The Future of Christians in the Middle East

La Salle University, Diplomats-in-Residence Program

Good afternoon.

One early Sunday morning last November, I accompanied 12 journalists to a children’s Mass. Despite our camera equipment and shoddy attire, the pastor escorted us to the front of the cavernous church, feet from the youth choir, whose members were still practicing for the liturgy. The sanctuary was swarming with children — toddlers left their parents in the pews to sit on the steps below the altar, teens posed for their photograph or lighted a candle near an image of the Blessed Mother. The noise before Mass was deafening; the church was packed.

We were not in St. Laurence’s in Upper Darby or St. Pat’s in Malvern (forgive the revelation of Delaware County roots), but at St. Elias Church in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Run by the Franciscan Anthonite Fathers, the Maronite Catholic parish has five regularly scheduled Masses each Sunday. And though the neighboring Maronite parish is but a few blocks away, each Sunday Mass at St. Elias is as crowded as that 9 a.m. children’s’ liturgy.

The journalists who accompanied me were in shock: They did not expect to see hundreds of well-heeled middle class families park their cars and run to Mass — most of them late. The images of Middle East Christians many had conjured up involved elderly parishioners, empty churches, armed guards and secretive locations. While this may, God forbid, be the future of Christianity in the Middle East, it is far from its present in most of the region.

There can be doubt that Middle East Christians live in jeopardy and their fate hangs in the balance: Should they stay or should they go? But concerns for the oldest of Christian communities — descendants of those who first responded to the call of Jesus Christ — should be extended to all people of good will in the region. Is it in the best interests of the Middle East if the region’s Christians emigrate and settle elsewhere? Is it in the best interests of the West if the Middle East is deprived of its Christian heritage? What are the implications of a region bereft of its moderate and well educated citizens, Christian, Jewish and Muslim? How will the Arab revolutions of 2011 impact the marginalized and minorities?

I will not attempt to address all of these questions. But I hope my observations will help you understand better the Christians of the Middle East and of their concerns, which they share with their non-Christian neighbors and friends. Perhaps, too, it will provide an inkling into their future.

What defines the Middle East?

In a special edition of ONE magazine published by my agency, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, we defined the Middle East as those modern countries historically associated with the four apostolic patriarchates of the Eastern churches. 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.
  • 138,000 Christians in Turkey, about 0.2 percent of its 77.8 million people.
  • 8 million in Egypt, a tenth of its people.
  • 2 million in Syria or 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people.
  • About 2 million in Lebanon, perhaps 40 percent of the country’s total population, which is thought to include up to 4.5 million people.
  • 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from the million or so in 1991.
  • Perhaps 365,000 Christians in Iran, or 0.5 percent of its 73 million people.
  • 900,000 Orthodox Christians live in Cyprus, nearly 90 percent of the island’s population.
  • 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 1.5 million Catholics live in the Arabian Peninsula, as many as one million live in Saudi Arabia alone.

What Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. In the areas traditionally defined as the Middle East most Christians are Arabs, but they constitute a diverse community: 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 once thrived in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Anglican, Reformed and evangelical Protestant communities also live in the region.

What about the large number of Christian migrants settling in Israel, Lebanon and the Gulf states? Who are they? According to Bishop Paul Hinder, the Latin 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 state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, and tens of thousands of Armenian, Chaldean, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac Christians from the heart of the Middle East. There are also thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians &mdash as many as 50,000 live in Yemen alone. And a significant number of undeclared Christians in Israel who emigrated from the former Soviet bloc but are married to Jewish spouses.

Bishop Hinder has said the churches cannot downplay the needs of the millions of Christian migrant workers in the region. The situation is especially urgent because women migrant workers 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.

Unlike the strong denominational divide here in North America, the Middle East’s Christian communities are considerably more inclusive. Intermarriage is the norm and not an issue — according to custom prevalent in a region that remains traditional, wife and children follow the rites of the husband and father — thus complicating efforts to gather accurate numbers. But intermarriage also contributes to a marked degree of fluidity amongst the region’s Christians and a greater awareness of one another’s own histories, rituals and traditions.

While the region’s many Catholic churches are, with few exceptions, smaller than their Orthodox counterparts, their social service institutions play a disproportionate and crucial role in shaping the attitudes and the forming the minds of society, Christian and Muslim. Catholic clinics, Catholic colleges, Catholic orphanages, Catholic schools, Catholic soup kitchens and Catholic homes for the aged, the infirmed and the handicapped pepper the landscape, contributing invaluable services to a population weary of discord, economic stagnation and violence.

