Disappearance of Churches of the Middle East, a Tragedy for Christians and Muslims

15-12-2011 09:05 AM

Fr Samir Khalil Samir


Pope Benedict XVI has called synod of the churches in the Middle East for an October 2010. Preparation for this event requires understanding of the situation that surrounds this part of the world and the difficult problems that the churches there are suffering.
First there is widespread conflict. There is one that has lasted for decades, between Israel and Palestine, and associated with it, other situations of war that have arisen in other countries.
Then there is the political changes that have taken place in Iran since ##79, which brought to the fore the Shiite movement. In many countries where it exists, it is becoming its self-awareness is growing, although this often takes on the form of confrontation.
A third factor is the rise of Islamic terrorism in the countries of the Middle East which is spreading throughout the world. Added to this the war in Iraq and its consequences. All of these political situations are somehow inter-connected.
Another important dimension is the growth of the Islamic fundamentalist movement. This has changed the very social structure of the region which has for decades seen the insistence of Islamic discourse in the media; schools are permeated with the teachings Islam, especially fundamentalist Islam; on the streets religious adverts are an increasing; the traditional external or extremist signs of this trend. In some countries the growth of fundamentalism has encouraged the adoption of sharia, or part of sharia. This has a strong influence on the lives of Christians, because they are forced to behave in a “more Islamic” way, often suffering social exclusion as a result.
Even in Palestine in the last decade the once prevalent secular trend has greatly diminished and the fundamentalist trend has increased. Religious freedom has declined everywhere, choking the Church##s mission.
Emigration
The easiest response for Christians to this situation tends to be one that is both equal and opposite: affirming the Christian identity with more stringency; a hardening of relations among themselves. This is evident in Egypt, but also in other situations.
Another way to react is to emigrate. Everyone, Christians and Muslims emigrate for socio-economic reasons, rarely for religious reasons. But the number of Christians who emigrate is far higher than that of Muslims and among the reasons why Christians leave those of cultural, and moral freedom are mounting. Emigration is facilitated by the fact that many Christians have relatives and friends abroad, the result of past migrations.
In the case of Egypt it is clear: Muslim migration has always been temporary, to the Gulf countries, people leave for a few years and then return. Instead Christians emigrate to North America or Europe or Australia, transplanting themselves in a comprehensive manner.
Emigration is not an entirely negative factor: it can also be opportunity for renewal. The Coptic community in the United States, for example, counts at least 700 thousand faithful. These were compared with American or Australian culture and sought to maintain the Coptic tradition – such as fasting, which is very intense and long – and respect for the clergy and for their Church. At the same time they have found other ways to celebrate, a greater closeness to the Holy Scriptures, Western theology. This has allowed for a true ecumenism and openness to other religious communities. And this is a positive contribution to their church.
Emigration has positive aspects also from an economic standpoint because it supports families and churches back home.
The presence of Islamic fundamentalism has positive aspects: it encourages Christians to live their faith in a more radical and intimate way, because there is an attack on their faith. Religious feeling is strengthened; at times, this religious sentiment in Christians and Muslims tends to fanaticism, but more often it arouses the desire for greater reflection, freedom and discovery.
The mission of the Christian minority
What makes matters worse is the fact numeric: Christians are a minority, they have neither numbers nor militias to claim a space. Their presence is neither supported in the region – because it is overwhelmingly Muslim – nor abroad because Europe and America are uninterested in the fate of Christians. When interest is aroused it is because the plight of Christians is linked to the economic and political situation.
We must take stock of these reasons in order to understand what future Christians have in the Middle East. And this is the purpose of the Synod: first comprehend the situation and then look for possible paths of action.
Many Christians are tempted to emigrate. This choice weakens those who remain: those leaving are generally the most capable in cultural and economic terms, and those who stay the weakest and the poorest. This is likely to provoke a vicious circle: the more people leave the more those who remain are oppressed. A similar thing happened in Turkey. Today there are more Syriac faithful in Saudi Arabia (migrants from India) than in Turkey and Syria combined. On a personal level, Christians a re highly adaptable to all situations. This means that in a one to two generations, Christians abroad become permanent residents and part of another Christian community.
But the question is: have Christians a specific mission in the Middle East?
If one thinks about the consequences for communities worldwide, it must be said that there is a risk of a great loss for world culture and the Universal Church: the end of the Churches of the East. Within a few decades a large part of the theological and intellectual heritage of the Churches of the East would be cancelled. And no book can replace it.
Severe loss
But it would be a great loss for the countries of the East. Christians are a different voice, a challenging one, diverse from Israel and the Muslims, with a specific culture that enriches this cultural area. It would also be a loss for society because Christians represent a tradition of freedom, of openness that is partly missing in the Islamic tradition, which is more closed in on itself.
This phenomenon has occurred many times in history: the Assyrian Christians who between the eighth century and the twelfth introduced Hellenistic thought in philosophy, medicine, science. And in 800 and 900, they also introduced European thought through their translations. They are a cultural bridge. And for the same Islamic world their disappearance would be a loss. In short, the emigration of Christians abroad and their disappearance from the East would be a loss for everyone, first and foremost for Muslims themselves.
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Fr Samir is a Jesuit and a scholar of Islam who teaches at various universities. Asia News

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