Articles > Christians in the Muslim world > 2013 > Christian Churches in Arab countries

Christian Churches in Arab countries

Maroun Lahham | 12 November 2013

In recent times much has been said about Arab Christians and the churches in the Arab world. First of all we would like to say that those who wish to understand Arab Christians and the Churches in the Arab world should listen to those directly involved. The libraries are full of books, studies and analysis produced outside the Arab world and no matter how much of the contents is correct, the actual Arab atmosphere is missing. If you want to know a man, the best way is to get him to talk about himself. So, in this meeting we will talk about our churches which are:
Autochthonous churches
Churches of Calvary
Churches of the Resurrection.

Autochthonous churches.
Many people are surprised to learn that Arab Christian do exist, and that these are fundamentally Arab and not Muslims who have abandoned their religion. I do not wish to analyze this aspect, but the fact is that our countries have no Christianity right from its birth. Our countries had mainly become Christian even before the end of the first century. Actually, it was our countries that took the Good News to the ends of the earth, even to India. The fact that we are original citizens means much to us Arab Christians. It means that we are autochthonous and that we existed before Islam. This gives us hope and moral and ethical strength, especially if we consider that some recent Islamic movements superficially deny this fact, and think that the East is Muslim and the West Christian. However, it is not possible to deny the historical testimony and especially the antique Christian monuments. We must also loudly proclaim that our churches have preserved their faiths over long centuries in spite of all the difficulties they encountered. They continued to surround the holy places with their existence and prayer and despite all difficulties accepted the new reality coming from the Arab world and contributed to the formation of an Arab Islamic civilization from the start up to the present, particularly during the Arab revival (the Nahda) of the nineteenth century. Two facts helped to preserve the Christian faith throughout the centuries: the liturgy and domestic education. The liturgy because it, particularly religious hymns, is permeated with dogma and has become part of the Christian daily life especially when illiteracy reigned. And the home because it was and still is the first school where faith is learnt.

The church of Calvary.
When I say “Calvary” I mean the long impervious and painful history that our churches went through. The Eastern churches continue to prosper up to the Islamic occupation (7th century) and after that for about another two centuries. In Umm Rasas, near Madaba there are the remains of churches that go back to the end of the ninth century. From then on our churches faced a new situation: they become a minority. Of the fifteen century that our churches have lived alongside Islam, some were good and others difficult, especially the end of the abbaside, fatimide (969-1171), mamelucca (1250-1517) and the Ottoman reign (1515-1918). After these epochs Arab Christians gradually diminished in number. It is true that Islam only rarely used force to make Christian change their religion but the question of jizya (the head-tax imposed on non Muslims) and other tributes, restrictions and actual discrimination, in addition to material poverty, caused the number of Christian to be greatly reduced (they were 80% in the first centuries of Islam, 50% at the time of the Crusades, 20% in the nineteenth century and 5% today.
Despite this the church did not disappear. It is true that many left the country and continue to do so today, but those Christians who persevered in their faith gave a spiritual dimension to this reality which they called the Church of Calvary, that is the suffering church, the church of incomprehension and the cross – the stone of scandal which the old Simeon spoke of, and the disciple is not more than his master as the Lord said. But the Christian churches in Arab countries are “the church of Calvary” no matter how lovely from the spiritual and dogmatic aspect is difficult to live on a practical level day by day. Christians are a minority in every Arab country and the percentage fluctuates between 10% in Egypt and 1.2% in Palestine decreasing almost to zero in the Maghreb countries. Living as a minority for centuries creates a “minority” psychology which is not very pleasant. A minority is afraid, a minority seeks protection, a minority flatters the authority in power to obtain guarantees on their life, a minority exaggerates and enlarges the smallest problem, a minority is afraid of political involvement, a minority prefers to live on the suffering of others and is afraid of public or political involvement. And when Christians become politically involved it is through belonging to a party and not a church. (let me say something here that is outside text). The reason for this lies in the fact that the Arab church has never given any indication to the faithful in this field. And we must say that the first spiritual leader to speak of Christian principles in politics was Patriarch Michael Sabbah, Patriarch of the Jerusalem of the Latins from 1988 to 2008. In fact, the political, social and humanitarian situation in the Holy Land involved both Muslim and Christian citizens, at least for what concerns man’s dignity and his fundamental rights without considering the social and material effects on the situation. For this reason Patriarch Sabbah warned that it was his duty to clarify what the Christian faith had to say in that precise historical circumstance. He did this through pastoral letters, talks and conferences in the Holy Land and abroad. The teaching of the church in the Holy Land, the principles behind this teaching and their practical application on rights and duties, on the right to resistance and the refusal of violence, on being faithful to basic rights denouncing injustice and calling things by their proper name in spite of all kinds of pressure: the church of the Holy Land owes all this to the Patriarch Sabbah. (end of my parenthesis)
However, the church of Calvary is not only a question of mentality (majority/minority). Recently there have been cases in which churches in some Arab countries have been persecuted. The southern Lebanon in 1860, the Assyrians in Iraq in the thirties of the last century, the Copts in the second half of the twentieth century and ongoing. There is no doubt that what is happening in Syria (in principle) involves the Syrian Christians as much as the Syrian Muslims but at the same time the Islamic extremist movement openly aims at Christians.
One of the most dangerous consequence for the suffering and small church of Calvary, is the exodus of Arab Christians. Emigration is to all epochs and countries something that took place. Christians in Arab countries have been aware of this from the nineteenth century. The most important reasons were in the past the economic situation during the Turkish reign, in particularly in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. It is clear that the Arab countries that are going through a difficult political time have a higher emigration. For example, the percentage of Palestinian Christians in Palestine is 1.2% whereas the percentage of Palestinian Christians in other countries is 10%. The most dangerous aspect of this is that the Arab countries are losing their best Christians, young educated people, which places the responsibility of providing for the old, children and the young on those remaining in the country. The different churches are trying to stop this exodus with various means: building houses for young families and trying to create full-time work for them (for example more than 30% of Palestinian Christians work in church institutions) and good schools (there are dozens of schools and universities in Bethlehem, Amman, Ibillin, Beirut and Baghdad). At the same time they try to emphasize how the presence of Christians in Arab countries is a mission of faith that comes from God and which all are called to live in spite of the difficulties. Some are convinced but the worry about the future of their children is stronger. In the end churches can do a lot and offer numerous activities to strengthen the Christian presence but they cannot take the place of competent governments. The ideal solution to stop this exodus is to create security, peace and justice because it is wrong to think that those who emigrate can find work and a better future.
Yes, to the Church of Calvary, and yes to the Church of suffering, but the Church must carry the cross of suffering together with our crucified Lord, and with the strength that comes from Him. The churches in Arab countries know and say and repeat that it was God who wanted us in Arab countries to live our faith and give testimony to Him where and when He has placed us. If it is His will that we are Arab Christians it is so that we live our faith in an Arab tent and among our Muslim and Hebrew brothers. Otherwise, He would have created us Christians in different countries in this big world. That is why the churches in Arab countries live their cross mixed with the glory of the Resurrection. And now I have come to the third and last point in my talk.

