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Christians in the Muslim World

The Church of the Arabs: a Special Responsibility

In this region of the world 'we Christians have a profound relationship with Muslims: we share our flesh and blood, our ethnic belonging, our nationality, our tribes, our culture, our civilisation and our customs with them'. In the testimony of the Melchite Patriarch of Antioch, the indication of a task that has the characteristic of catholicity

Last update: 2018-06-11 15:30:23

The phrase 'Church' of the Arabs means in short that the Church of Christ, which lived and lives in the Arab world, has a profound relationship with this Arab world, with its pains and its hopes, its joys and its sufferings, its difficulties and its crises: this is the Church of Emmanuel, a Church-with and a Church-for, Arab society and in Arab society. And the reality is that this Arab society in which the Arab Church lives, planted in Arab soil and sown in the profundity of its history and geography, the reality, indeed, is that this Arab society has a Muslim majority. Christians make up fifteen million inhabitants out of a total of about two hundred and sixty. Thus the Church of the Arabs is the Church of Arab society; the Church of the Arab world is also the Church of Islam, the Church of Muslim society. A Church that lives in this Arab and Muslim world, that interacts with it, suffers with it and rejoices with it, builds and hopes, believes and loves. It is really the Church of Emmanuel, the Church-with and the Church-for. In this, the Church of the Arab East, the Church of Islam, learns from the school of her Teacher, the Lord Jesus, the Emmanuel, the God of love, the God of redemption, of salvation and of giving, who defined the purpose of his incarnation and his birth in these terms: 'the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mk 10:45). And in these terms as well: 'I came so that they may (everyone may) have life, and have it abundantly' (Jn 10:10). St. Paul observed: 'Christ did not please himself' (Rom 15:3) and added: 'none of us lives to himself' (Rom 14:7). And Jesus told us: 'You are the light of the world... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven' (Mt 5:14;16). These holy verses represent a clear invitation addressed to every Christian to come out of himself and his isolation, from his people: 'Leave your village, your homeland and the house of your father' (Jn 12:1), and from everything that could be an obstacle between him and the other, so as to be able to encounter that other by being he also Emmanuel... a man-with and a man-for. A Christian must rise above himself, his Church and his person so as to really be 'Catholic' (that is to say universal). The term Church of the Arabs and of Islam expresses one of the features of the Church in the Creed: 'I believe in the Church, one and universal (catholic)', that is to say one that gathers together every culture, civilisation, language and ethnic group. We Arab Christians have a profound relationship with Muslims: we share our flesh and blood, our ethnic belonging, our nationality, our tribes, our culture, our civilisation and our customs with them. We are a Church that has lived together side by side with Islam for fourteen hundred years and has been profoundly influenced by Islam. Throughout history our Church has shared with our Muslim fellow countrymen important national, social, and even military responsibilities. Islam is present in all our societies, families, interests, congresses, studies, preaching and conferences, thoughts, social analyses and projects. You, Christian, cannot pass by your Muslim brother in your homeland as though he were extraneous to you or as though he did not concern you! You are with him in an existential and daily dialogue that is turned to destiny. The Church of Islam means a Church whose past and present history, and culture, is closely bound up with Islam and Muslims. We all know the very great quantity of studies on Islam produced by the local Christians, without mentioning the enormous amount of works written by Western scholars on Islam. The term 'Church of Islam' expresses, therefore, the link of the Church with Islam, at the level of existence, consciousness, destiny, civilisation, spirituality and pastoral care. 'Church of Islam' expresses the special responsibility that we bear towards Islam and Muslims. The Church of Islam absolutely does not mean a community of Muslims who embrace Christianity or even a community of Christians who work to guide Muslims to Christianity. This phrase, in my opinion and according to the analysis that I present, is very far from the idea of proselytism in any form. This phrase, for me, is synonymous with love and respect, cooperation and solidarity, optimism, dialogue, living together in society, compassion, mutual support, and common work in our Arab countries to build a better world so as to build up the civilisation of love. It is necessary for these beliefs to be shared by all of us, sons and daughters of our Patriarchal Church (and so all Christians). These beliefs must form the Magna Carta of our spirituality, of our teaching in the institutes of the clergy for the training of priests and of male and female religious, and in the teaching of our schools and institutions and in all religious, cultural, health-care, professional and social foundations. These beliefs are not a free option nor are they a strategic choice connected with the special conditions of a certain political or social situation. These beliefs are an essential factor in the discovery of the meaning of our vocation, of the essence of our mission as Greek-Catholic Christians, in general of our mission in our Middle-Eastern Arab society. In my view this is a vital and fundamental pre-condition for the limiting of the Christian emigration that is becoming worse within our churches. We begin with our Greek-Melkite Church so as to be the Church of Emmanuel in the human consortium; here in our Arab countries and in the countries of our diaspora throughout the world. We wish to express our keenly-felt wish and hope that our Church is and will remain a Church without frontiers, a Church of horizons, of broad views, of openness and progress, a Church that is with and for. To really understand the meaning of the fact that Jesus is called Emmanuel, to understand the meaning of the Church that serves, the meaning of the Church of the Arabs and of Islam, to understand all these phrases and the reality they portray is of extreme importance. Because if an Eastern Christian, an Arab Christian, an Egyptian Christian, a Syrian Christian, a Lebanese Christian, a Jordanian Christian or a Sudanese Christian does not understand the meaning of the name of Jesus and his own name as a Christian, the meaning of his baptism in the name of Jesus, the meaning of being called a Christian in relation with Jesus Christ, if he does not understand that he is the heir of those who for the first time at Antioch were called Christians (Acts 11:26), if he does not understand this name and this reality, if he does not perceive this role and this mission, if he does not realise that he does not live for himself, that man, even though he calls himself a Christian, has already lost a large part of the meaning of Christianity, of his baptism, of his first communion, of the sacraments and of his membership of the Church. In this way he becomes exposed to the blowing of the winds and a potential emigrant. Just as at the beginning of Islam, Christians performed the role above all else of translating the Greek heritage into Arabic, so today they must perform a cultural role at the side of their Muslim brothers. My hope, my desire, my wish, my prayer and my supplication is that Muslims will work together with their Christian brothers. What I do as Patriarch and what the other Patriarchs and Bishops my brothers, the monks and women religious and the various associations do to maintain a Christian presence in the region is a part of the scales. The support of my Muslim brothers for this project, the 'project for the Christian presence in Arab countries', is the other part, and it is the more important one. To this, for that matter, our intellectual and enlightened Muslim brothers invite us.