What will the region be like without its Christians?

Throughout the Arab world, historians, sociologists, politicians and clergy — Christian and Muslim alike — maintain the role of Christians is an important one throughout the Middle East:

“The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises, fills the void and gains the upper hand,” said Muhammad Sammak, a political 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.

But for many Arab Muslims — especially those who find it politically expedient — Christians of the Middle East are identified with Westerners. Despite their apostolic roots, Christians are perceived as no more integrated with the community than the expatriates who live in the various capital cities.

Arab journalist Daoud Kattab profiled the work of the Iraqi Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena among the impoverished living in Zerqa, Jordan. He writes, “While the Dominicans enjoy a warm rapport with the local population, they note that children often mistake them for Westerners and greet them in English. The sisters,” he continues, “quickly reply in perfect Arabic that they, too, are Arabs.”

A mistake such as this would not be particularly problematic if the Arab and Western worlds understood one another. But as we all know, the lives of the Middle East’s Christians are always adversely affected after the West comes crashing in.

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. Maronite Catholics abandoned their monastic center in Syria for the safety of Mount Lebanon. Armenians have more than once shaken the dust off their feet and moved to more friendly terrain. Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox left their ancestral villages for the economic potential in the regions’ larger cities of Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

In the last hundred years or so, Christians of all varieties — even as a sense of Arab nationalism matured in the Ottoman world — began leaving the region. Why? While there had been cases of persecution, this should not be exaggerated.

“Most Christians feel a sense of exclusion from the predominantly Muslim or Jewish societies in which they live,” wrote Msgr. Robert Stern in a recent article in ONE magazine. “But that there is discrimination against Christians in most Muslim countries is absolutely incontestable.

“Further,” he adds, “the West has its attractions. Most Middle East Christians have family or friends living freely in Australia, Scandinavia, Latin and North America.”

Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the world has watched on its smart phones, Blackberries, computer screen and televisions as Iraq’s Christians, Chaldean Catholics, Armenian and Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, have fled for safety in neighboring Jordan and Syria. They have seen its churches bombed and reacted with horror to images of bloodstained priests and parishioners. Not since the World War I era — the last major Western incursion into the Middle East — has a Middle Eastern community battled extinction.

In the waning days of World War I, as the British and French poised their troops to carve up the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish and Turkish nationalists accused their Christian minorities of complicity and treason. Up to two million Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians died: Hundreds of thousands were murdered; others died of starvation, disease and exposure to the elements as entire villages were uprooted and deported.

“History is repeating itself,” said one woman in Amman I met a few years ago who, as a child, survived this slaughter of Christians. “What is happening in today’s Iraq is the same as what happened to us 90 years ago. And again the rest of the world has shut its eyes.”

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. It is often deplored by bishops 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 the Roman church, losing forever their contact with forbearers and homelands.

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 Arab Christians and Muslims, who have forged strong alliances to revamp their communities. 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 or Mosul.

Over time, even as these communities moved from place to place, leaving their ancient centers of Antioch or Damascus, Edessa or Mosul, Nisibis or Baghdad, they maintained their identities, their cultures, their languages, their rites and their unique approaches to the Christian faith. These faith communities, Catholic and Orthodox, defied death and prospered, founding new centers, new monasteries and convents, new churches and schools.

But, because of the tangled web of culture, ethnicity, nationality and religion that makes up these Middle Eastern churches, over the years some Middle East Christians have focused on maintaining their unique identities and safeguarding their institutions rather than on developing and deepening a mature, personal faith in Jesus Christ. Far too many Middle East Christians consider themselves more as members of a tribe or social group bound together by distinctive customs and traditions than as followers 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 undone.

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. 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 a political party, these churches serve the whole world, particularly as they envelope the whole world.

And so it remains true, especially in the Middle East. Perhaps the critical mass of a faith community that gave us the origins of Arab nationalism, modern Arab scholarship, pan-Arab sentiments and Palestinian liberation theology will evaporate. But hopefully the seeds of hope and social justice sowed by generations of Christian teachers — priests, sisters, brothers, 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, Maronites and Melkites, Armenians and Orthodox, rolling up their sleeves and working. My colleagues and 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 villages and schools and churches.

And the region’s Christians do not toil only in times of crisis and war. In October, I led another group of journalists to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In Amman, we met Franciscan sisters tending to the psychological wounds of Iraqi refugee families. In Haifa 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 in Ramallah 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.

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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