Middle East Christians — an overview

Christians in the Middle East: Contemporary Human Rights Issues
St. John’s University, School of Law
21 October 2010 —

Distinguished panelists, guests and colleagues,

For nearly two weeks, I have been immersed in the topic that has brought us together this evening. In Rome, from where I have just returned, some 300 hierarchs and religious, lay men and women, Catholics and Orthodox, Christians, Muslims and Jews have gathered at the request of the bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, to attend the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. Under the shadow of Michelangelo’s dome, these pastors and academics have met and prayed, discussed and debated the concerns and lessons to be learned from the Christians who live in — or originate from — the lands sanctified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and by the blood of the first Christian martyrs.

I was not among the chosen — that honor belongs to my colleague, publisher and friend, Msgr. Robert L. Stern. My duties involved the press and synod participants, some of whom I have had the pleasure to have known for nearly two decades. But, even from my perspective, it is clear each synod father has been challenged to think about questions and issues perhaps greater than originally thought. For example:

  • What includes the Middle East?
  • Should our concerns be for the Christians OF the Middle East, Christians IN the Middle East or Middle East Christians everywhere?
  • Should we focus on emigration of Middle East Christians, displacement of Middle East Christians or immigration of Christians to the Middle East?
  • What sociopolitical and economic issues contribute to the movement of Christians?
  • How central is the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy to the challenges facing the region’s Christians?
  • Are the agonies endured by Christians in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Egypt, best described as persecution?
  • What constitutes persecution? And, if it is persecution, who are the persecutors?
  • What about the role and rights of women?

My comments tonight should not be understood as a report on the special assembly — it does not conclude until this Sunday. Nor will I attempt to address the questions I outlined above in detail. But, I hope my observations will help broaden what we define as Middle East Christianity and that human rights issues affect a far greater number of people than we may suspect.

In the context of Middle East Christianity, what defines Middle East?

In a special edition of ONE magazine published by Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the editorial staff defined the Middle East as those modern countries historically associated with the four apostolic patriarchates of the Eastern churches. (Parenthetically, these territories are the same as those treated by the Specially Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.) They include:

  • Turkey, which falls under the orbit of the church of Constantinople, founded in Greek Byzantium by St. Andrew.
  • Egypt, the center of the church of Alexandria of St. Mark the Evangelist.
  • Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Cyprus, at one time all of which were associated with the church of Antioch, founded by St. Peter.
  • The Holy City of Jerusalem, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and the various countries of the Arabian Peninsula, traditional territories of the mother church of Christendom, Jerusalem.

While the inclusion of Turkey in the Middle East — particularly as Turkey is applying for membership into the European Union — and the separation of Jerusalem from both Israel and Palestine may raise an eyebrow or two, the addition of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen adds an entirely different perspective.

Who are the Christians 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. A high-ranking hierarch in the Middle East once quipped to a colleague, “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 roughly 15.5 million Christians in the region. Never prone to exaggeration, the Holy See estimates that perhaps as many as 20 million Christians live in the Middle East, some 5.62 percent of its population. These include:

  • 138,000 Christians in Turkey, about 0.2 percent of its population of 77.8 million.
  • 8 million in Egypt, a tenth of its people.
  • 2 million in Syria or 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people.
  • A generous 2 million in Lebanon, though no more than 40 percent make up the country’s total population. While a census has not been conducted there since 1932, it is thought that between 4.1 and 4.5 million people live in Lebanon.
  • 300,000 Christians in Iraq, far less than the 1 million or so who once inhabited this “land between the rivers” prior to 1991.
  • Less than 365,000 Christians remain in Iran, or 0.5 percent of Iran’s 73 million people.
  • 900,000 Christians live in Cyprus, nearly 90 percent of the island’s population, the vast majority of whom belong to the autonomous Orthodox Church of Cyprus.
  • 12,000 Christians in the Holy City of Jerusalem.
  • 147,000 live in Israel, 2 percent of the Jewish state’s population.
  • Some 45,000 live in Palestine, about 43,000 in the West Bank and the balance in Gaza.
  • 300,000 Christians live in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, though the government officially counts Christians to be 6 percent of the total population of 6.4 million people.
  • An estimated 1,153,000 Christians in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes perhaps as many as a million in Saudi Arabia, who officially do not exist.

What Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. While in what is traditionally defined as the Middle East most are Arabs, they nevertheless constitute a diverse church: Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholics make up the bulk of the remaining Christians in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Chaldean Catholics stand out in Iraq. Maronites dominate Lebanon. Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox Christians comprise significant groups in Syria. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church is by far the region’s largest Christian community.

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. Most of Iran’s Christians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Assyrians, especially those who belong to the ancient Church of the East, are scattered throughout Iran, 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.

