Middle Eastern Christians: A minority in numbers only
Being in my groaning fifties, I am long enough in the tooth to know that faith is not usually static. It is often a struggle, at times frustrating and at others rewarding, that seeks constant renewal. Being myself an Armenian member of a numerically-challenged 'minority' community, I suppose I am constantly tempted by an ethnocentrism that could easily seek reassurance in an insular or even sectarian approach to faith that claims Caesar for everyone but God for oneself!
This epistemic sense of self-examination - or re-questioning if you prefer - came back to me only a few days ago as I celebrated Western Christmas in a somewhat solitary format due to the COVID pandemic.
Here in the UK, this feast has gradually become synonymous with holidays, parties, obligatory dinners with family members, mistletoe, mince pies and puddings, an exchange of gifts or board games and long walks. Yet somewhere along the line, the West in its majority has forgotten that this feast also celebrates the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem who became the Christian Messiah for a whole new religion let alone a prophet for Muslim believers too. But this is not the case with Christians in the Middle East. Their realities are starkly different, and so are their attitudes to faith and community.
This is what I would like to share briefly with readers today, not by regurgitating easily-researched facts and figures but by highlighting key points that illustrate the Arab Christian indigenous presence in the Levant.
"The priorities, joys and concerns of a Christian in Palestine are not the same as those of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt. So it is vital that one does not paint them all with the same broad brush"
The first item that springs to my mind when talking about the Middle East and North African Christians - some 10 million of them altogether - is that they are not a monolithic body. They are quite different from each other not only in their faith-related rituals but also in their sociological settings. The priorities, joys and concerns of a Christian in Palestine are not the same as those of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt. So it is vital that one does not paint them all with the same broad brush. Each country retains its specificity and even its peccadilloes.
But demography and geography aside, what often concerns me at some ecumenical conferences I attend is that such events do not always define themselves as being in solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East or celebrating their millennia-old faith. Rather, they are perceived as events in solidarity with the persecuted Christians of the East. This distinction is critical, but why, you might well ask me? After all, are Christians not suffering from persecution?
True, there are indeed instances of persecution, harassment and calumnious name-calling or finger-pointing against Christians in parts of the MENA region. But we should put this reality in the larger context of Muslims who are also being persecuted by their own regimes and their proxies or by extremist groups. Should we not care for them, and is this not part of the Christian message too?
So let me vent a niggling concern that usually vexes some Western Christians when I raise it with them or take them to task for it. Events that purport solidarity with the Christians of the MENA region - no matter who the organisers are - run the risk alas of morphing into vast businesses. Everybody wants to jump on a bandwagon that remains a popular theme.
And whilst many of these conferences are genuinely well-intentioned or deeply helpful, some of them tend to highlight exclusively on Christian persecution and even exaggerate its acuteness in order to explain their own raison d’être or else to raise funds for their organisations let alone for their own public and social media profiles. There is scant understanding in these fora of the cultural realities of Arab Christian men and women.
Take Iraq for instance: when we talk about persecution of Christians that took place in Mosul, should we not also talk of Yezidis, Kaka'i, Sabean-Mandaeans, Shabak or black Iraqis?
But there is an obverse reality here too and I often hear it in the confidences of Christians in some parts of the region. They tell me that Muslims - be they civic rulers, religious leaders such as muftis, imams, or the media - should also be more proactive in including Arab Christians in their daily realities. In short, Arab Christians should figure in the Muslim collective consciousness too. After all, they have been living in the region for some two thousand years, and the Prophet Mohammed was well-known for his hospitality to the People of the Book - Jews and Christians.
Whilst it is true that many Muslims make inclusive statements, viewpoints are not necessarily standpoints, and many Muslims have adopted narrower interpretations of 'Arab' and 'Muslim'. Yet being Arab is an ethnicity, not a religion, and the concept of a neighbour is quintessential to both traditions.
Let me go back to the 1990s, to a time when I was involved in second-track negotiations during the maligned Oslo chapter between Israelis and Palestinians. One of my mentors then was Patriarch (now Emeritus) Michel Sabbah of the Latin-rite Catholic Church in Jerusalem. He often reminded me that Christians in the Levant carry a cross as part of their calling. His statement evoked yelps of disapproval, particularly from Israeli officialdom but also from some groups of US Christian Evangelicals. They accused this man from Nazareth of turning the teachings of Jesus into a political platform for liberation theology, let alone for being far too eager to accept the status of a victim.
I disagree with them, as would many Arab Christians across the Levant. After all, just pause and consider the Kairos Document released by Christian Palestinians to the world from Bethlehem in December 2009. It spoke truth to power and was a reflection of what was and still is happening in Palestine today. Theirs was a cry of hope, couched with love, prayer and faith in God, and a call for an end to occupation, exclusivity and apartheid against Palestinians.
"The faith of Arab Christian grassroots is neither insular nor exclusivist. If anything, it exposes its followers to the eclectic and manifold struggles surrounding them"
The faith of Arab Christian grassroots is neither insular nor exclusivist. If anything, it exposes its followers to the eclectic and manifold struggles surrounding them. In Palestine, this could well be the conflict with Israel. In Lebanon, it is perhaps the fight against sectarianism and corruption. In Iraq, it could well be religious extremism that negates the other, and in Syria the fight against top-down oppression and unrelenting human rights abuses. I could go on, of course, and add Egypt which has the largest Christian presence in the region but is at times inward-looking and somewhat ambivalent about its own roots.
Just before the COVID lockdown kicked in, an ecumenical event on the Middle East took place at Westminster Abbey in London. One participant mentioned to me that Christians often feel they are walking the Way of Sorrows. Quite true, because the key objective of many Arab Christians is quite similar to that of their Muslim neighbours: sheer survival.
Saadallah Wannous, the Syrian playwright once famously claimed that "we are condemned to hope." And today, perhaps more than at any other time, Christians and Muslims are condemned to solidarity. Only together can they hope to face the momentous challenges of the Middle East. Only in solidarity with each other can they hope to vanquish tyranny, barbarity and fanaticism. In fact, only together can they face the melancholia that challenges their hope for freedom, dignity and a sense of citizenry.
A popular maxim offers that 'man proposes and God disposes'. I find this a tad overrated because its edited version suggests that man proposes but God laughs at this human paucity of understanding! So as we all put to bed another difficult year, let me simply wish everyone - everywhere - a little more hope and a little less hopelessness.
Dr Harry Hagopian KSG is a Public International Lawyer. He was Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Assistant General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut.
Follow him on Twitter: @harryhagopian
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