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Christians in the Muslim World

The diaspora of the Christians / 2 The surprising expansion of the East in the West

From the Maronites to the Greek-Catholics, and from the Assyrians to the Armenians, the phenomenon of emigration which has been underway for some time spares no one and is dramatic. This is attested to by the numbers and the constant increase in ecclesiastical jurisdictions and places of worship in Europe and the Americas. In the case of many rites, there are by now more faithful abroad than in the countries of origin.  

Greek-Catholics like John Sununu or Amine Maalouf, Maronites like Carlos Slim Helù and Salma Hayek, Protestants like Edward Said, Copts like Onsi Sawiris, Syriac-Orthodox like Paul Anka, and Armenians like Charles Aznavour and Henri Verneuil: the Eastern Christians famous in the West are now numberless.

 

There are those who have had political careers, those who have had careers in the world of art or literature and those – obviously – who have had careers in business. However, the emigration of Christians from the lands of the East has never been motivated by the search for success. It has been caused, rather, by the wish to flee from conditions of life that were unbearable in these people’s homelands. This is demonstrated by the very first migratory wave of the so-termed Turcos in Latin America at the end of the nineteenth century, the migratory wave of the Armenians and Syriacs in the 1920s, that of the Assyrians in the 1930s, that of the Palestinians in the 1950s and 1960s, that of the Lebanese in the 1960s, and that of the Iraqis today.

 

The questions naturally arises: are the Eastern Churches still ‘Eastern’? From the statistics published by Jean-Pierre Valognes, it emerges that the population of the ‘diaspora’ fifteen years ago was already responsible for a major part of the Churches of the East: 57% of the Maronite Church, 53% of the Syriac-Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, and 35% of the Greek Orthodox and Syrian-Catholic Churches. These are percentages that are certainly increasing. Today, the Assyrian Church has just 100,000 faithful in Iraq and Syria as opposed to about 150,000 faithful spread through Europe, Australia and the Americas, where its Catholicos have lived since 1933. The same applies to the Armenian Church which has 485,000 faithful in the Middle East (excluding Armenia) but over 1,200,000 in the West.

 

A quantification of Christian Eastern emigration – which is recognised as being on a large scale by everyone – remains a rather complex operation. The example of the United States of America is indicative: in the American ten-year census of 2000, a little more than 1,200,000 Americans declared that they had Arab origins, but the Arab American Institute questions this number and multiplies it by three. In the view of this Foundation, which is directed by the Christian Arab James Zogby, 63% of Arab Americans are Christians: 35% of them are Catholics of the various rites; 18% are Orthodox or Pre-Calcedonians; and 10% are Protestants. On the other hand, 24% of Arab Americans are Muslims, and 13% declared that they had no religious affiliation. This means that 2,268,000 Arab Christians should be added to the 385,488 Armenians. When we consider the American statistics on immigrants who comes from the region that goes from Morocco to Bangladesh, we may note that between 1970 and 2000 the number of Christians rose from 163,000 to 397,000. Indeed, if we were to exclude from these statistics non-Arab immigrants (where, however, the Christian presence is rather small), we quickly observe that Christians make up 68% of the total of Arab immigrants (584,000).

 

 

Beyond the numbers, the constant emigration of Christians is borne witness to by the multiplication of ecclesiastical jurisdictions and places of worship of the Eastern rite in the West. The Maronite Church has faithful in nearly every State of the United States of America, where, for that matter, the Maronite diocese was divided in two in 1994: on the one hand, Saint Maron of Brooklyn (which covers seventeen States on the eastern coast, with thirty-nine parishes), and, on the other, Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles (the other States, with forty parishes). In Canada, the Saint-Maron de Montréal diocese has eighty thousand faithful distributed between fourteen parishes and that of Saint Maron of Sydney now has more than 160,000 (with nine parishes). But the ‘historic reservoir’ of Maronites remains Latin America. The diocese of Nossa Senhora do Libano em São Paulo has 468,000 faithful, that of San Charbel en Buenos Aires, which was created in 1990, has 700,000 faithful, and that of Nuestra Señora de los Mártires del Líbano en México, which was established in 1995, has 150,000 faithful. An Apostolic Visitor is responsible for following the numerous Maronite communities in Europe (principally in France, but also in Germany, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Austria).

