In the crossfire of guns and political rhetoric between Arab (increasingly, the Muslim Arab) and Jew that has made the Middle East a perpetual battlefield, the fact that this region is also the birthplace of Christianity seems to be forgotten. And what of the fate of the Christian minority that still lives there?
Later this year the Catholic bishops of the region will meet in Rome at a synod on the Middle East and, as part of the preparation, Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem recently outlined the geopolitical and pastoral context for those involved.
A vast area with a diverse Christian minority
In his introduction Bishop Shomali noted the geographical spread and number of Christians:
The Synod of the Catholic Church for the Middle East concerns Arab and non-Arab countries that spread over a vast geographical area from Egypt to Turkey, from Iran to Israel and right through to the Gulf, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Cyprus. It includes directly or indirectly 14 million Christians in a population of 330 million inhabitants, among whom we find Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Greeks and Jews. This synod will focus on this very complex and diverse situation.
Further, he pointed out, there is a diversity of Catholic churches with their own liturgical rites:
One peculiarity of the Middle East is the large number of sui iuris Eastern Churches [autonomous churches in communion with Rome] that have taken root here: the Melkites, Syrians, Maronites, Copts, Armenians and Chaldeans.
Status of Christians, country by country
The bishop then gave a frank summary of the geopolitical situation country by country, as it affects Christians:
Turkey. This country has 72 million inhabitants (source: wikipedia), with a Muslim majority. Christians number 100,000, slightly more than 1 per thousand. Turkey is a secular country, separating state and religion (Islam). It is seeking to give a good impression to gain entry into the European Community. To Turkey’s credit you could cite the secularization introduced by Ataturk in 1924; on the negative side we must cite the Armenian genocide, for which Turkey refuses take responsibility and the partition of the island of Cyprus between Turks and Greeks, for which it also bears responsibility.
Iran. In this country Shia Islam is dominant in all sectors of society. 72 million are Muslim, while Christians — predominantly Armenians and Assyrians — number only 200,000. News from Iran reports the existence of an active Baptist community, which has made thousands of converts to Christianity (about 10,000 known conversions). But a convert finds himself treated as a renegade, a traitor to Islam and a backer of the chief enemy: America. Iran is rich and supports the Shia of Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza for religious and ideological reasons. This country has territorial ambitions in the Gulf where there is a large and forcefully muted Shiite minority.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 33 million people live in this oil rich region. The various political regimes have differing attitudes towards Christians; it goes from respect – as in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai – to the intransigence and lack of freedom – as in Saudi Arabia. While Qatar has allowed the construction of a large church that can hold 5000 faithful, Christians in Saudi Arabia, numbering around half a million, are not allowed to gather for prayer. They meet secretly in private homes to pray on Sunday, running the risk of repercussions. Another problem is posed by the existence of a large number of Christian immigrant workers, often deprived of their elementary social and religious rights. In addition, militant Islam takes advantage of these immigrant workers’ economic embarrassment in order to convert to them to Islam. There are a number of converts each year, who are promised substantial material benefits.
Egypt. The number of Copts is not yet certain. Local government statistics speak of 6 million whereas the Coptic Church speaks of 12 million. The figure of 10 million is certainly closer to the truth. Clashes between Muslim and Coptic communities are frequent. The Egyptians are the most religious people in the world in terms of pious practice, but also in terms bigotry. The Copts feel despised and deprived of many rights, especially their freedom of worship (as demonstrated in the difficulty of building a church) and freedom of conscience. They occupy an insignificant place in society and government. As an example: out of 454 Egyptian parliamentarians, only three are Christian, or less than 1%, while the percentage of Christians in Egypt is 10% at least.
“In Egypt, the rise of political Islam on the one hand and the, in part, forced disengagement of Christians from the civil society on the other, make their lives subject to intolerance, inequality and injustice. In addition, by means of the media and the schools this Islamization penetrates into Christian family life, modifying their mentality so that they unconsciously conform to an Islamic world view.” (Synod document)
Iraq. The U.S. invasion decimated the Christian community. Before 1987, it numbered 1.25 million followers, mostly Chaldeans. Today they are less than 400,000. One of the great disasters of this century is the massive exodus of Iraqi Christians due to the insecurity and harassment of which they are victims. In Iraq, the war unleashed forces of evil in the country, among varying political streams and religious denominations. It has taken a toll on all Iraqis, but the Christians have been among the main victims because they represent the smallest and weakest of Iraqi communities. Even today, global politics completely fail to take them into account.
This is in addition to other calamities that have struck the Christians of the Middle East in the past two centuries:
*The genocide of one million and half Armenians in Turkey in 1915;
*The genocide against the Maronites in 1860 and the Lebanese Civil War caused the exodus of many Christians;
*The constant emigration of Christians from the Holy Land for more than a century.
