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Arab Christians: Makers of Novelty. With Muslims’ Support

A look at the history of Christians in the Arab world shows a fruitful dialectic between rootedness in their own tradition and openness to other cultures. High points have been the creation of an interreligious humanism in tenth-century Baghdad and the ecclesial renewal during the Catholic Reformation that paved the way for the Arab awakening. Today, as previously, however, such interaction is only possible when Muslim regimes are open to otherness and not caught up in an introverted and obsessive sectarianism.

What future can there be for Arab civilization in a Middle East dominated by sectarianism and fundamentalism? This question had already begun to emerge several decades ago and has now become most dramatically pressing after the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There is then a second question, no less fraught with consequences, which specifically concerns the Christian communities in the region: will there still be a place for them? There is probably no conclusive answer to these closely connected questions. Nevertheless, a general overview of the role that Christians have historically played within Arab civilization highlights some guiding principles that, if projected into the future, allow us to assess on what conditions a Christian presence may still be possible in the Middle East in the twenty-first century.



The purpose of this article is therefore not to re-evoke the glories of the past, pausing melancholically to weep over its ruins (al-bukā’ ‘alā l-atlāl), as our poets of the pre-Islamic period were wont to do. The aim is, rather, to look back briefly at the composite Middle Eastern Christian identity, that fruit of successive cultural deposits, in order to be able to judge, in a proper perspective, what plan for the future may feasibly be nurtured. And since it is impossible to condense a bimillenary history into a few pages,1 I will concentrate on two fundamental junctures, seeking to draw from them some valid lessons for our tormented present in the final part of this article.



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1For a wider-ranging treatment, the reader is referred to Samir Khalil Samir, Rôle culturel des chrétiens dans le monde arabe, (Cedrac, Beirut, 2005), of which this article constitutes both a summary and an update. The book is also available in Italian, translated by Paola Pizzi (Ruolo culturale dei cristiani nel mondo arabo, Edizioni Orientalia Christiana, Rome, 2007) and in Arabic: Dawr al-masīhīyyīn al-thaqāfī fī l-‘ālam al-‘arabī, (Dār al-Mashriq, Beirut, 2004).

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