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Issue Date:  March 11, 2005

Arab and Christian

It's a complex identity in the Muslim Mideast

Parts I and II
This is the second of a two-part series, Part I (NCR, March 4) discussed the strains on Christian communities in the Middle East and their often dissimilar conditions. Part II looks at the identity of Arab Christians and the state of Christian-Muslim dialogue in the Middle East.


Middle East Christian relations with Muslims are enormously complex. Officially, church leaders stake out a positive stance toward the Islamic world. Like the Mozarab Christians of early medieval Spain, they embrace the Islamo-Arab culture of the Middle East as their own and speak of Christian-Muslim dialogue as their vocation.

In a 1994 pastoral letter, for example, the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East affirmed that Middle East Christians have to “exercise the role of reconciler between the Christian world and the Muslim world, transforming opposition into positive collaboration on the basis of mutual respect.” Responding to “the clash of civilizations” thesis, the patriarchs added, “They tell the West that Islam is not the enemy but a participant in a dialogue indispensable for the construction of a new human civilization.”

Similarly, in 1999, following the first Congress of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of the Middle East, the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East declared that Muslims and Christians not only share a long history together but also “a common destiny.” The same attitude may be found across the ecumenical Christian spectrum. For example, in Betty Jane and J. Martin Baileys’ Who Are the Christians in the Middle East? Riad Jarjour, former general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, writes that the Christian dialogue with Muslims is “recognition of human, national and spiritual kinship.”

While the Catholic church is strongly committed to dialogue with Islam as a matter of policy, formal interreligious dialogue is not a reality in the region. After Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lebanon, formal structures were established for dialogue, but they are reported to have proved ineffectual. When the pope made his millennial pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he wanted to hold an interreligious dialogue and prevailed on the nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and local church officials to arrange for such an event. It was a grand affair coinciding with the opening of the new cultural center at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, the Vatican hospice close to the Old City.

Unknown to the public, no boys’ choir could be assembled from Muslim schools. The Islamic boys’ choir that sang that evening was made up of Muslims from Christian schools. The Muslim speaker, Sheik Tamimi, a judge in the Islamic court, was a stand-in, ordered to come by Yasser Arafat when the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem declined to participate.

The first speaker, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, was the first to break with protocol when he declared that the pope’s presence in West Jerusalem signaled his acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the city. Tamimi then gave a fiery sermon, climaxing in an appeal for a new Saladin to drive the infidel from the land. The auditorium was aghast. The Israeli diplomats sitting near me, and many others, rose in a chorus of protest.

After the Holy Father spoke, by prearrangement Tamimi left the stage so as not to shake the hand of Rabbi Lau. Rabbi Lau, in turn, stood by, unhelpful as the pope alone planted and watered three olive trees that planners had hoped all three would dedicate as a sign of interreligious harmony. Dismayed, Jewish dialogists like Rabbi David Rosen proclaimed the event a disaster. The next day, however, editorial writers in the Israeli press observed that the pope had modeled religious leadership in a land where it was in short supply.

Dialogue of everyday life

Even in Lebanon, where formal structures for dialogue had been established following the Synod for Lebanon, sources say the exchange of ideas and experience between Christians and Muslims, as practiced in the West, is nonexistent. For that reason, church documents often speak of “the dialogue of everyday life,” by which they mean the interactions of day-to-day living. Sometimes, as in customary visits for each other’s religious feasts, there is substance and positive feeling in such events, “social capital” on which people can encourage future ties. For the most part, however, this informal dialogue is so casual as to add little to mutual religious understanding or to strengthening ties between the two religions.

Catholic institutions, however, provide a special avenue for this “dialogue of everyday life.” In the Holy Land, the Latin patriarchate runs 43 schools. In most schools, the majority of students are Muslim. The pastoral strategy of the patriarchate calls for maintaining these schools, even at tremendous cost, as a guarantee of positive Muslim-Christian relations in the future. Institutions of higher education like the Christian Brothers’ Bethlehem University or St. Joseph University, operated by the Jesuits in Beirut, have the same hope. In Iraq, the Jesuits’ Baghdad College was closed 35 years ago, but its Muslim alumni continue to praise their Jesuit education, and every other year they show their gratitude by hosting a reunion where the “Baghdadi” Jesuits, as they are known, are honored guests. So tight is the alumni bond to the Jesuits that soon after the end of formal hostilities, the New England Jesuits commissioned two one-time Baghdadis to explore repossessing their old campus in the expectation that the university would be transferred to Iraqi Catholic ownership.

