Churches and mosques vie for prominence in the Syrian city of Aleppo. (photo: Spencer Osberg)
Pope Benedict XVI visits Jerusalem’s Muslim sanctuaries in May 2009. (photo: CNS/Ziv Koren, Government Press Office/Reuters)
Christian refugees receive aid through the Pontifical Mission in Amman, Jordan. (photo: Nader Daoud)
The Middle East is the homeland of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jews feel at home in one part of it. Muslims feel at home in most of it. Increasingly, Christians do not feel at home at all.
Once and former lords. Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story, “The Absentee From 6 Molcho Street,” an interview with Claudette Habesch, Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem. She reminisced about the house where she was born and spent her childhood, which is now occupied by an elderly Jewish lady. Mrs. Habesch’s family was caught away from Jerusalem during the first Arab-Israeli war. After the cessation of hostilities, she and her family were never allowed to return to their home.
Most Middle East Christians understand her feelings. They recall with pride and nostalgia that once most of the lands of the Middle East were Christian. They also recall their influence, role and wealth — which was often disproportionate to their numbers.
After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire 17 centuries ago, the lands we now know as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Cyprus, Israel, Palestine and Jordan were filled with churches, monasteries and shrines. These dynamic centers of Christian life and thought were organized into the four great patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
As the Arab followers of the Prophet Muhammad conquered and occupied the lands once under Rome, Christians gradually became the minority — though a very importantand influential minority — in what became an overwhelmingly Islamic Middle East.
Foreigners in their own land. Christians, though second-class citizens in Islamic societies, were esteemed as “People of the Book” and, for the most part, learned to live with their Muslim overlords and neighbors.
The Crusades changed that. For the first time, in the name of God, Christian militias from the West invaded the heartland of the Middle East, seeking to reclaim it from Islam. Though sometimes harassed and victimized by the Crusaders, local Christians were nevertheless associated with the invaders —because of their shared Christian faith — by the Muslim community. Consequently, they were perceived as allies of the enemy.
In later centuries, Middle East Christians looked increasingly to the West, confiding in Western powers to protect them and emulating many of the West’s ways.
In modern times, Middle East Christians often traveled to the West, sent their children to schools there, adopted Western styles of dress and customs, and even studied and spoke Western European languages in preference to their native ones.
Their links to the West aggravated their position during the 20th century. With the post-World War I dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Western powers, the United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine, and the invasions of Iraq, extremist Muslim political movements have become increasingly more hostile to the West — and that hostility has been increasingly directed at their Christian Middle Eastern confreres.
Confusing religion with nationality. From ancient times, religion — in the sense of the assemblage of ceremonies, customs and rites of worship with its ministers and teachers — was regulated by the ruler or governing authority.
Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” planted a seed of challenge to this social understanding of religion. However, it is only in relatively recent times that this seed has flowered into new values such as separation of church and state and freedom of conscience, worship and religion.
In varying degrees, almost all countries of the Middle East are culturally and religiously Islamic, ranging from the militantly secular Turkey to the militantly religious Saudi Arabia.
The modern State of Israel is religiously and culturally Jewish, but internally divided by a similar wide range of religious understanding and practice.
Most of the island of Cyprus is thoroughly Greek Orthodox, while Lebanon represents an anomaly in the Arab cultural world with its carefully delineated sharing of power among Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze.
Middle East Christians now live in an overwhelmingly Judeo-Islamic world. Their continuing challenge is to find ways to integrate themselves and their faith more fully into the majority cultures of Middle East societies and to “de-Westernize” their religious customs and practices, yet in complete fidelity to their identity as disciples and followers of Jesus.
Finding common ground. In October 2007, 138 distinguished academics, jurists and religious teachers from the worldwide Muslim community addressed an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders concerning the common ground between Christianity and Islam. The document, with its quranic exegesis, identified love of the one God and love of neighbor as common and core values for Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
This bold initiative prescinded from emphasizing national and cultural differences, plunging directly into the great common core of faith and belief among the children of Abraham.
