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Search for Brotherhood in the Christian Near East

During a visit to CNEWA, Armenian Apostolic Catholicos Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, reflects on the status of Christianity in the Middle East.

The continued Christian presence in Lebanon is somewhat of a barometer of the survival of Christianity throughout the Middle East. One religious leader from that region believes that realizing Christian brotherhood, despite dogmatic differences, is the only chance for the survival of the faith there.

“The world made us become conscious of the commonness of our cause in a world which is becoming for the Christians a minority situation,” said His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The catholicos, who is based in Beirut, is the highest official of that Church outside of Soviet Armenia.

“We live in an area and in a time in the Middle East where either we face the issues ecumenically, or we lose our cause,” Karekin said during a May visit to Catholic Near East’s offices in New York. “We face atheism and secularism not as a Catholic Church or a Protestant Church or an Episcopalian Church, but as Christians. Common problems need common solutions instead of sectarian or isolated approaches. That was part of the emergence of the ecumenical movement.”

Karekin is by word, deed and formation an internationalist. His view of order in the world is dependent on such an orientation. It’s been his experience.

Born in Syria in 1932, the catholicos was ordained there in 1952. From 1957 to 1959 he studied theology in Great Britain at Oxford University. Proficient in languages, particularly in English and French, he became a representative of the House of Cilicia at ecumenical conferences throughout the world. From 1963 to 1965 he was Cilicia’s observer at the Second Vatican Council. In 1971 he was elected prelate of the Iran-Indian diocese of New Julfa in Isfahan, Iran, and two years later was appointed Pontifical Legate of the Eastern Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, based in New York. He was eventually made primate of the Eastern prelacy Throughout this time he was noted for his work in ecumenism, education and in organizing youth.

When Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, Karekin was still in New York. Two years later he was elected Catholicos of Cilicia, whose seat is in Antelias, a suburb of Beirut.

“When I was elected there was the sounds of shelling outside,” the Catholicos recalled. “In all these 13 years they have never ceased.”

In simply a physical sense the survival of the church in Lebanon is crucial, for the Christian presence there is proportionally the greatest in the Middle East. Karekin has not given up on Lebanon, if only because of the reasons the Armenians had in going there in the first place.

“We used to be in Turkey, in the ancient kingdom of Cilicia,” he said. “Why did we leave? Because of the genocide, because of the massacres… The question is why we chose Lebanon. We had other countries where we had more Armenians, like Syria. It was because of the strong Christian presence in Lebanon … And secondly, because of the freedom and democracy that still is in Lebanon. Thanks be to God, this freedom was not lost after so much has been lost in Lebanon.

“We can publish anything at any time,” the catholicos explained. “We can have our rituals without government pressure or restrictions. That’s not the case in Iraq or in Syria… But in Lebanon, in spite of all the fighting and destruction, killings and bombardments, that freedom is not affected. It is there that we can cultivate what we think to be creative witness in the Father.”

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been a cause of great concern among many Christians, but Catholicos Karekin is less concerned about it than he is by what may have caused it to occur. He blames Western influences for more or less forcing Islamic culture into a corner.

“I have served as bishop in Isfahan, a mostly Muslim city. I know how that kind of government was so alienated from the Islamic faith,” he recalled. “The Shah and his entourage were living like Europeans. The ordinary people were kept backward. When the higher classes of Muslims were coming to Europe – even the educated ones – they were becoming quite separated from their own roots. And therefore people began to be challenged by this avalanche of Western influence.

“Secularism penetrated so many of the Middle Eastern countries that Islam began to feel that the foundations of its life were being shattered by this new concept of life, in which religion and normal ways of life are separated,” he continued. For Eastern Christians as well, “religion was becoming a matter of Mass attendance. In business, in the family, in other areas of life, religion had no place. Church and state separation led many Christian sectors to departmentalize the understanding of life.”

With no lack of experience in the West, Karekin said he did not mean to belittle its art, spirituality and its history of social service. But he said the secularism of the West became “a threat to our youth because they did not go deep enough into the intrinsic values of Western culture.”

“They only copied the superficial aspects,” he said. “Half the reason young people are leaving the countries of the Middle East is not necessarily because of the oppression or the persecution or the hardships there, but attraction to the superficial aspects of Western culture.”

The catholicos made clear the distinctions between Eastern and Western Christians and their churches. Eastern churches, he said, are not “missionary” churches in the Western sense of the word. In his sense, “mission” is the “spreading of the Word of God to those who have not heard it and to those who are willing… We don’t have organized mission centers, and we don’t have mission fields. And I don’t like some of the Western expressions speaking about the Middle East as a mission field.

“They are not coming there as if they are coming into the wilderness. We have been there, sometimes in the cause of martyrdom, which is the case of my own church and so many other churches.”

Notions of the Eastern churches as “stagnant” are false, Karekin said, asserting that those institutions are “living, witnessing churches, but perhaps not in the same way as in the Western countries.”

He added that while Christians in the Middle East can be considered minorities numerically, it does not mean they are considered third class citizens.

The catholicos was perhaps suggesting that the Christians of the Middle East should be given more credit than they often get from the West. He said that he constantly tells his own congregation in Lebanon, “Don’t exaggerate this hardship, this crucifixion,” keeping in mind the many centuries of hardship the Armenians in particular have endured since embracing Christianity as a people almost 1,700 years ago.

“That spirit of endurance, that experience of resurrection and hope is part of our Christian predicament, as much as sharing the grief of others in the spirit of the cross.”

The catholicos thanked Catholic Near East and the Pontifical Mission for its aid to Lebanon over the years, “and not only dealing with the problems. You have had the courage to send some of your own people to see us and be with us. The very fact of you visiting us is significant.”

Assistance from the West is vital for the survival of Christianity in the Middle East, he said, but it is only helpful if given in cooperation with local infrastructures that are still in place, even in areas like war-torn Lebanon.

He spoke of one Swedish worker who offered assistance, but asked that it be managed by his own countrymen “because I don’t think your people are articulate enough to prepare projects.”

The catholicos refused the help.

“If we didn’t have the structures, then he would be totally justified,” he said “I told him: ‘You don’t know my community, and you are acting from positions which have no foundation.’ And that kind of help I really don’t consider to be that helpful.”

The assistance required in Lebanon now should be in the form of emergency relief, Karekin said, explaining that “reconstruction at this stage is unrealistic.” It is his hope also that aid be administered in a spirit of solidarity.

“I should like to see that the people of Lebanon feel that their Christian brothers and sisters have not abandoned them while the world is abandoning them, including some quarters within American government circles,” he said. “But Christian churches have their own agenda, and our agenda is not to he shaped by either my government or your government. We have our Christian brotherhood. We have our Christian common code.”

Thomas McHugh is editor of Catholic Near East.

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