 

 

The Greek-Catholic Church is also increasing its organisation in the diaspora. Since 1984 the Saint-Sauveur de Montréal has existed and it has about 43,000 Melkites distributed between Montreal (four parishes), Ottawa, Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver. In the USA the Our Lady of the Annunciation in Boston (also called Newton) diocese has 27,000 faithful distributed between thirty-five parishes. For this Church as well, Latin America is a historic land of emigration. The Nossa Senhora do Paraíso em São Paulo diocese has 418,000 faithful but it is clear that this number also includes the first immigrants. More realistic statistics refer, in fact, to 1,200 Melkite families in San Paolo, 250 in Rio de Janeiro, 200 in Fortaleza and others in Juiz de Forna. In 2002 an Apostolic Exarchate was created in Argentina. The first Melkites arrived in that country at the end of the nineteenth century and emigration intensified between 1910 and 1930. Today, reference is made to 100,000 faithful, most of whom have Syrian and Lebanese origins, and they are concentrated for the most part in the city of Cordoba, where in 1905 the first Melkite church in the country was built. In Mexico there is the Nuestra Señora del Paraíso en México diocese which has about five thousand faithful; in Venezuela an Apostolic Exarchate helps 25,000 faithful and in Australia the Saint Michael’s diocese of Sydney has responsibility for the 45,000 faithful resident in Australia, and since 1999 also for those living in New Zealand. An Apostolic Visitor has responsibility for the Melkite communities in Europe, where there are five parishes, and these are based in Paris, Rome and Brussels.

 

 

In the same regions there are also faithful of the Greek Orthodox Church. The archdioceses of Newton-USA, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, Australia, and the Apostolic Exarchate in Argentina where the first Orthodox church was built in 1914 in Santiago del Estero, all refer to the Patriarchate of Antioch. It is calculated that there are about 350,000 Orthodox Arabs in North America and they are growing strongly in numbers in Oceania where there are about thirty Orthodox places of worship of the Antioch rite. The faithful of Palestinian origins of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who are quite numerous in Latin America, above all in Chile, El Salvador and Honduras, refer where possible to these structures.

 

 

The ecclesiastical structure of the Syriac-Orthodox Church is more oriented towards Europe. As early as 1979 a mega-diocese covering the whole of central Europe was created. During his ministry, which lasted until 2005, the Metropolitan, Mar Iulius Yesh Çiçek, is said to have inaugurated fifty-one churches and three monasteries in this diocese, contributing to the spread of the Syriac heritage by the publishing house Bar Hebraeus as well. The constant arrival of Syriac faithful from Turkey and Arabia led subsequently to the division of this vast territory into a number of dioceses. Today in Europe there is a diocese for the numerous community in Sweden (it has about fifty priests), and dioceses in Germany (about 70,000 Syriac-Orthodox in fifty-one parishes), Holland (twelve parishes and a monastery dedicated to St. Ephrem in Hengelo), Belgium (six parishes), France (two parishes), Switzerland and Austria (seven parishes), and the United Kingdom. This last was created in October 2006 because of the sudden growth in the community caused by the exodus of Christians from Iraq. In America and Oceania there are patriarchal vicariates: for the eastern part of the United States of America (with is headquarters in New Jersey), for the western part of the country (with its headquarters in Los Angeles), for Canada (with its headquarters in Montreal), and for Argentina, Brazil and Australia-New Zealand.

 

 

Since 1995 the Syrian-Catholic Church has had a diocese for North America: Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark, with its headquarters in New Jersey. It is very probable that the initial number of 15,000 faithful has significantly increased during the Iraqi war. In 2001 an Apostolic Exarchate, responsible for 4,000 faithful, was created in Venezuela. Small Syrian-Catholic communities, lastly, are beginning to organise in Brazil, France, Sweden and Australia.

