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Book Reviews

Aldo Ferrari, Popoli e Chiese dell'Oriente Cristiano

Aldo Ferrari (a cura di), Popoli e Chiese dell'Oriente Cristiano, Edizioni Lavoro, Roma 2008

In seven contributions by internationally renowned experts, Aldo Ferrari succinctly presents the multifaceted reality of the Churches of the Christian Near East. Whether from the Syrian-Palestinian region to the Caucasus or from Mesopotamia to Egypt and Ethiopia, these communities have a rich history despite their small smile. Too often they are ignored by the wider public for whom the expression Christian East immediately evokes memories of Byzantium or the splendour of Orthodox Russia.

 

If one had to suggest a good subtitle to sum up the volume, without a doubt it would be Seven Snapshots of Chalcedon because of the importance of the Council of Chalcedon of 451 AD in understanding the genesis of these communities. Indeed political motivations tied to national feelings emerging in various parts of the Near and Middle East were behind the Christological controversy that began in Chalcedon and ended only in 1994. As the polygraph from western Syria Bar-Hebraeus put it, "these disputes among Christians are about nothing substantial, only arguments over words and terms," something that John of Damascus had already observed six centuries earlier.

 

Naturally the seven snapshots of Chalcedon reflect the points of view of each author, whose views are occasionally one-sided like Paola Pizzi's charge that the Roman See is the bearer of a "pyramidal ecclesiology". In this case historical and theological discussions could have profited from in-depth canonistic studies like L. Okulik's Le chiese sui iuris (Sui Iuris Churches), Marcianum Press, 2005.

 

In tracing the 2,000-year history of these Churches, the authors shed light on the close link between faith and group identity. This can be for the better because the Middle East would not be so culturally diverse without each Church playing the role of the guardian of traditions, but also for worse as Christians are often divided, excommunicating and occasionally killing each other for political reasons, with the region's main player, the Muslim political power, called in to the rescue.

 

As for Islam, the current difficult situation comes immediately to mind, as Christians steadily depart swelling the ranks of an ever larger Diaspora. Here, too, the book pulls the alarm bell on the one hand, whilst pointing out some signs of hope on the other; stressing how the history of Christianity in the region is one of crises and falling-out but also of rebirths. For instance, Mengozzi notes that at the end of the 16th century Christians in the Middle East had fallen to just 7 per cent of the total population; like North African Christianity they seemed destined to disappear, overwhelmed by total Islamisation. Yet 400 years later, at the start of the 20th century, Eastern Christians were 25 per cent of the population. A more tolerant Ottoman regime, contacts with the West, better social and sanitary conditions, Church reform after contact with Catholic missionaries and some illustrious (most notably Druze Emir Bashir II in Lebanon) and less illustrious conversions had reversed the trend.

 

At a time when Eastern Christians are full of pessimism, seemingly resigned to their fate, a better understanding of their history could help them meet more confidently the challenges that everyone without exception must face today in the Middle East.

 

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