A minority in numbers only

The realities and attitudes towards the faith and community of Arab Christians are very different from those of their Western counterparts, as they are immersed and shaped by the multiple struggles that surround them, writes Harry Hagopian.

Father Emmanuel Gharib, president of the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait and pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Kuwait, leads a Christmas mass at the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait on December 24, 2021. [Getty]

Being in my groaning fifties, I’m long enough in the tooth to know that faith usually isn’t static. It is often a struggle, sometimes frustrating and sometimes rewarding, which seeks constant renewal. Being myself an Armenian member of a numerically contested “minority” community, I suppose that I am constantly tempted by an ethnocentrism which could easily be reassured in an insular or even sectarian approach to the faith which claims Caesar for all but God for oneself!

This epistemic sense of self-examination – or questioning if you prefer – came back to me just a few days ago as I was celebrating Western Christmas in a somewhat lonely format due to the COVID pandemic.

Here in the UK, this holiday has gradually become synonymous with vacations, parties, obligatory dinners with family members, mistletoe, tarts and puddings, exchange of gifts or board games and long walks. Yet somewhere along the line the West in its majority has forgotten that this holiday also celebrates the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem who became the Christian Messiah of a whole new religion, let alone a prophet for them. Muslim believers too. But this is not the case with Christians in the Middle East. Their realities are radically different, as are their attitudes towards faith and community.

This is what I would like to share briefly with today’s readers, not by regurgitating easy-to-search facts and figures, but by highlighting the key points that illustrate the indigenous Arab Christian 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. It is therefore vital not to paint them all with the same large brush ”

The first thing that comes to my mind when I talk about the Middle East and the Christians of North Africa – around 10 million of them in total – is that they are not a monolithic body. They are very different from each other not only in their religious rituals but also in their sociological frameworks. The priorities, joys and concerns of a Christian in Palestine are not the same as those of Christians in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt. It is therefore vital not to paint them all with the same large brush. Each country retains its specificity and even its peccadilloes.

But demography and geography aside, what often concerns me in some of the ecumenical conferences I attend is that such events are not always defined as being in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East or celebrating their millennial faith. On the contrary, they are seen as events of solidarity with persecuted Christians in the East. This distinction is critical, but why will you ask me? After all, don’t Christians suffer from persecution?

Certainly, there are indeed cases of persecution, harassment and slanderous name-calling or denunciation of Christians in parts of the MENA region. But we need to place this reality in the larger context of Muslims who are also persecuted by their own regimes and proxies or by extremist groups. Shouldn’t we take care of them, and isn’t that part of the Christian message too?

So let me express an insignificant concern that usually upsets some Western Christians when I raise it with them or berate them for it. Events that seek to show solidarity with Christians in the MENA region – whoever organizes it – unfortunately risk turning into huge enterprises. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon which remains a popular theme.

And while many of these lectures are genuinely well-intentioned or deeply useful, some of them tend to focus exclusively on Christian persecution and even exaggerate its acuteness in order to explain their own raison d’être. or to raise funds for their organizations, even less. for their own public profiles and on social media. There is little understanding in these forums of the cultural realities of Arab Christian men and women.

Take Iraq for example: when we speak of the persecution of Christians which took place in Mosul, should we not also speak of the Yazidis, the Kaka’i, the Sabaean-Mandaeans, the Shabaks or the black Iraqis?

But there is also an opposite reality here and I often hear it in the confidences of Christians in certain parts of the region. They tell me that Muslims – whether they are civic leaders, 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 also figure in the Muslim collective consciousness. After all, they have lived in the region for about two thousand years, and the Prophet Muhammad was well known for his hospitality to the People of the Book – Jews and Christians.

While it is true that many Muslims make inclusive statements, views are not necessarily viewpoints, and many Muslims have adopted narrower interpretations of “Arab” and “Muslim.” Yet being Arab is an ethnicity, not a religion, and the concept of neighbor is the epitome of both traditions.

Let me go back to the 1990s, when I was involved in second-track negotiations during the maligned Oslo chapter between Israelis and Palestinians. One of my mentors at the time was Patriarch (now Emeritus) Michel Sabbah of the Latin Rite Catholic Church in Jerusalem. He has often reminded me that Christians in the Levant wear a cross as part of their calling. His statement sparked cries of disapproval, in particular from the Israeli authorities but also from certain groups of American Christian evangelicals. They accused this man from Nazareth of turning the teachings of Jesus into a political platform for liberation theology, not to mention being far too eager to accept victim status.

I don’t agree with them, as many Arab Christians across the Levant would. After all, take a break and consider the Kairos document released by Christian Palestinians to the world from Bethlehem in December 2009. It spoke the truth to power and reflected what was happening and still happening in Palestine today. Their was a cry of hope, delivered with love, prayer and faith in God, and a call for an end to occupation, exclusivity and apartheid against the Palestinians.

“The faith of the Christian Arab base is neither insular nor exclusivist. On the contrary, it exposes its followers to the eclectic and multiple struggles that surround them.

The faith of the Christian Arab base is neither insular nor exclusivist. Rather, it exposes its followers to the eclectic and multiple struggles that surround them. In Palestine, it could well be the conflict with Israel. In Lebanon, it may be the fight against sectarianism and corruption. In Iraq, it may well be religious extremism that denies the other, and in Syria the struggle against top-down oppression and relentless human rights violations. I could go on, of course, and add Egypt which has the largest Christian presence in the region but which is sometimes withdrawn and somewhat ambivalent about its own roots.

Just before the start of the COVID lockdown, an ecumenical Middle East event took place at Westminster Abbey in London. A participant mentioned to me that Christians often have the impression of walking the Path of Sorrows. Quite true, as the key goal of many Arab Christians is quite similar to that of their Muslim neighbors: pure survival.

Saadallah Wannous, the Syrian playwright once said that “we are doomed to hope”. And today, perhaps more than at any other time, Christians and Muslims are condemned to solidarity. It is only together that they can hope to meet the major challenges of the Middle East. It is only in solidarity with one another that they can hope to overcome tyranny, barbarism and fanaticism. In fact, it is only together that they can face the melancholy which calls into question their hope for freedom, dignity and civic spirit.

A popular maxim proposes that “man proposes and God disposes”. I find this a bit overrated because its edited version suggests that man is proposing but God is laughing at this lack of human understanding! As we all put to bed another tough year, just let me wish everyone – everywhere – a little more hope and a little less desperation.

Dr Harry Hagopian KSG is an International Public Advocate. He was Executive Secretary of the Inter-Church Committee in Jerusalem and Deputy Secretary General of the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut.

Follow him on Twitter: @harryhagopian

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board, or its team.

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