 

 

But the real boom in Eastern expansion is to be found today in the experience of the Assyrian and Chaldean Churches. In the United States of America there are two important Chaldean dioceses: Saint Thomas the Apostle of Detroit and Saint Peter the Apostle of San Diego (California, created in 2002), which have about 170,000 faithful spread between fifteen communities. The about 90,000 Assyrian faithful are divided between three dioceses (the east of the USA, the west, and California) and these have about twenty communities. In Canada there are three Chaldean communities (in Windsor, Toronto and Montreal), with at least 20,000 faithful, and an Assyrian diocese that has three communities and a mission. In Australia and New Zealand a new Chaldean diocese was created in November 2006 with at least 15,000 faithful, as well an Assyrian diocese of at least 10,000 faithful. The same growth in Assyrian-Chaldean communities has taken place in Europe. In 2000 there were already over 15,000 faithful in France (in particular in Sarcelles, on the outskirts of Paris), over 12,000 in Sweden, 10,000 in Germany, 8,000 in Belgium (Brussels, Mechelen and Antwerp), 8,000 in Greece (in Peristeri, on the outskirts of Athens), 5,000 in Holland (the eastern part of the country) and 3,000 in Great Britain. It would interesting in the future to examine the development of these communities after the exodus of the majority of Christians from Iraq.

 

 

The exodus of the faithful of the Latin Church often escapes those who study eastern emigration. A shared religious tradition is a factor in generating rapid integration into the new social realities, often of a Catholic character. It is known that in Chile today there live many more Palestinian Christians (Latins and Orthodox) from Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala than there are Palestinian Christians resident in these localities. The same often applies to Christians from Ramallah who are more numerous in Detroit than in their home city. This emigration has stepped up with the deterioration of the political situation in Palestine. From Beit Sahur alone, two hundred Christian families have left their homeland since 2000.

 

 

The exodus of Armenians to the West is much more known about. The Apostolic Armenian Church has two prelatures in the United States and one in Canada, and these refer to the Catholicossate of Cilicia. Since 1898 a diocese of the Armenian church of America, which is also called the ‘eastern diocese’, has existed, and since 1927 there has also been a Californian diocese, known as the ‘western diocese’. In the census of 2000 about 385,000 Americans declared that they had Armenian origins. The first Armenian church was built in Worcester in Massachusetts in 1891 and the oldest church on the west coast was that built in 1901 in Fresno, California. Significant Armenian communities are also to be found in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay) and Australia.

 

In Europe, Armenians are massively present in France (500,000) but are also to be found in Germany, Great Britain, Belgium Switzerland and Italy.

 

 

The smaller Armenian-Catholic Church had its Exarchate of Our Lady of Narek, New York, raised to a diocese and this has under its jurisdiction the 25,000 Catholic Armenians who are resident in the United States of America (divided into seven parishes) and 10,000 residents in Canada (two parishes). Small Armenian-Catholic communities are also present in South America. The Apostolic Exarchate for Latin America and Mexico has about 12,000 faithful and the archdiocese of San Gregorio de Narek en Buenos Aires has 16,000 faithful. In France there are about 30,000 Catholic Armenians in the diocese of the Holy Cross of Paris (six churches). The Evangelical Armenian Church is well rooted in the United States of America, Canada, Uruguay, France (13 churches), Australia, England and Belgium.

 

For some years the historic resistance of the faithful of the Orthodox Coptic Church to the temptations of emigration has begun to seriously weaken. It is calculated that this exodus has involved at least half a million people. Under Shenouda III this Church has spread to fifty-countries in the world, with the creation of four hundred churches outside Egypt. An indicative fact of this expansion is the Los Angles area where in the place of the single church that was opened in 1970, today there are twenty-eight churches, served by forty-three priests. The Copts now have a capillary presence in at least thirty States of the Union and one hundred and eighty Copt priests and monks from the dioceses of North America took part in the ninth seminar for priests that was held in August 2006. Side by side with the archdiocese of North America, with a patriarchal residence in Cedar Grove (New Jersey), are the diocese of Los Angeles-South-California-Hawai and the diocese of the South of the United States. In 2006 the Pope of Alexandria ordained a bishop for Brazil and another for Bolivia. The constant flow of Copts to Australia led in 1999 to the division of the Australian diocese into two, with one headquarters in Sydney (including Singapore, Thailand and Japan) and the other in Melbourne (including New Zealand and the Fiji Islands). These dioceses also run schools and nursing homes.

 

In Europe as well there has been an extraordinary increase in Copt structures and churches. In a few years new dioceses have been established in Italy (Milan-North Italy, Turin-Rome-South Italy), the British Isles (Birmingham-Midlands, Stevenage-Glastonbury, Ireland-Scotland-North East England), Germany, France (Toulon) and Austria. For a Church that lays emphasis on monastic life monasteries and seminaries could not fail to exist. A significant number have been opened outside Egypt, for example in Los Angeles, Cedar Grove (Jersey City), Corpus Christi (Texas), Sydney, Melbourne, Stevenage (England), Froeffelbach (Germany) and Lacchiarella (Milan).