Often, this is precisely what does not happen in the Middle East. Local Christians, Muslims and Jews tend to be imprisoned by their respective historical memories and traditions. They constantly call attention to their differences and distinctiveness. They radically misunderstand each other’s religious language.
For example, there are verses in the Quran that deny Jesus as the Son of God, seemingly misconstruing Christian belief. Yet, Muslims venerate Jesus as son of Mary and make no reference to a human father — which is a departure from typical Islamic culture, which is decidedly paternal. Muslims and Christians touch on the same incomprehensible mystery of Jesus’ origin and paternity, but with mutually unintelligible ways of speaking about it.
An earlier Islamic call for finding common ground came from the late Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, Grand Mufti of Syria, who at the end of the 20th century called upon the followers of the great messengers of heaven, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, to be in solidarity in confronting the urgent problems and moral issues of today’s world.
Another challenge for Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom seek to follow the will of the one and the same God and aspire to be in his presence forever (which implies being together forever), is to begin to collaborate in realizing this great goal of solidarity now.
These inclusive understandings of faith among the children of Abraham pose radical challenges to the exclusive understanding of faith that is characteristic of traditional Middle East societies — especially theocratic Muslim societies, the relatively theocratic Jewish society of Israel, and local Christian communities.
The concept and value of a religiously pluralistic society is of relatively recent experience in the West and is still new to most traditionally Christian Western countries as well.
Defending the faith. After the fall of the Iron Curtain more than 20 years ago, the churches of Eastern Europe reconnected with the rest of the world, but were handicapped by a defensive mentality and a dated ecclesiology.
The Middle East’s Orthodox churches are even more vulnerable to political pressures than its Catholic churches, since their origins as state and national churches make them traditionally subordinate to the political governing authority. Catholics, to the contrary, have more independence from civil control, fruit of the long history and experience of the Western churches and their international dimension.
The role of the Maronite Church in Lebanon — especially its patriarch — is unique among the Middle East’s churches.
Because of this tangled web of culture, ethnicity, nationality and religion, over the years Middle East churches have been more focused on maintaining their unique, separate identities and safeguarding their institutions than on developing a mature, personal faith understanding and commitment among their members.
Far too many Middle East Christians still consider themselves more as members of a tribe or social group bound together by distinctive customs and traditions than as members of a band of disciples guided by the spirit of Jesus.
Also, a missionary and evangelizing dimension of Christian life in the Middle East is necessarily very underdeveloped because of the constraints placed upon all the churches and their members by the political societies in which they live.
The painful past and present experiencesof Middle East Christians have shaped their responses to persecution and discrimination. The forced displacement of Armenians, Chaldeans and Greeks, the death of some 1.5 million Christians between 1915 and 1923, and the chaos and random violence of Iraq have often led to a “circling the wagons.”
Lebanon was created by the French to be a Christian enclave; the call for a Christian homeland in Kurdistan is an echo of a similar mentality, paradoxically not unlike the rationale for the State of Israel.
Historically, separation has not proven to be an adequate methodology to ensure the survival of Middle East Christians — or, for that matter, to resolve the vexing and persistent political problems of the region.
The churches in their diversity. The homelands of Christianity have an incredible diversity of ecclesiastical jurisdictions, rites and customs, most dating from ancient times when all the lands were Christian.
Consequently, the Middle East has an overabundance of hierarchs compared to most of the Christian world, but relatively few priests and religious and increasingly fewer faithful.
For example, the (Latin Catholic) archbishop of Cologne, Germany, shepherds more than 2.1 million faithful; the (Melkite Greek Catholic) archbishop of Lattaqiya, Syria, tends a flock of 10,000.
Most would agree that there are too many ecclesiastical circumscriptions; however, pride in their historical roots and rivalries among them make reducing their number through suppression or consolidation problematic.