Syria. The situation of One and a half million Christian Syrians seems tranquil under the Syrian Baath, which rests on the support of minorities, the Asad family itself being from the Alawite minority. But there is always the fear an unexpected change and turnaround. In Iraq, for example, Christians enjoyed many privileges during Saddam’s regime. It seems that all it takes is a dethroning to open Pandora’s Box against the Christian population. A phobia with regard to upheavals still exists in the Arab world, given that state policy often depends on the alternatively benevolent or malevolent attitude of the family or party in power, rather than a durable popular mind-set.
Lebanon: Christians are divided on both the political and religious planes, and nobody possesses a plan acceptable to all. The political balance achieved in 1943 when the Christians made up 55% of the total population does not currently reflect the situation on the ground. The Shiites, who are becoming ever more numerous and stronger, are demanding more authority in Parliament. The current balance of power is weak. Lebanon must attain to the position of a mature democracy and leave behind its absurd confessionalism without bloodshed.
Jordan is a quiet country. The Christians feel safe and enjoy religious freedom, with representatives in parliament and in government. We have witnessed the warm welcome that the Jordanian King and Government gave to Pope Benedict XVI.
Despite this, freedom of conscience does not exist. It is something that we observe in all Arab countries. Islam claims to be the religion of truth, the only truth. The other religions are only tolerated. Therefore it is not permissible for a Muslim to abandon the truth for error. Change of religion is perceived as a betrayal of society, culture and nation, three realities primarily built upon a religious tradition.
Palestine and Israel: The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has lasted for over 80 years including six violent confrontations, to which we must add the two general Intifadas. It is an ideological conflict that does not appear close to finding a solution in the short term. The economic situation and lack of security have obliged a large part of the Palestinian Christians to emigrate. The Palestinian diaspora numbers somewhere around 500,000, the majority located in Chile.
Christian flight and the ghetto mentality
Bishop Shomali went on to outline the major problems faced by Christian communities in the Middle East:
An emigration that has weakened the fabric of Christian life. This emigration has also opened the eyes of moderate Muslims who see in this exodus an impoverishment of Arab society and the loss of moderate elements. Many Palestinians intellectuals – including Faisal Husseini, the current Grand Mufti of Palestine, Tayseer Tamimi, the Grand Magistrate, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – have said that the departure of Christians has been a loss for all Palestinians and will end up setting Jewish and Muslim extremism face to face.
Christians are a moderate element that attracts Western sympathy for the Palestinian question. In addition, in the past, the Christians of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Palestine participated in the progress and development of their respective societies. With their numbers reduced, making up but a small percentage of the total population, their presence becomes insignificant, providing all the more reason for this remnant to emigrate.
Conversions to Islam. It is true that few Christians become Muslims. But given the small number of our communities, every one counts. In Egypt, it is estimated that up to 15,000 young Christian girls become Muslim for reason related to marriage. Each year, similar cases occur in Palestine and Jordan. Each time it’s a tragedy for the family, which looks upon this conversion as a betrayal in front her religion and herself. In the majority of cases, the girl is considered lost because the girl completely loses touch with her family. Conversion does not affect local girls only. Foreign workers in the Gulf countries are also victims. In order to continue to find work, conversion to Islam helps tremendously. Counting just the small emirate of Dubai, the number of men and women who went over to Islam in 2008 was 2,763. They belonged to 72 different nationalities.
The rise of political Islam: “The rise of political Islam from the period of around 1970 is a striking phenomenon that affects the region and the situation of Christians in the Arab world. This political Islam includes various religious currents who aim at imposing an Islamic lifestyle on Arab, Turkish or Iranian societies, and all those who live there, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For these currents, detachment from Islam is the source of all evils. The solution is thus the return to Islamic origins. Hence the slogan: Islam is the solution […] To achieve this end, some do not hesitate to resort to violence.” (Synod document).
The Ghetto Mentality: “Religion is regarded as an identifier that not only differentiates but may also divide and be used to generate a closing off of relationships and hostility. The danger lies in turning in on ourselves and in fear of the other. We must both strengthen the faith and spirituality of our faithful and strengthen the social bonds and solidarity among them, without falling into a ghetto mentality” (Synod document).
Christians should see their presence as ‘a vocation, not their fate’
Bishop Shomali concluded by outlining the necessary pastoral response to the difficulties of Middle Eastern Christians. This includes formation of Christians in forgiveness, reconciliation and openness to the other, he said, noting that when Pope Benedict visited the Holy Land in 2008 he insisted on meeting with Muslim and Hebrew leaders. The Christian churches also need greater unity amongst themselves, he added.
Finally he said that Christians need to see their presence in the region “as a vocation and not as their fate”. They should engage in the public life of their countries and be witnesses to their faith:
“Christians living in the Middle East are rooted in a certain culture and language, and live with other peoples with whom they share a language, history and many traditions. Christians should not feel that they are foreigners. They are called to be witnesses of Christ in those countries where they live. To flee their countries of origin means to escape reality. We need to encourage Christians to live with faith and joy in the land of their ancestors. Their departure weakens the few who remain, who then also seek to leave.”
This is an edited version of Bishop William Shomali’s address, “The Middle Eastern Synod in its Geopolitical and Pastoral Context”. The full text can be found at the website of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.