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Islam

Eastern Christians: Witnesses to Faith, Creators of Culture

This edition of Oasis is dedicated to the Christians of the East and to what they have meant and mean, both for the Church and for the world. For the Church because the testimony that they give today (not infrequently to the point of martyrdom) constitutes a challenge to all believers, as Cardinal Scola reminds us in his introductory article. And for the world because, in all the diversity of their ecclesial affiliations, these Christians have played an irreplaceable role as cultural mediators, as Samir Khalil Samir documents well. This role, already existing before Islam (the very word “Qur’an” derives etymologically from the Syriac, Qeryān i.e. “lectionary”), culminated in the translation movement from Greek into Arabic that gradually made a good part of the Hellenistic scientific and philosophical literature available to the cultured classes of the Abbasid empire between the eighth and tenth centuries. And did so generally through the mediation of Syriac. Then, after centuries of decline and persecution, these same Christian communities entered the scene for the third time at the beginning of the seventeenth century when, through the consolidation of their ties with Europe, they prepared the advent of modernity in the Near East, both on the level of ideas and the strictly linguistic one. Without the contribution of the eastern Christians (and the other “creative minorities” in this region, starting with the Jews), the Arab world would not be what it is. Their cultural dynamism has also resulted in bold efforts to express their faith through Islamic cultural and religious categories, as the frank and impassioned dialogue between the vizier al-Maghribī and the bishop Elias documents in the Classics section.

 

 

And yet, today, the very existence of these communities appears to be threatened, both from the inside and from the outside. From the inside by the numerous divisions that have fragmented eastern Christianity over the centuries and that the article by Pier Giorgio Gianazza helpfully summarizes. This disunion – as Louis Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch, writes, without mincing his words – “is a sin and means a slow death.” The centrifugal forces have always been counter-balanced by a tension towards unity, however: the story of the Church of the East, the Church of Mesopotamia and Persia, for example, whose troubled history is reconstructed in, precisely, the article by Patriarch Sako, is illustrative of this dialectic. A new impetus in this direction may come, today, not only from certain significant achievements made by theological dialogue but also from an “ecumenism of blood,” which emphasises the importance of the common testimony offered by the martyrs from the various Christian Churches and Communities.

 

 

The threat from the outside, on the other hand, lies in a fundamentalism that is incapable of tolerating plurality. A fundamentalism of which the black flags of ISIS are only the most glaring example. If, in the past, the tolerance of numerous enlightened rulers fostering a climate of openness has acted as an antidote, today there is only one solution: citizenship in states founded on the rule of law. Indeed, these two expressions appear, like a sort of refrain, in almost all the contributions of this issue (including, significantly, those of the Muslim authors) as the only condition capable of guaranteeing a stable future for the minority communities in the Middle East. Hamit Bozarslan writes that it is necessary to move from a conception of power as mulk, the personal possession of an individual or a group, to a form of citizenship that can be truly inclusive. And one that definitively leaves behind it the ambiguous concept of dhimma, the limitations and distortions of which are lucidly denounced by Muhammad Sammak (whilst numerous Islamist thinkers, including so-called moderates, insist on boasting its purported virtues). Only in this way – explains Léna Gannagé – will eastern Christians be able to escape the false alternative of either religious or national belonging, two forms of identity that are not, in reality, mutually exclusive but rather complementary.

 

 

The proposal is not a new one: the letters written by the Catholic Patriarchs of the East1 and the Extraordinary Synod for the Middle East held in 2010, for example, had also insisted on citizenship (muwātana in Arabic). But, for all that, it cannot be said that the proposal has been implemented.

 

On the contrary, as Béchara Raï, the Maronite Patriarch, documents, the region is suffering from an ever-growing sectarianization. It follows the Sunni-Shi‘a divide and is being fuelled by the denominational nature of the two greatest regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is in this poisoned climate that ISIS’s exclusivist ideology was born and developed: an ideology that – Michele Brignone reminds us – parades the features of a medieval theocracy but, in reality, comes close to the twentieth-century totalitarianisms, particularly in its extreme quest to smash the existing order.

 

 

While a traumatized Egypt is still seeking its path (and the Copts – Christian Cannuyer explains – stop perplexed at the crossroads between protection and participation), a fragile alternative may still be found in Lebanon and its formula. However criticisable and perfectible, abused and distorted it may be, that initial intuition of gathering together Christians and Muslims on an equal footing cannot be renounced. And if, partly through the responsibility of those same Christians, this political formula seems today to be deadlocked and incapable of renewing itself – especially in the face of the unsustainable number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in the country – Beirut still has something to say to the rest of the Arab world at a cultural level. It is enough to read the declaration on religious freedom made in June 2015 to realize this fact.

 

 

If the current trend in sectarianization is not reversed immediately, it is easy to predict an exponential growth in emigration. Of Christians, who will swell the ranks of the diaspora, as Maria Laura Conte recounts in her reportage on Södertäljie, a little town near Stockholm where Syriac Christian refugees have recreated a “miniature Mesopotamia,” injecting new life-blood into the Church in Sweden. But also, and primarily, of Muslims, because a fanaticized Middle East is a place where, quite simply, it is impossible to live.

 

 

Rule of law or sectarian conflict; pluralism or forced homologation. It sometimes happens that all the arguments would indicate one path but history seems to choose the opposite direction. Avempace, the medieval philosopher, would answer that the only solution in these cases is to flee the city, in order to adopt the regime of the solitary. We do not want to believe this and will continue to fight to avert this outcome. In defence of ideals but also for political reasons. Because the West can, actually, receive some million refugees from the Middle East. But how will we deal with the Arab world once its lands have been purged of every trace of a bimillenary plurality?

 

 

1Particularly the third: al-‘Aysh al-mushtarak bayn al-muslimīn wa al-masīhiyyīn fî al-‘ālam al-‘arabī (1994).

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