Even so, apart from some reservations regarding contemporary Egypt, ecumenical relations among all the churches of the Middle East are optimal. Except for a lack of agreement about how the bishop of Rome should exercise his special ministry for safeguarding and nurturing the unity of the universal church, the divisive doctrinal matters of earlier centuries among most of the churches have been resolved.
Some churches have taken major steps toward unity. For example, in Damascus the Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch and the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarchate of Antioch have been exploring models of collaboration and unity, even to the point of constructing shared parish churches.
However, full communion has not yet been achieved locally, even though it is much desired, especially because of the solidarity of the various Middle Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches with their not-yet-fully-united mother churches and worldwide brethren.
In many, if not most, countries of the Middle East, the Christian laity feels far less constrained in this regard than the clergy. Full participation in the worship of other churches is not uncommon and most inter-Christian marriages regularly follow the church and rite of the husband.
Most Christians are pleased with the Jordanian practice of celebrating Christmas according to the Latin custom and Easter on the day of Orthodox calculation and would be happy to see this as universal practice.
Leaving home. The Christian percentage of the population of almost all the countries of the Middle East — the oil-rich Gulf states are notable exceptions — as well as the total number of Christians has been steadily diminishing since the 19th century.
From the dispassionate view of the sociologist, this is a long-term trend inexorably leading toward fewer Christians and inevitably resulting in the loss of that critical mass necessary for the long-term viability of these ancient communities.
Some pessimistically have described this modern decline of the Christian presence in the Middle East as the last stages of the displacement of the Christian Roman Empire by Islam.
Many factors are involved in the decline in Christian population. A significant socioeconomic factor is the difference in family size among contemporary Christians, Muslims and Orthodox Jews. Since Christian families tend to aspire to a high standard of living and education for their children, they have lower birthrates and are smaller than many of their neighbors.
Further, in almost all the countries of the Middle East where native or guest worker Christians exist, they are generally treated as second-class and are subjected to various forms of explicit or implicit discrimination in housing, employment and civil and military service — occasionally to the point of persecution.
War, terrorism, violence, injustice and poverty have prompted many native Middle East people — e.g., Iraqs Christians — to relocate within their own countries, flee to neighboring countries or emigrate permanently.
The proportion of Christians among the displaced or emigrating is higher than among the general population — witness Iraq, Syria, Ontario, Michigan or New South Wales.
Christians have a greater affinity with Western countries because of social and religious ties. Minority Middle East Christians also feel pressured by increasingly more militant Islamists in most Middle East countries — and in Israel feel doubly a minority, both as Arabs among Jews and as Christian Arabs among Muslims.
Generally, the churches historically rooted in the Middle East now have more of their faithful living in the Americas, Western Europe and Australia than in their homelands.
Middle East Christians have taken root in these diaspora lands. They are alive and well and faithful to their traditions — only most do not live in their old neighborhoods anymore.
Sustaining the Christian presence. When St. Paul wrote to the Romans, he appealed for assistance for the poor Christians of Jerusalem. Since ancient times, a similar concern has existed throughout the Christian world for the poor and needy of the church of Jerusalem, the Holy Land and the entire Middle East.
Most of the churches of the Middle East are not self-sufficient; their modest local resources are not enough to sustain and develop their operations and institutions. In addition to receiving permanent or temporary clerical, religious and lay personnel from abroad, these churches depend upon outside remittances and charitable assistance to sustain their institutional life and programs.
For example, in 1949 the Holy See established a special relief and development agency for the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission; Catholic churches around the world take up a special collection for the Holy Land every year; the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has fund-raising networks sustaining its religious and charitable work in the Middle East; and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem raises funds for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the churches of the greater Holy Land.
Massive assistance also comes to the Christian communities of the Middle East from other worldwide networks of Catholic and Orthodox charities in addition to governmental aid to the general populations.
The charity of the Christian world to Middle East Christians is vital. The Middle East’s Christian communities may never be filled with youthful vitality again, but in their weakness and need they must not be denied life support from other generations of Christians around the world.
