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The Importance of Religious Identity in the Holy Land

Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre
Diocese of Brooklyn Communion Breakfast

26 March 2006

On Tuesday, I had just returned from two countries that are rightly considered as part of the Holy Land: Lebanon and Syria. Our Lord himself visited Lebanon and the story of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is familiar to all of us. I would like to recount for you an incident that occurred just upon my arrival in Lebanon.

After presenting my passport to the young man at the desk, he returned it to me with the question: “Are you a Catholic priest?” I replied that I was and he then, quietly, told me: “I am a Maronite,” gave me a “thumbs up” and bade me farewell with a “ciao.” (The gesture and the salutation revealed his familiarity and comfort with Western culture.) I don’t think that this would have happened in the United States. It is not unthinkable that I would be asked if I was a Catholic priest, but for the person then to identify himself in a quiet, furtive manner is a phenomenon unique to where Christians are the minority, where they must maintain a low profile.

Christians in the Middle East are really an enigma to most of us in the West. Some of us are vaguely aware of their existence and a few of us have heard that their numbers are diminishing and they are the minorities. For the most part, however, we usually forget that they are there. For us in the West, Arab equals Muslim. We forget that Iraq or Syria or Egypt has a Christian population. (Indeed Iraq, Syria and Egypt were, before the Islamic invasions, Christian countries.)

In the United States, as is the case in most secular societies, we are not comfortable mixing religion with politics: A person’s religious beliefs are not to be judged before the law. This separation of church and state has occasionally resulted in difficulties and aberrations but, for the most part, it works. This is not the case in the Middle East – where one’s religious affiliation is everything. In Lebanon, the president of the Republic is always a Maronite; the prime minister is always a Sunnite and so forth. All the religious sects are represented. One’s religious affiliation is clearly identified on civil documents because a citizen’s rights are in part articulated by the law of the religious community. For example, a Catholic must follow the laws of the Catholic Church with regard to marriage, divorce and inheritance. A Druze must follow the laws of his community.

This is the system of governance wherever Islam is the prevailing religion. According to Islam, there can be no distinction between religion and the state. At first glance, this is regarded as offensive and old-fashioned to Westerners. Indeed, just as an absolute separation of church and state has resulted in aberrations, a complete coalescing of the religious and political spheres has on occasion resulted in fanaticism and oppression. But, let us look at it a little more closely: If a person holds certain religious beliefs as being absolutely true, how may one act otherwise in civil society in any other way? To assert that my religious beliefs are one thing and that my political positions are distinct – and perhaps contradictory – is schizophrenic.

Not only does the state identify a person according to his or her religious affiliation, but the people themselves do so. In the United States, in describing someone, we might say that the person is an Italian from Brooklyn or an Irishman from Staten Island. It is unlikely that one would be described as a Methodist from the Upper West Side. Religious affiliation just does not figure into our thinking to the degree of ethnic background, residence or origins. In the Middle East, religious affiliation is everything. To say that a person is a Christian (or even more specifically, a Maronite or an Orthodox) gives a clear indication of the person’s culture, level of education, political positions and even some idea of where the person might live. A religious belief might advocate for or prohibit a marriage. (This used to play a significant role in American society, but its influence has diminished.)

In the West, in our obsession to simplify things, we usually break the whole population down into Muslims, Christians and Jews, as if each of these communities were monolithic and homogenous, which is not the case. There are tensions within the Jewish community involving such basic questions such as “Who is a Jew?” and what role Jewish law is to have in the state of Israel. Among the Muslims, one finds the Sunnites, the Shiites, Druze and Alawites, some of whom have many more problems with each other than they might have with the Christians. Muslims are faced with a challenge regarding the degree of influence that Islamic law is to have in the state.

Among the Christians, there are Catholics, which are segmented into Maronites, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrians, Armenians, Copts and Chaldeans. There are the Byzantine Orthodox, the ancient Orthodox, the Assyrians. Last Saturday in Syria, I visited three patriarchs, heads of different churches.

In a moment I shall address the issue of the minority status of Christians in the Middle East. One positive result of this minority status of Christians in society is that it is forcing the Christians to “stick together.” Ecumenism in Eastern Europe is facing many obstacles; in the Middle East, ecumenical relations are a way of life. When Pope John Paul II visited Damascus, he was greeted by the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius. Together they accompanied the Holy Father throughout his visit to Syria. When a woman marries a man who belongs to a different Christian community, it is presumed that she will then follow his faith tradition for the sake of family unity.

We have all heard on numerous occasions that the Christians in the Middle East are a minority and that their numbers continue to diminish as a result of emigration to the West. The Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Beirut, Archbishop Elias Audi, told me that it is difficult for the Christians of Lebanon to accept the fact they no longer hold the reins of power and are indeed a minority in the country. The metropolitan commented that they need to learn to act and speak another way, not a simple task. He also observed that many Christian leaders want to continue with “business as usual” and to ignore the future reality. He strongly urges all the Christian religious leaders to accept the reality of a changed political situation and take appropriate actions.

When we in the West hear about the reduced Christian population, we wring our hands a little, perhaps shed a tear, and move on. Such a passive acceptance is not the attitude of Muslims and Jews. (Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of some has on occasion erupted into violence – but these are exceptions, not the rule.)

Those of us who are more committed support such organizations as the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. But there is a certain weakness even with this. Perhaps the problem is with the name itself, Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre. I am not advocating its modification, I just want to point out that it might misdirect our focus of concern. It describes a building, albeit a holy place, but still, a building. It beckons to the time of the Crusades, when Christian armies were raised to liberate the holy places from the infidels.

But this is no longer our concern: Our attention must be drawn to the people themselves. We are not so much concerned about protecting buildings, but in protecting Christians. Are we willing to stand by and passively witness the disappearance of a Christian presence in the land where Our Lord walked? Are we willing to let the holy places turn into monuments of a faith that once was?

I am definitely not preaching a new crusade to take back the holy places. But I am advocating an increase of concern for the lives of our brothers and sisters who bear the name of Christ. To allow them to disappear will naturally mean a loss for the church, but also a loss for the region because Christians continue to serve society in the Middle East through the operation of schools, hospitals and charities. They are serving Muslims. They do so because this is what Christ wants us to do. For the West, the disappearance of Christians from the region will mean a loss of partners who share values and certain aspects of culture.

But what does this mean in our lives? What are we doing? Through financial support, we are using our affluence – are we using our influence? Or are we afraid of bringing religion into politics?

I raise this issue because, as I said before, we Americans are reticent to mix politics and religion, but any resolution of the “Middle East problem” must take into account religious affiliations and sensibilities because they are the foundation of Middle East culture and politics. To discount religion is a guarantee for failure.

The issue of the Christians in the Holy Land is not simply an issue of religion, it is also a matter of justice. The Christians of that region cannot defend themselves; their numbers are too small. They need our help. The religious and political authorities in those lands must understand we Christians in the West are watching: persecution or even discrimination against Christians in the region is unacceptable and will have consequences. This must be our stance – even if some might perceive it as politically incorrect.

What can you and I do? Get informed and get involved. First of all, get informed. Although there might be a strong inclination to do so, we American Catholics cannot become isolationists. Christians in other parts of the world need us. We need to ascertain the facts. We must get involved. This can result in financial support or political support, but perhaps, the one that is most forgotten, it must involve spiritual support. We must pray for them.

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