A Balancing Act
This site will be a cross section between accessible scholarly articles about Christian communities in the Middle East, informed comments, personal blogs, and reports from and about individual Christians. To understand how these Christians have practiced their faith over the centuries, we need to learn about the memories and traditions that continue to bring them together in communities that call themselves Christian. In order to understand the beliefs, rituals, practices, cultures, artistic expressions. We need to hear their individual voices; the songs they sing, poetic verses that spill out of their hearts, the pictures they draw.
Yet they have been around for a long time; the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church. They can mostly be found in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq and trace their beginnings to the first centuries of the Christian era. Nowadays they are present in a dizzying array of groups and denominations but we simply don’t know them. Sometimes they break through the headlines when bad things happen to them. In 2011, during the Egyptian Arab Spring, the Copts suddenly hit the news when their churches were burnt down and even the Coptic cathedral, the largest in Africa, came under attack during the last days of the Morsi regime. By now it is common knowledge that Daesh (also known as Islamic State) fighters kidnapped several hundreds of Christians for ransom. Small snippets of news, easily forgotten.
Groups such as Daesh continue to destroy ancient churches, monasteries and seminaries, and our chances to learn about their inhabitants are getting slimmer by the day. Spurred on by violent conflicts between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions, many Christians have traded their homes of nearly two thousand years for the suburbs of Detroit, Toronto, Los Angeles, Paris, Stockholm, or wherever they find a warm welcome.
Wanting to write about “Middle Eastern Christians” by itself is a hazardous enterprise akin to announcing that one is going to study Europe’s Christians. At the most one could say that in each country there are Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and other denominations all divided in an array of sub-groups. They are bound by the belief that Jesus Christ walked the earth but argue at what point Christ became divine and are separated by a geographical boundary called Europe. Each denomination and Christian community has its own history, language and culture. Syrian Christians consider their culture to be founded on at least three ancient cultures: Aramaic or Mesopotamian, Graeco-Roman, and Jewish. Copts pride themselves on their Pharaonic roots that influenced every other culture that overran Egypt.
Paying attention to these Christians draws attention to the complexity of the Middle East and the long-standing conditions, problems, and interrelationships of Muslims and Christians in the region. When in the seventh-to-eighth centuries, Arab Muslims colonized these countries, the majority of the populations were Christian. Moved by various reasons and circumstances, many converted to Islam, and as a result, over several centuries, Islam became the majority religion in most Middle Eastern countries. Over time, Arabic, the language of the rulers and the Qur’an replaced local languages, such as Coptic, Syriac, and Assyrian.
However, Christian communities persisted. Christians and Muslims continue to share customs and practices. Today, Christians are active in most professions and businesses in the region and offer educational and other services. Even after the Arab Spring upset the demographic makeup of Syria and Iraq, Christians and Muslims continue to co-exist in other parts of the Middle East. In fact, oftentimes differences between Muslims and Christians only become visible during worship, when they attend their respective houses of worship and mark the year by their specific feasts. Christians mark time following their beliefs; the Coptic calendar starts in the Year of the Martyrs;” 284 Ce, the year Roman Emperor Diocletian started his reign that was marked by persecutions of Christians (Edwar al-Kharrat, Stones of Bobello (2005) p. 80).
Christian historic sites remain tangible witnesses of a long history that is part of our world heritage. Liturgies preserve the ancient languages of Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, and Armenian, which continue to proclaim the wisdom at the root of many deep spiritual and moral insights. For example, the Copts of Egypt rediscovered seventh-century wisdom teacher Isaac the Syrian and regularly spice their language with his quotes, such as “Always let mercy outweigh everything else in you.” Living at the dawn of the Muslim invasions, his teachings guided local Christians into a new religious reality of pluralism.
Modern-day Christian leaders in the Middle East continue to find creative ways of living with their Muslim neighbors, for example, often providing interesting spiritual-psychological advice. For example, amid the rampant destruction that took place during the Arab Spring upheaval, Pope Shenouda III who was the Coptic pope from 1971 until 2012, taught that for Egyptians, “The highest level of thanksgiving is to give thanks over tribulations.” Many in these communities’ focus on fostering core human virtues, such as humility, thankfulness, and love for the neighbor, in the face of adversity and animosity.
Following such advice is not easy; a tall order to live out, and truly a balancing act.
Nelly van Doorn-Harder
Related: Christmas message of Coptic Orthodox Bishop Thomas