 

 

Although it still does not have diocesan structures outside Egypt, the Catholic Copt Church has seen the number of its communities abroad grow in countries ranging from Canada to Australia. This is demonstrated by the long pastoral visit made in 2005 by the Patriarch Stefanos Ghattas to the communities of the Church in Paris, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and New York.

 

The pastoral visits of the Patriarchs of the East to their children of the ‘diaspora’ have become, in fact, obligatory. Amongst the most recent visits we may cite that of Nerses Bedros to the Armenian-Catholics of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay; that of Shenuda III to Brazil and Bolivia; those of Nasrallah Sfeir and Aram I to the United States of America to visit Maronites and Armenians; and that of Gregory III in June 2006 to Canada where he took part in the fifth congress of the Melkite bishops in the countries of emigration. At this congress the prelates discussed the problems of adaptation, the meaning of the presence of believers in the diaspora, relations with the local Churches, and the translation of liturgical texts into the newly adopted languages.

 

 

No Return?

 

The subject of the migration of Christians from the Middle East is often referred to by the Patriarchs of the East. Indeed, it was the central topic of the sixteenth congress of the Catholic Patriarchs of the East which took place in the Lebanon in October 2006. First of all because emigration, which in the majority of cases is final, places at risk those who do not want, or cannot, leave. Very few, in fact, return, something that is very different in the case of emigrants in the countries of the Gulf. In a survey of Lebanese emigration, 47.7% replied that they did not want to return, as opposed to 32.5% who did want to return and 19.8% who did not know. With regard to the first category, their economic situation was the primary reason (60.6%), with politics being in fourth position (8.8%). In a confessional system such as that of the Lebanon it is clear that emigration has a major effect on the electoral results given that the emigrants, who have a de jure right to vote as long as they keep their citizenship, are still impeded from voting at their consulates. The choice of the country of emigration is influenced by the presence of family relatives but also by the readiness that the chosen country shows to receive them. In the above-mentioned survey, 51.5% said that they would prefer to emigrate to Canada; 17% chose the United States of America; 14.1% , Australia; 5%, France; 4.1%, Germany; 2.5%, Sweden; and 1.7% Brazil.

 

The fact that these emigrants come to secularised societies, or to put it better non-religious societies, is a source of worry for the ecclesiastical hierarchies. Many Copt communities have imported the ‘Sunday school’ tradition to educate their children in religious values. To this has been added the attempt to reach the faithful who are spread throughout the world through the air waves. Side by side with the by now well known Lebanese NourSat, which reaches Europe and America, there is the Aghapy TV which was born in 2005. This broadcasts from a Copt monastery near to Cairo. The Syriac Suryoyo is still at its early stages.

 

 

Many Christians in the diaspora, because of their personal histories or the current climate of tension between Islam and the West, have lost all faith in Islamic-Christian co-existence. Hakim has been an immigrant for some years in Italy. He does line his pizzeria with sacred images and pictures of Popes not only to set out his own identity. He also does this ‘to discourage possible Muslim customers’. An Italian lecturer complains that the Copt community in Milan is resistant to embarking on shared initiatives with their Muslim compatriots and are not concerned about handing down classical Arabic to their children. They see it as the ‘language of Islam’. In Damascus and Istanbul, Iraqi Christians waiting for visas to Australia and the United States of America organise English courses and courses in Chaldean. They even dispute their own Arab origins. A few years ago some Assyrian-Chaldeans and Maronites protested to the Arab American Institute about the fact that their communities had been included in the research done on Arab-Americans.

 

However, on the other hand, emigration offers an opportunity for a strengthening of the relations between the faithful of the various Churches. ‘Not being able to practice my faith…I married in a Catholic church…but I do not go to confession or take communion’, a Syriac-Orthodox émigré to Argentina told me. The tendency, however, is to congregate in homogenous neighbourhoods. There are many examples of this, from Sarcelles in France to Chaldan Town in Detroit and from Little Armenia, near to Los Angeles, to Sodertalje in Sweden, where there are 20,000 Assyrian-Chaldeans and Syriacs amongst the 80,000 inhabitants.

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