The history of eastern churches is complex

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:19:53

Review of Pascal Gollnisch, "Chrétiens d'Orient", Cherche Midi, Paris 2016. 

“By talking and talking about these suffering people, we risk making them an abstract reality” (p. 117). This profoundly true observation is by Monsignor Pascal Gollnisch, who since 2010 has been the general director of the Œuvre d’Orient, an important charity supporting Eastern Christians. The Œuvre was born in France in 1856 and today it promotes more than 1,000 projects in the whole region. As a counterbalance to the risk of abstraction, this short book “seeks to be more of a testament and a personal reflection than an expert analysis” (p. 9). A testimony, however, that counts on thousands of kilometers clocked up in the Middle East, since the years of seminary training, and an uninterrupted series of meetings with Church leaders and politicians as well as with many ordinary people, like the refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan, whose dramatic stories open the book.

As is well known, the history of eastern churches is complex: there are seven Catholic rites in the region, not to mention the other confessions. Compared to many superficial explanations circulating in the media, the first part of the volume clearly explains the root of the divisions that brought about these churches and the main points of the theological debate, while a useful appendix provides a brief profile of each eastern catholic church, with their reference in France. The only reservation concerns the clear taking of distance from the “later waves of European missionaries sent by the Latin Church of Rome” (p. 26) and from the West, “conquering and Latin” (p. 21). While the reasons for this criticism are perfectly understandable, it is fair to remind that if the theological and liturgical heritage of these churches has not been lost, it is owed also to the work of many Latin missionaries who over the centuries have generously dedicated themselves in the service of these communities.

The author emphasizes the basic choice of Easter Christians in favor of non-violence, especially in the ongoing conflicts, and the radical objection it raises against the logics of power and hegemony that are bringing Middle Eastern societies on the brink of collapse. And here the author, to escape any shadow of intellectualism, recalls some recent instances of martyrdom, among which the attack on the Syriac Catholic cathedral of Baghdad in 2010, a sinister omen of what would take place in Iraq soon thereafter.

This is not to say that Eastern Christian communities have no right to defend themselves when they are threatened with extermination. The testimony, given in full, by Monsignor Hindo, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Al-Hasakah and Nusaybin, illustrates how precarious the situation is in the Christian villages of northeastern Syria, caught between the threat of ISIS, the ambitions of the Kurdish militias and the substantial disinterest of the Syrian regime which, like the international community, until recently had priorities other than the control of these peripheral regions. Without hiding behind circumlocutions, the author openly calls for an international military intervention to save what can be saved. He is nonetheless well aware that the true solution will consist in offering a credible prospective to the Sunni community, in Iraq as well as in Syria, and in the promotion of a culture of rights. Thus distancing himself from many of his Eastern friends, Mgrs. Gollnisch is in fact convinced that the great liberal principles (separation of powers, the rule of law, and a form of separation between religion and politics, whatever name it can take) have something to say to these countries and their majority-Muslim societies. Indeed, they have already begun to exert a certain attraction on them: “If I strongly believe that coexistence is possible […] it is because it seems like a sizeable portion of the Middle East’s Muslim population does not want to hear about Daesh or al-Qaida” (p. 136).

But next to the Eastern Christians, in the book there is a second focal point: we Europeans. “It would be tragic to believe for a second that the fate of the Middle East is not directly linked to ours” (p. 19). The stakes are crucial: demonstrating that Christians and Muslims can still live together. If they cannot manage to do so in the Middle East, where they share the same language and the same culture, how could they in the West? Yet this dimension of the problem is rarely considered. “France – though the question could be applied, in varying degrees, to other European countries – has an unhealthy relationship with religions. So long as it refuses to grant them a legitimate place in the context of citizenship, it will remain unable to understand these populations who flock towards us and who question our societies” (p. 116). Acting, today not tomorrow, so that the experience of religious pluralism in the Middle East does not get completely erased, by maintaining channels of dialogue and at the same time preserving the links between the diaspora and the original communities, means building a better future for our European societies too.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation