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The Middle East’'s Embattled Christians

Nina Shea

The ongoing Christian flight from the Middle East was high on the agenda of the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, when I met with him recently in Rome.

The lengthy exodus of ancient Christian congregations from the greater Middle East’s last redoubts of religious pluralism is accelerating. Terrorism, conflict, and the rise of intolerant Islamism are to blame, Vatican officials explain. There is a real fear that the light of Christian communities that was enkindled personally by the apostles of Jesus Christ could be extinguished in this vast region that includes the Holy Land.

This trend could be reversed or at least halted, but probably not without Western help. Thus far, the rapid erosion of Middle Eastern Christianity has drawn little notice from the outside world.

Pope Benedict XVI, however, is planning a special synod of Roman Catholic bishops next October to discuss this crisis and to promote greater ecumenical unity in the Middle East. The hope for the synod, as reported by the Catholic news agency Zenit, is that “new generations must come to know the great patrimony of faith and witness in the different churches” of this region.

The greater Middle East, of course, holds profound theological significance for all Christians. Broad Christian engagement may be the best hope for the survival of these ancient Middle Eastern churches the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics, the Armenians, the Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, and others.

Evangelical Christians are gaining thousands of converts in the Middle East, and millions of Christians have migrated within the region. (Asia News reports that today there are more Syriac faithful in Saudi Arabia than in Turkey and Syria combined.) However, these populations are relatively small and isolated and are usually forced to live as “catacomb Christians,” suppressed in their witness and compelled to worship in secret. The same is true of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other more recent arrivals, who must keep a low profile, especially since Saudi Arabia’s state textbooks started teaching that the Christians’ schools, colleges, and clinics are signs of a “new crusade.”

Encompassing the land in which the mysteries of Christian salvation were fulfilled, this region should be a particular focus of Christian reflection during this holy season. But Christians and non-Christians alike should take note for worldlier reasons as well. As citizens of the free world, whose core civilizational values bear the imprint of Christianity (even if the European Union refuses to acknowledge this fact), we should all be concerned.

The disappearance of living Christian communities would signal the disappearance of religious pluralism and a moderating influence from the heart of the Muslim world.

Christians, numbering about 15 million, are the largest non-Muslim religious minority left in the Middle East. The Jews, the ancient Zoroastrians (sometimes known as “magi,” three of whom visited the Christ Child), the Mandeans (who follow John the Baptist), the Bahai, the angel-worshipping Yazidis, and other, smaller groups all have joined the exodus, and for the same reasons.

Within our lifetime, the Middle East could be wholly Islamicized for the first time in history. Without the experience of living alongside Christians and other non-Muslims at home, what would prepare it to peacefully coexist with the West? This religious polarization would undoubtedly have geopolitical significance. So far, official Washington has not taken this under consideration.

However, there is something ordinary citizens can do. They can become better informed and they can give support in a variety of ways. I want to highlight three Christian leaders who desperately need and deserve our support. Each from his unique perspective is working directly to sustain Middle Eastern Christianity: a scholar promoting regional openness, human rights, and respect for women from relatively free Lebanon; a bishop reinvigorating Christian communities and culture in repressive Egypt; and a priest working just to keep Christians and others physically and spiritually alive in terror-wracked Iraq.

The first, Habib Malik, the Lebanese scholar, articulates why Middle Eastern Christianity should matter to the West. Malik, a lay Roman Catholic, exemplifies Christians’ mediating role as a cultural bridge between East and West, interpreting religion, customs, and languages from the one world to the other. (His e-mail address is [email protected].) He is the founding director of the Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights Lebanon (FHHRL). He also preserves the legacy of his late father, Charles Malik, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Father and son are both prime examples of the Christians’ moderating influence, as Habib describes it:

The existence of settled, stable, prosperous, and reasonably free and secure native Christian communities in the Middle East has served in many instances as a factor encouraging Islamic openness and moderation, creating an environment of pluralism that fosters acknowledgment of the different other. . . . In Lebanon, before the outbreak of war in 1975, Muslim communities lived with their Christian counterparts in a free atmosphere of mutual respect. The fruits of this coexistence are evident today, even after so many conflicts, among educated classes of Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites, who stand out in the broader Arab Islamic context as full-fledged examples of modernity in every way. Islamic moderation is strengthened when Muslims live with confident co-national adherents of communities that respect women, do not condone suicide bombing or religious domination, are compatible with liberal democracy, defend personal and group rights, and are comfortable with many features of secular life.

The second of these men, Bishop Thomas (e-mail: [email protected]) of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, faces personal risk because of his work to breathe vitality into his long-suppressed church. The region’s largest Christian group, Copts are under pressure from the government and from Islamist civilians. Copts inhabited Egypt before it was Arabized and Islamicized in the seventh century (the word “Copt” is derived from “Egypt”), but now Copts can’t study their language in the public schools, and they are forced to study Islam. They are generally not permitted to build churches. The government tends to withhold justice from Christians who are the victims of extremist attacks. In response, Bishop Thomas’s work includes establishing Coptic schools and educational programs. He built the Anaphora Farm and Retreat Center, north of Cairo, to preserve the dying Coptic language and the arts and traditions of the monastic communities of the Church’s desert fathers, who lived there 1,500 years ago. The following is an excerpt from Bishop Thomas’s speech at the Hudson Institute last year, which prompted over a hundred denunciations and death threats in Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques:

I grew up memorizing the Quran, and a lot of the Hadiths, hearing the stories of the history, how the Islamic troops were victorious. And we have to study that and we have to write it in our exams and we have to praise it. Nowadays, the media has the same style and, wherever you are, you hear Quranic reciting. It shouts everywhere, and this is part of the pressure that people are living with. Even though we are facing a lot of hardship, still we are not weak because, simply, truth is strong, love is strong, hope is strong, and that enables the Christians in Egypt to continue.

The third man, Canon Andrew White, is witnessing in the most dire circumstances. The 45-year-old Anglican priest, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, voluntarily gave up his prestigious post at Coventry Cathedral to minister in Iraq. Since 2003, he has negotiated hostage releases, reconciled Sunnis and Shiites, operated free medical clinics, and supported Baghdad’s eight remaining Jews. White is the pastor of St. George’s Church, an ecumenical congregation he established for the remnants of Baghdad’s Chaldean, Syriac Orthodox, and Assyrian communities. Scores of his congregation have been murdered, and White himself was featured on a sectarian group’s “wanted” posters. He was once bound and beaten by security police.

I received a letter from him on October 25, which said in part, “I am very sorry to tell you that the two major bomb explosions in Baghdad this morning have done serious damage to the church compound. . . . Outside the church, at least 132 people were killed and over 600 injured. Destroyed fragments of their bodies have been thrown through windows of the church. . . . Many of our staff and church members remain unaccounted for. Lay Pastor Faiz and I have been trying in vain to reach them by telephone. Today was a terrible day for us. But even in the blood and trauma and turmoil, there are things for which we can, and indeed must, praise our G-d.”

To help these three leaders is to help struggling Middle Eastern Christianity and to help the free world while we’re at it. Please reach out to them.

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