The role of Middle East Christians. Those Christians who remain in the Middle East have a potentially unique role to play — of being bridge builders to the future, especially for the Arab and Muslim worlds.
They have the capacity and mission of bringing the leaven of Christian-inspired values such as pluralism, separation of church and state, and freedom of worship and conscience to their countries, most of which remain relatively culturally isolated from the Western and modern worlds.
Christians can also contribute to the advancement of Middle Eastern countries through their advocacy for respect for God-given human dignity and inalienable rights; by their promotion of reconciliation and forgiveness; and by involving themselves in peacemaking initiatives at local, regional, national and international levels.
Their ties to the West, which often personally handicap Middle Eastern Christians in their homelands, can also facilitate and expedite assistance from the West to the growth of these homelands, whether Arab, Israeli, Kurd, Persian or Turkish.
Between a rock and a hard place. The ancient West Bank city of Hebron houses a shrine built over the cave of Machpaleh, the burial place of Abraham and the patriarchs. Until 1967, the interior of the building was used as a mosque; now a large part is a synagogue. There is an uneasy peace between adherents of the two Abrahamic faiths and much contention about who controls the sanctuary.
Look closely at the architecture of the building housing both Jewish and Muslim worship areas and you will see a church dating from the Crusader period — yet Christians have no cultic presence there nor hold any part of the shrine. This symbolizes the Christian situation — caught in the middle between Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, almost invisible to both and yet vested in both sides.
Today, the most destabilizing and contentious issue for Christians and all the peoples of the Middle East is this unresolved relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Both peoples aspire to possess the same small land; both are ambivalent about their use of violence; and both seem to consistently miss opportunities to reconcile their differences.
In her book, The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman questioned why governments so often pursue policies contrary to their own long-term interests, despite the availability and knowledge of feasible alternatives.
This favoring of short-term political interests at the expense of long-term best interests characterizes most of the national policies at play in the Middle East today, not only those of Israel and Palestine.
For example, the uneasy confessional balance in Lebanon has prompted agreement among Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze to leave unresolved the status of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living in United Nations refugee camps there, in spite of some recent improvements regarding capacity to work lawfully in the country.
Meanwhile, Israel maintains its ambivalence about settlement growth in the occupied Palestinian territories — and with rare exception presumes that a “settlement,” generally an urban development, must be exclusively Jewish and cannot be shared.
Palestinians are internally divided among themselves. In Gaza, they continue to nurture a militant and impractical religious ideology, which still foments terrorism against Israel, tweaking the tail of the tiger as it were.
Several countries espouse policies of massive retaliation and brute violence, paradoxically in the cause of making peace — and frequently presume that internal control to the point of injustice and discrimination ensures domestic tranquility.
Challenges of peacemaking. In many countries of the world, arranged marriages are still customary. Well-planned family alliances are deemed more important than romantic love in making the decision to wed. Love can be learned after the marriage is made.
Peacemaking has many similarities. In 1993, U.S. President Bill Clinton brought Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together in Washington, D.C., in search of peace. The Israeli prime minister bluntly stated that he did not like being there, but the alternative was more war, bloodshed and violence.
Minimally, peace is a cessation of war and violence. But it is also an opportunity to forge new, positive relationships among former enemies. The theological basis for peacemaking is the truth about human persons — that the one God created each individual and endowed each one with inalienable dignity and rights.
Peacemaking is a Christian imperative. Jesus blessed peacemakers, calling them children of God. Peacemaking requires understanding the other. It calls for not being put off by differences but emphasizing what we have in common. It establishes links and connections, makes common cause and persists in maintaining communication.
Above all, peacemaking requires abstaining from revenge and retaliation, while seeking reconciliation and forgiveness. Ultimately, as Jesus taught, it demands the almost impossible — love of enemies. It can be learned and it is achievable with the help of God.
Christians in the Middle East may be relatively few, but their continued presence, their existential witness, their bridge building across the abysses of division, and their peacemaking are vital to the well-being of all the peoples of the Middle East.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern