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Understanding the Eastern Christians in Order to Save the Middle East

Review of Bernard Heyberger, Les chrétiens au Proche-Orient. De la compassion à la compréhension, Payot, Paris 2013.

From compassion to comprehension. At the time of the Islamic State, to speak about the Christians of the East in these terms could appear to be inconvenient. But such is not the case. Not only because this book by Bernard Heyberger, the director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) of Paris, came out in 2013, that is to say before the unleashing of the terrible wave of violence against Iraqi and Syrian Christians (even though even then the condition of Christians was not particularly happy), but also because the history and the question of the Christians in the Middle East deserves to be known about and understood in all their breadth and depth.

 

 

The alternative is to raise a periodic alarm about the risk of their disappearance from the Middle Eastern scene and then go back regularly to lose interest in them once the emergency has passed. This is stated explicitly by the author of this book: ‘it is not a matter of denying the forms of discrimination and violence inflicted on the Christians…It is not even a matter of indifference towards the ferocious attacks that they have recently had to endure in Iraq or Egypt. But it seems to me that to see Christians in Islam only as the perennial victims of the Muslim majority or as exemplary figures of martyrdom does not enable us either to analyse their current situation or to understand their use of the past or to pay tribute to their vitality and their capacity to react. The Christians of the East can, indeed, offer a key by which to think about the relations between the West and the Near East’.

 

 

Constructed starting with the seminars held by the author at the EHESS, this book touches in summarising form, but with great perspicacity and competence, on certain fundamental aspects and moments of the Christian presence in the Middle East. There emerges from this a picture that restores to Christians the role of being active subjects of the societies of the Middle East and releases them from the archaeological rigidity that some stereotypical reconstructions of their history would like to relegate them. Indeed, whereas the Christians can boast of roots in the region that go back more than a millennium, their way of being there is the outcome of constant interaction with the events that have steadily transformed the Middle East.

 

 

This is demonstrated by the much debated and sensitive question of demography. Contrary to a rather consolidated portrayal of a linear and steady thinning of the presence of Eastern Christians starting with the Islamic conquest, the data available show a different development. Although the twentieth century did in fact mark a notable decrease in the Christian population (in relative but not absolute terms), the nineteenth century was characterised by a certain demographic dynamism, the consequence of lower death rates and greater fertility compared to the Muslims.

 

 

The facts and processes that have taken place over the last 150 years have been particularly full of consequences for the Christian communities. The decline and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the partition of the Middle East by the European powers, the birth of nationalisms and nation States, the world wars, the creation of the state of Israel, the rise of political Islam, and, lastly, the revolution of 2011, have had a profound effect on the religious, cultural and ethic equilibriums of the region.

 

 

During this long and tumultuous historical stage the roles and the positions of Christians have been extremely variable according to the communities and contexts they belonged to. Although for example some of them, above all the Catholic and the Orthodox ‘Greeks’, were protagonists of the ‘growing Arab awareness of the inhabitants of the Middle East’, others, such as the Armenians (or today the Iraqi and Syrian Christians of various confessions and rites) have paid a very high price in human lives. Amongst these two extremes is located a broad gamut of situations, from the changing relationship of Egyptian Copts with state power to the evolution of the influence of the Maronites in Lebanon (no longer, as was the case between the two wars, guarantors of the state but always an inseparable component of the Lebanese exception) and on to the general difficulty of adapting to the conditions created by the recent Arab revolutions. Beyond these differences, the heavy burden of confessional and communal fragmentation hangs over all the Christians.

 

 

In the complexity of the question, one fact unfortunately seems clear: in addition to influencing the condition of Christians, the most recent changes have ended up by also affecting the culture of coexistence and a certain ‘sharing of the sacred’, and to such an extent that ‘overall, the practitioners of the two great monotheistic religions have perhaps never been more distant from one another in their beliefs and their practices than they are today’.

 

 

At the end of the book Heyberger holds up three possible outcomes to the political upheavals that are now underway in Arab countries: a democracy founded on individual freedoms; the bestowal of rights upon Christians as a community; and civil war or chaos in which the Christians, without being protagonists, would be taken hostage and would become ‘the victims of higher political or mafia-style strategies’.

 

 

Whatever the case, from the most favourable to the worst, the fate of the Christians will be the fate of the whole region. An attempt to understand their history is advisable for everyone.

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