However, this accounting ignores the large number of Christian migrants settling in Israel, Lebanon and the Gulf states. Who are they? According to Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for Arabia, more than 2 million Filipinos live in the region, and about 80 percent of them are Latin Catholic. There also are tens of thousands of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, Latin Catholics from the southeastern Indian Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of Armenian, Chaldean, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac Christians from the heart of the Middle East as well as thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians — as many as 50,000 live in Yemen alone.

At a press conference in Rome last week, Bishop Hinder said he found the Special Assembly for the Middle East “too focused on the classical Oriental churches in the Middle East” and on the problems confronting the region’s indigenous Christians due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, war in Iraq and the continuing tensions in Lebanon.

The church cannot downplay the needs of the millions of Christian migrant workers in the region, he said. The situation is urgent, he continued, because in too many places migrant workers, especially women, “are treated as slaves,” not just in the Arabian Peninsula, but in Lebanon and Israel as well.

“It’s not a particular problem of the Muslim world,” but also happens when the employers are “wealthy Christians who treat these women in a horrible way,” forcing them to “work 22 hours a day, preventing them from leaving the house and, sometimes, subjecting them to sexual abuse,” the bishop said.

If they manage to flee, the first place they turn to is the church, whose priests and religious take the exploited to their embassies, which provide a safe house until they can be repatriated. No psychological help or support is offered, the bishop said, often due to the lack of funding and personnel.

What about the pastoral needs of displaced Christians?

The immigration of Middle Eastern Christians to the New World, and their eventual assimilation with that new culture, is a phenomenon of which many of us are familiar. Frequently, it is deplored by hierarchs and academics as the end of these particular churches. What will the universal church, they lament, look like if it is bereft of its Arabic, Armenian, Byzantine or Syriac cultures, rites and traditions? The lure of Rome, some say, is so strong that many Maronites and Melkites, Catholics and Orthodox, eventually enter into the arms of that Western church, losing forever their contact with their forbearers.

That is not necessarily so, said the Maronite Bishop of Brooklyn, Gregory Mansour. In a press briefing a few days after the opening of the synod, the American-born prelate placed pastoral responsibility on the shoulders of those pastors called to provide care for their flock in emigration.

Bishop Gregory likened the Eastern churches outside the Middle East to specialty grocery stores on the same block as large commercial grocery stores. “The small store knows they really have to look after their customers,” he said if they want to stay in business. It’s the same with the Eastern churches.

Generally, the churches historically rooted in the Middle East now have more members living in the Americas, Europe and Oceania than in their homelands. Many of these Christians have taken root in these new lands — often called the diaspora, which some resent — and are alive and well. Look at Detroit, which has been revitalized by Antiochene Orthodox, Chaldean and Maronite Christians. San Diego’s Chaldeans are thriving while the Assyrian catholicos-patriarch has made his permanent home in a Chicago suburb. These Christian communities exercised their freedom of movement and remain loyal to their traditions, even if they no longer live in their old neighborhoods in Baghdad or Basra.

But, because of the tangled web of culture, ethnicity, nationality and religion that makes up these Middle Eastern churches, over the years these communities “have been more focused on maintaining their unique and separate identities and safeguarding their institutions than on developing a mature, personal faith understanding and commitment among their members,” said Msgr. Robert Stern.

“Far too many Middle East Christians,” he continued, “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.”

Of course, a missionary and evangelizing dimension of Christian life in the Middle East is underdeveloped because of the constraints placed upon all the churches and their members by the political societies in which they live. But an evangelical zeal is necessary for these churches to remain alive and well, once the ethnic and tribal chains are loosened.

Is there a future for the region’s Christians?

Yes and no. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity is not tied to a place, be it a land or a shrine, or an ethnic group or tribe. Christianity transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. “Christianity,” writes Msgr. Stern, “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.” And while particular churches may at times become entangled with a certain culture, ethnic group or even a political party, it serves the whole world.

And so it remains true, especially in the Middle East. Not long after the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, I traveled there with an American-born Maronite priest. We toured the length of the country, destroyed bridges notwithstanding, and found Lebanon’s Christians, Maronites and Melkites, Armenians and Orthodox, rolling up their sleeves and working. 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.

And the region’s Christians do not toil only in times of crisis and war. Just a month ago, I accompanied a group of journalists to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. There, we met sisters tending to the psychological wounds of Iraqi refugee families. We spent time with members of the laity engaged in youth activities to keep teenagers off the streets, the playground of extremism. And we met priests determined to give the children of the poor a first-class education.

While funds and personnel remain in short supply, these works of mercy serve not just Christians, 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.

The challenge of Middle East Christians 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 Christians seek better lives elsewhere. And they are not alone in leaving. Well-educated, middle class Jews and Muslims, often the voices of moderation and reason, are leaving the region, too. A Middle East bereft of its well-educated and professional classes — Christian, Jewish or Muslim — does not bode well for the future. This is a cause for real concern, particularly among those of us concerned for coexistence of peoples and nations.

Thank you.

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

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