This is a cross-post from Abu Faris of The Spittoon
About 15 million Christians continue to live in the Middle East, the biggest non-Muslim minority left in the Muslim-majority countries of the region. Yet every year, more and more leave their homelands for overseas; pressurised into flight by systematic economic and social discrimination on the basis of their faith.
Of course, the Christians of the Middle East have not been alone in this. Starting with the sometimes sizeable Jewish minorities of the Arab world, religious minorities have been more or less forced out of the region since the end of World War II. Together with the Jews, Zoroastrians, Mandeans, Bahai, Yazidis, and other, smaller groups have all left the region that gave birth to all the monotheistic faiths. Those that remain have often been reduced to what one Christian commentator has called an underground, “catacomb” faith, recalling the persecuted faith of the Early Church.
Nina Shea, in a recent article, comments:
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.
She echoes the views of the Lebanese Catholic scholar, Habib Malik (son of the late Charles Malik, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):
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.
Charles Malik is the founding director of the Foundation of Human and Humanitarian Rights -Lebanon, an organisation dedicated to a secular, democratic and liberal future for all the communities of modern Lebanon.
Elsewhere, the Copts of Egypt continue to suffer between the hammer of Islamist pogrom and the anvil of the state’s continued complicity in discrimination against the Coptic Orthodox Christian community. Shea quotes the brave and indefatigable Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Church, who has single-handedly attempted to preserve the ancient Coptic language (the last living descendent of the language of ancient Egypt) and the fragile culture of the Egyptian Christian community. For his pains, Bishop Thomas has faced repeated death-threats. Bishop Thomas recalled his own upbringing as a Copt in Egypt and the hope that his faith brings him:
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.
Finally, Shea discusses the incredibly brave Anglican priest, Canon Andrew White. She writes of her friend:
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.”
There is a passage in the Gospel of Luke, one of many that never fails to move me. The Angel Gabriel has visited Mary. Mary is understandably troubled by the news that she is miraculously pregnant. Gabriel reminds her that her elderly kinswoman, Elizabeth, has also against the odds become pregnant:
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
For with G-d nothing shall be impossible.
One might think of the Churches of the Middle East as Elizabeth, elderly, seemingly barren – and of their brave and devout followers there, who hope on hope that their Churches may survive their present troubles, that they might too be part of the light that is so needed unto the nations of that troubled region. One does not have to be a Christian, nor even a believer of any kind, to understand the demands that anyone of a liberal, democratic and progressive stance must take on this issue. The freedom to worship in peace and safety is part of all of our universal human rights. Perhaps the dwindling Christian believers of the Middle East might take some comfort in those words of the Angel Gabriel, spoken so long ago, to a poor, confused, terrified young woman in the middle of the night:
For with G-d nothing shall be impossible.
Coptic Icon of the Annunciation