believe in the one God. As these Middle Eastern religions spread throughout the entire world, they transformed and adapted to the many cultures with which they came in contact.

Shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 632, Islam as a religious and political system grew rapidly. From its roots in Arabia, it spread through the Middle East and North Africa to as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Although Islam did win many of its converts through armed conquest, large numbers of people in the conquered lands, especially those defined as “People of the Book” — i.e., Jews and Christians, and later, Mandaeans and Zoroastrians — retained the faith of their ancestors and did so in relative peace. The Muslim conquest did not bring homogeneity to the civilizations of the Middle East. If anything, it made them more diverse.

Middle Eastern cities such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus exhibited complex racial, cultural and religious forms. Jews and Christians of all varieties flourished. Alawis, Druze, Mandaeans, Shabaks, Yazidis and Zoroastrians could be found in Syria and Mesopotamia. An array of Syriac Christians described the Plain of Nineveh, near the modern Iraqi city of Mosul, as home. These non-Muslims were not isolated from the Islamic civilization of the Middle East, nor were Muslims impervious to non-Muslim culture. Islam took over many of the cultural aspects of the Christian Middle East and added a uniquely Islamic flavor to them.

The Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad (750-1258) engaged Jews and Christians in respectful debates. Syriac Christian manuscripts that preserved ancient Greek learning, such as geometry, medicine and philosophy, were translated into Arabic and later were reintroduced to the Western world by Muslims in Sicily. Christians held high offices, particularly in the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), where Christians frequently held the position of vizier or the title of pasha. And during the Arab Renaissance of the 19th century, Christians played a disproportionate role in the areas of literature, nationalism and political thought.

Despite the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, a form of immobility settled upon Middle East societies by the turn of the 21st century. But the so-called Arab Spring, together with the rise of increasingly violent Muslim extremist movements, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, have ripped apart the intricate patterns of Middle East societies, seemingly destroying overnight what was woven across two millennia. Cities such as Aleppo, Baghdad and Mosul, and areas like the Plain of Nineveh, all of which once had considerable communities of Christians, Jews and other minority groups, are bereft of these once colorful and fascinating cultures.

All of us who work for, through and with the peoples of the Middle East cannot help but watch what is happening there today with concern, and even sorrow. The connecting threads of this vitally important place are being worn down by hatred and fear, poverty and terror. Civil society is unraveling. The loss of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East will not only be a tragedy to the minorities immediately affected. It may also imperil the vitality and health of the Middle East and its Islamic civilization.

In the pages that follow, you will find stories of some of those who are working with CNEWA to try and prevent that from happening — and who are, in ways large and small, helping weave a new future for the land we call “Holy.”

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