The Church of Resurrection.
The basic point of this expression is faith. In fact, our Christian faith teaches us that the cross is not the last world in the process of redemption. The last word is resurrection on which our faith is built. St Paul says “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. But Christ has been raised” (1Cor, 15,16). That’s why we repeat what Pope Francis said on Good Friday this year “ Death is not a wall we are going against, death is a door through which we pass into a life of glory”. And we say “ to be the Church of Calvary is not an inescapable destiny to live with our heads bowed, it is our path to arrive at the church of glory, to share the glory with Christ, after sharing with Him His passion and Calvary. Our church is the church of resurrection also because it continues the Lord’s mission in countries in which His voice does not cease to echo, on the mountains and lowlands. The Lord’s evangelizing mission continues through the explicit word and especially through the testimony of life. In fact, the testimony of life, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, is more important than an explicit announcement which certain circumstances render difficult. It continues the mission of Christ through its innumerable education, humanitarian, health and social institutions – it is sufficient to look at the yearbook of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. And other churches are not less.
It is the church of the resurrection that is active in the parishes of Arab countries and in its committed youth. We cannot count the number of apostolic movements in the churches in the Arab world. I will give you a brief idea of the church in Jordan: 40 priests, over 150 nuns, 60 catholic schools, 5 Christian hospitals, numerous day hospitals, youth movements with about 3000 boys and girls, the same for scouts, a general secretariat for the youth and one for the scouts, a general secretariat for parish councils (with over 150 members), a general secretariat for young family movement (over 200 families meet every Tuesday), a general secretariat for sacristans (over 400), association of Christian mothers (hundreds), and then The Caritas which has 150 employees and more than 1200 voluntary workers. Our churches are active, and life is the sign of the resurrection.
We are the church of the resurrection through the prophetic role we fulfill in the various conflicts in the Arab world nowadays. The voice of the church in Palestine and Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Iraq aims at being the voice of truth. A voice that invites us to refuse violence, war, terrorism, killings and revenge. A voice that invites us to justice, the justice that is taught by the church in the letter of Pope John XXIII Pacem in terris and which states that there can be no peace without justice, no peace without charity and no peace without forgiveness and reconciliation. If Arab countries continue to live in such confusion – let us hope that it is a trial leading to a better society – the reason is that the basic principle of justice is still absent. The mission of the church in all these conflicts, after the appeal for justice and peace, is to act for reconciliation and forgiveness among those fighting. It is something that only the Christian churches can carry out because pardon is fundamentally a Christian virtue. In fact, the Islamic and Hebrew mentalities rarely invite us to give and receive pardon gratuitously. The Hebrew mentality is that of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the Muslims have a proverb of a Bedouin who revenging himself forty years after the fact said “I did it quickly”.
Finally our churches in the Arab world are churches of the resurrection through their priestly vocations and consecrated lives. If God has allowed many trials and crisis, he did not allowed the crisis of vocations. There is a good number of students in our seminaries and the same is true for religious novitiates. A significant number of Arab girls now join the different orders, local or not. It is a grace from God for which we are grateful.

Conclusion
I thank you for coming to Jordan for this reunion. I thank you because you are interested in the situation of churches in Arab countries. I hope that you will pray for us and think of us. I would like to conclude with an observation which saddens me and all the bishops in the Arab world. The bishops who work with religious communities in general and with female communities in particular have a general dominant impression: work with charity, dedication, faithfulness wherever you are. But when we come to the interest of the congregation this often comes before the interest of the local church. We do not want to get into discussion on this point, which would be long and probably useless. I hope that you can prove to us bishops that we have a wrong impression which belongs to the past and that the present may be, if God wishes, an Arab Springtime for our countries, our churches and your congregations, and for all the congregations in Arab countries and all over the world.

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