Catholic Bishop, Belgium
Christians in the Middle east:
between crisis and opportunities of living together
2. A first picture
a) There live about 350 million people in the Middle East in 15/16 countries with the presence of about 12 million Christians amidst them. The situation of the Christian communities differs from country to country. Turkey and Iran, two big countries which each a population of about 70 to 80 million people, count very few Christians: less then 0,5% of the population and they are not considered as nationals, but as a kind of foreigners: Greeks or Chaldeans or Armenians … It was a Turkish Christian woman who said to me: “A Turk cannot be a Christian!” and she believed this. These two countries also practice quite restrictive policies towards Christians. In Iran, e.g., it is forbidden to celebrate liturgy or to give catechesis in Farsi, the national language. So in these two big countries, the Christian communities are tiny and they are still dwindling. Many Christians have left Iran in recent years. To be a Christian today in Iran or Turkey is not easy.
Most Christians of the Middle East live in Arab countries. Egypt, the third big country in the Middle East, has the largest Christian Community: between 5 to 6 millions, nearly all Coptic Orthodox. This means: One in two Christians in the Middle East is an Egyptian. There are some tensions and problems, but they live in a relatively calm situation. Other important Christian communities live in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and some Gulf states. The political and economical situation in Lebanon and Iraq is very difficult at the moment, whereas the one million Christians in Syria and the half million in Jordan live in peace.
b) It is important to notice that the total number of Christians in the Middle East is maybe not declining, but rather on the increase. But the percentage of Christians within the total population is on the decrease. Christians are becoming a smaller group in their societies and this for two reasons: Muslims tend to have more children and Christians choose more frequently to emigrate, mostly for economic reasons, but also to escape from a minority position or to flee from a soft or harsh persecution (Iraq).
c) There is also an important Christian immigration flux towards the Middle East: Russians with a vague orthodox background have come in hundreds of thousands to Israel, just as Latin Christian immigrant workers from the Philippines or Latin America. This Christian influx is also very important in Lebanon, Jordan and especially in the Gulf states. Probably more Christians are now immigrating in the Middle East as there are emigrating. But they are a different kind of Christians. They are not acquainted with the Arab culture, and often they neither are eastern rite, but Latin rite. Their integration in the existing local Churches is not easy and, in fact, there presence is often neglected by the local churches. This surely is an important challenge.
3. A lost decennium
The first decennium of the third millennium has been a difficult one for the Christians in the Middle East, but I would say for all the people who are living in the area. Many energies have been spent for warfare and few for peace, many have defended the thesis that a clash of civilization between the Muslim world and the West is inevitable and have resigned for the patient work of the building of bridges between peoples, cultures and religions. The Christians in the Middle East pay a high price for this lost decennium.
The peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a core conflict in the Middle East, have stalled since the failure of the last great effort at the end of the Clinton-presidency. The high hopes of the Oslo-agreement have not been met. The new millennium brought another intifada, the splitting up of the Palestinians in Fatah and Hamas, the reduction of Gaza to a closed camp which seals of one million Palestinians from the rest of the world, the further extension of the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; the 2006 war in the South of Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel. After 60 years of war, conflict, violence and frustration, who still dares to hope for a peaceful settlement? The Christians in Palestine and Lebanon suffer directly from this never ending conflict, which fuels hatred and violence in the whole region.
The negotiations between the European Union and Turkey for its accession to the Union have been a great hope for the small Christian communities in this country, but they have stalled. At this moment it is at least unclear if Turkey will ever become a member of the European Union. But its entry in the European Union would also mean: freedom of religion, civil rights, recognition and defense of the minorities. Where lays the future of Turkey? In these years, several prominent Christian pastors have been killed in Turkey. Many Christians in Turkey are somber about their future.
The terror attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan on nine eleven 2001 have thrown thick shadows over the first ten years of the new Millennium. After the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, a new enemy was found: Islam. The book of Huntington, The clash of Civilizations, spread a new paradigm. The future battle will no longer be one between capitalists and communists, but between liberal westerners and Muslim fundamentalists. In this perspective, two great wars were launched in Muslim territory: Afghanistan and Iraq and no one has ended upon today. But rhe war in Iraq became a tragedy for the ancient Christian community in that country. The American invasion destroyed the status quo in Iraq and since then the different religious and ethnic groups are fighting for the control of the territories or to get a hold on the oil rich regions. In the battle which raged some years ago in Baghdad between Shiites and Sunnis, a kind of ethnical cleansing, Christians were often kicked out by both parties who wanted to create homogeneous districts in the city. And the same is happening now in the North in the struggle between Kurds and Sunni’s for the control of the oil rich region of Kirkuk. About half a million Christians, 50% of all Christians in the country have now left Iraq and it is unlikely that they will ever return.