At the grass roots, Christian-Muslim relations vary across the region and are Byzantine in their complications. Many Christians identify with their fellow Arabs, and they reject efforts to distinguish them from their neighbors as “a minority” population. Out of solidarity and in reaction to false or exaggerated claims of persecution often put out by the Israeli government, Palestinian Christians have until recently been silent about the increasing pressures they feel from their Muslim neighbors. Quietly, however, they resent both political and religious leaders for offering them insufficient protection.

Even Nazareth’s relatively well-off Christians grumble that their religious leaders, preoccupied with problems on the West Bank, did not stand up often enough for them during Muslim rioting associated with the Shehab al-Din mosque controversy and the Israeli Jewish attacks on Nazareth following the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000. To their credit, however, when protests failed to bring results, the Christian hierarchy took unprecedented and unified action, threatening to close the holy places in the spring of 1997 to spur the Israeli government to curb the rioting and actually doing so later that fall.

The Israeli government has used Muslim-Christian tensions as an occasion to score points in a propaganda war against the Palestinians. During the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-99), for example, his office put out reports attributing Muslim attacks on Christians to the Palestinian Authority. Both Christian authorities, like the Latin patriarchate, and human rights groups rejected the report as a misrepresentation. Arafat had been quick on several occasions to arrest those caught harassing Christians. The church leaders did admit, however, that Christians sometimes experienced harassment from their neighbors and from overzealous bureaucrats.

Israeli Arab Christians sometimes sneer at Bethlehemites as “internationals” whose Palestinian patriotism is insufficiently displayed, but Joshua Hammer’s book A Season in Bethlehem makes clear just how tough Palestinian militants have made it for Christians in the Bethlehem-Beit Jala-Beit Sahour triangle, the home to 70 percent of the West Bank’s Christian population. Christians have been subject to extortion, kidnapping, property seizure and even murder. Militants firing from Beit Jala at the Israeli settlement of Gilo or at Israeli army positions on the edge of Beit Sahour have made Christian neighbors the targets of repeated counterattacks and so-called “deterrent” bombardment by the Israeli military.

But little in the Holy Land is simple. Things are often not what they seem. For example, the Israeli government itself has sometimes used Muslim fundamentalists to Christians’ disadvantage. In Nazareth, the militant Islamic Movement, which tried to build a mosque adjacent to the Church of the Annunciation and incited anti-Christian riots, was encouraged by an array of Israeli politicians from both the right and the left and apparently enjoyed cooperation from the Israeli security forces. On the record, their involvement came from crass political calculations about Israeli Arab votes. Only extensive pressure from the outside, with interventions from Pope John Paul, President George W. Bush and the U.S. bishops, resulted in the end of the Nazareth mosque crisis.

In addition, much of the tension in the Bethlehem area has come not from Islamist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as both Hammer and Charles M. Sennott, author of The Body and the Blood, show, but from the Abayat clan, an extended family of Bedouin brigands who took advantage of the situation to advance their own interests first through the Tanzim (the Fatah militia) and then through the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. Like many Serbian soldiers in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the Abayats, with few ties to religious movements, were less religious fanatics than thugs.

Arab Christians?

Culturally, most Christians identify with the Arabic language and Arab culture as their own milieu, understanding the intimate cultural ties between Islam and Arab language and culture. Riah Abu El-Assal, the Anglican bishop for Jerusalem, has written in the Baileys’ Who Are the Christians in the Middle East?: “We are part of the Arab nation, bound by a single language that we speak with many dialects. We have no civilization, no history nor heritage other than the Arab civilization, culture, history and heritage.” Christian scholars like Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir have rediscovered the writings of the Arab Fathers, and Bishop Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, the Latin patriarchal vicar in Israel, teaches Arab patristics to seminarians at the Latin patriarchal seminary in Beit Jala.

Fr. Samir, writing in Civilta Cattolica, points out that Arab Christianity draws on a rich and diverse patrimony: Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Latin, “all flowing together into the Christianity of the Arab language.” This heritage has found expression not only in liturgical forums but also in art, philosophy, spirituality and canon law. Arab Christians, he says, are a community of faith and tradition. Samir resists, as other Middle Eastern Christians do, the perception that Christians are “a minority” in Arab lands. They are, he insists, citizens of their respective countries and Arabs in culture.