In the mean time, a new tensions are rising in the Middle East between Shiites and Sunnites. This conflict is very present in Iraq, but also in a country like Lebanon, where Sunnites and Shiites struggle for the control of the country. Both factions are sustained by their coreligionists in the region. And the Christians are caught up between them. Actually they split up, some Christians have chosen the side of the Shiites (Hezbollah), others are at the Sunni Side. Lebanon is a very divided and paralyzed country. All Lebanese are suffering, but maybe the Christians most. And many have left the country and those who remain are depressed by the situation.
So in many respects, it has been a lost decade for the Middle East. Energies have been spent for division and warfare and few have worked for peace and dialogue. These conflicts had a heavy negative impact on the living together of the different people, cultures and religions in the area and the Christians have always been at the side of the losers.
4. Opportunities of living together
It cannot be a question if Christians can live together with Muslims: that is what they are doing since many centuries!! History has shown that the living together of Christians and Muslims is possible, even if this history has not always been easy and is also marked by times of crisis. But it is important to notice that these crises mostly originated not in religious, but in political questions as is the case of the problems of the Christians today in Iraq or in Turkey during and after World War I. The living together of all people in the Middle East is desperate in need of political stability. It is known that during certain centuries of ottoman rule Christians, Jews and Muslims could live very well together in flourishing cities as Thessaloniki, Istanbul or Baghdad.
It is important that Christians keep up their faith in the living together of the different. This is an important dimension of the message of the Gospel itself. As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, Christ has given his life on the Cross to bring down every wall of division and to reconcile those who are divided. As Christians we cannot make ours the thesis of Huntington that the living together of people belonging to different cultures or religions should be impossible or that conflict should be inevitable. This thesis undermines a central piece of the Gospel itself. As Christians, wherever we live, we have always to give witness of this universality and belief in the possibility of peace and living together. It was the big dream of the Apostle Paul to create in the cosmopolitan cities of the Roman empire Christian communities out of very mixed people: men and women, rich and poor, masters and slaves, Greeks and Jews. A Community which lives this unity is a living sign of the victory of the peace which our Lord Jesus Christ won on the cross and brought to us as the risen Lord: Peace be with you. Peace is really a core piece of the gospel and of the life of every Christian. We, as Christians, live for the sake of the living together of the different!
By saying this, I also clarify the urgency for all Christians, not just in the Middle East, to immerse once again in the Gospel and in faith itself. This is an urgent mission. Too often, Christians adapt to a culture which leans towards division and separation. But that is not the spirit of the Gospel; it is not the spirit of Assisi.
An important challenge for the upcoming Synod of Bishops about the Middle East, which starts in one week time in Rome, will be to reflect upon the specific mission of the Christian Communities in the Middle East. Every Christian, wherever in the world, but surely today in the Middle East, has to have an acute sense of his proper mission as a Christian in this world. The Middle East needs Christian Communities: to give witness of the Gospel among the Muslims: by living the love of God for every man and woman, and especially for the poor (sisters today in Baghdad: schools, sick, the poor; laypeople from Caritas in this city who became martyrs because they continued to serve the poor), by communicating the values of the Gospel (schools, universities): humanity, the dignity of every man and woman, the worth of the poor, the culture of the living together, the grace of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.
The Christians who live among the Muslims, constitute the first and most concrete bridge between the Muslim World and the Christians. Christians and many Muslims have to work for societies which respect human rights, freedom, and the rights of minorities. Many Muslims regret the departure of so many Christians, because they know how much these Christians represent a resource for their societies.
So, yes, the Christians are passing through a crisis in the Middle East, but this crisis has to become a kairos for the growing of a new consciousness of their high and important mission in this area of the world. It is my hope and prayer that the coming Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishop will be an important step stone towards the growing of such a consciousness in the Churches of the Middle East and in the whole universal Church.