In Lebanon, however, “Arabity,” that is, an Arab identity in language, history and culture, is often controversial. Following the Taif agreements of 1989 that ended the 15-year-long civil war, for the first time the constitution declared Lebanon an Arab nation. Many Christians, especially Maronites, have been uneasy with this development, going as far as to assert their “Phoenician,” as contrasted with Arab, origins. In her book Bring Down the Walls, Carole Dagher reports, “The Maronites, who are the only Christians in the Arab world to have gone as far as bearing arms against the Muslims in defense of their specificity, are torn today between seeing themselves as a religious community whose primary aim is to preserve a distinctive identity and a religio-cultural unity … or to champion a Christian oriental identity immersed in Islam’s lands, a ‘Church of Arabs.’ ” The Maronites’ concern is that Arabity does not override the other roots of their history and culture.

Iraq, in some respects, also represents a case of Christian resistance to close identification with the Arab language and culture. The Assyrian Church of the East suffered under the Arabizing policies of Saddam Hussein. Their villages destroyed, forbidden to pass on their historic language, members persecuted because of their distinctive ethnic stock, the Assyrians’ numbers in their homeland have plunged to a fifth of what they had been in the early days of the Baathist regime. So, while there is considerable support, in the oriental Catholic churches at least, for an Arab Christian identity, there are significant pockets of resistance and, in the case of the Assyrians, persecution for refusal to assimilate.

An uncertain future

In the last five years the political and religious trends leading to the diminishment of the Christian presence in the Near East have intensified. First the al-Aqsa intifada and then the American-led war in Iraq have sped up Christian emigration from the Holy Land and from Iraq. At the same time, in different ways, they fed anti-Christian sentiment on the part of Muslim neighbors. Writing of the emigration problem to the First Congress of Patriarchs and Bishops, Pope John Paul II encouraged their “concerted efforts to reduce the emigration of Catholics from [their] countries.” He added, “The presence of Christ’s disciples in the land where the Lord died and rose, and in the region which saw the stages of expectation for his coming for the salvation of all humanity unfold ought to dwell with vigor and let the light of the Gospel shine forth.”

Pope John Paul II and the Council of Catholic Patriarchs have given forward-looking leadership for Christians of the Middle East in the 21st century. Individual leaders like the Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, and Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah have offered wise spiritual counsel to their people and have been forthright advocates of their rights in difficult political circumstances. But the wider flow of events has worked against them. Circumstances for Christians across the region have steadily deteriorated.

Even if conditions improve, it will be difficult to stem the tide of emigration from the region. In the ’90s, Christians returned to settle again in Lebanon and Palestine only to depart as conditions failed to improve in Lebanon and grew ever worse in the Holy Land. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the Iraq war and the spread of terrorism suggest it will be some time before the situation in the Middle East becomes favorable for Christians once more. Even in Israel, just as conditions for ordinary Christians are trying, the operation of official church institutions is becoming more difficult. The Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See (1993) has led to little practical improvement in the life of Catholics and other Christians in the Holy Land. The future of Christianity in the lands that first embraced it is in doubt.

Will the cradle of Christianity be an empty one, depopulated of living Christian communities? Is Anatolia, deprived of its historic Christian population, a picture of the future for the whole Middle East? Not necessarily. Rapid turnarounds are possible, as after the 1991 Gulf War and the Oslo Agreements in 1993. The secular trends today are decidedly against a revival of the Middle Eastern churches, but ultimately the future is in God’s hands.

Until this year, Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen served as counselor for international affairs to the U.S. bishops with special responsibility for the Middle East.

Books about Middle East Christians
By Yossi Klein Halevi
Perennial, 336 pages, $13.95

During the late 1990s, Mr. Halevi, an Israeli political commentator and a “modern” Orthodox Jew, joined Christians and Muslims to pray with them during their holy days. The stories of his ventures into Gaza to pray at a Sufi mosque rank among the best religious writing of the last decade. Likewise his interpretation of Jerusalem’s Armenian Christians as victims who will not be conventionally religious again until the world acknowledges their history of suffering is an eye-opener.

By Mitri Raheb
Augsburg Fortress, 158 pages, $13

In a vivid narrative, the Lutheran pastor of Bethlehem’s Christmas Church offers his first-person account of the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity and life under Israeli occupation. Like a wise pastor, he also offers glimpses of hope from within the conflict.


National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2005

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