What is the future of Christians in the Middle East?

What is the future of Christians in the Middle East?

By Habib Malik/ catholiceducation.org

That the Middle East is the cradle of the worlds three monotheisms is a phrase one encounters in every high-school textbook or tourist brochure about the region.

But this fact alone reveals little about present-day conditions that see two of the three great religions thriving in their geographic points of origin while the third, Christianity, appears in a state of terminal regional decline.

For its part Christianity may have surely "won the world" in the sense of being the most widespread religion in history with the largest number of adherents, but it is steadily losing ground in and around its birthplace. Why is that? Today, between 10-12 million native Christians remain in the Middle East, concentrated mainly in Egypt, the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestine territories), and Iraq. Their numbers, however, continue to dwindle due to a variety of factors, both internal and external.

Most prominent among the outside sources of pressure has been the rise in recent decades of extremism. This is only the latest among potentially calamitous dangers besetting Middle Eastern Christians, not least because it tends to stir ancient antagonisms and revive atavistic rejections of the different other as the despised infidel.

Taking the longer historical view, it becomes apparent that Christianity had begun to exhaust its meager reservoir of hospitality in the Near East and Arabia toward the end of the first millennium, during the adolescent period of the new faith. This faith, which claimed that God Himself became a man so that all humans may be saved from their sins, was never able to find sustained easy acceptance nor permanent fertile soil in the Middle East where it first appeared – a mystery that is perhaps partially explained as confirmation of the familiar adage that no prophet receives honor in his place of origin among his people.

As this attrition of the region's Christians accelerates, the lingering impression in the outside world is that what remains of these communities amounts to nothing more than vanishing relics of the past. The relic phenomenon is an alarming one and the numbers offer sobering evidence of its impending reality. In 1948 Jerusalem was about a fifth Christian; today, it is less than 2 per cent. For centuries Christians used to constitute over 80 per cent of Bethlehem's population, but today they are barely a third and falling. In 1943, at the time of its independence, Lebanon was a majority-Christian country, but after thirty years of war and foreign occupation Lebanon's Christians now make up around a third of the population and the trend is demographic contraction. It is estimated that about half of Iraq's 1.4 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion in 2003.

Accepting the relic status of Middle Eastern Christianity betrays at best a cold indifference and at worst complicity in the ongoing extinction. There are objective reasons why a Muslim-majority Middle East that nevertheless continues to exhibit pluralist acceptance of its non-Muslim indigenous communities, regardless of their demographic size or geographic spread, is a healthier Middle East that is less prone to extremism.

Furthermore, one cannot ignore the worsening socioeconomic conditions in many Arab states in which populations have been on the increase, while the rift separating rich and poor has continued to widen, and nothing of innovative significance is being invented and produced by Arabs that the rest of the world is queuing up to acquire.

But none of this was supposed to have happened had the original notions and expectations of the theoreticians who first formulated the ideologies that imparted life to these regimes been accurate or realistic. Secularism did finally make its way to Middle Eastern shores in the middle of the last century, but this was not the liberal, democratic, free-market, and humanist secularism of the West. Instead, it was a curious blend of the violent and intolerant secularism of the socialists and ideological left mixed with its mirror image from the fascists and extreme nationalists of the far right, and transposed to a Third World setting to be manifested brutally through bloodshed and totalitarian-like rule.

Despite the bleak tapestry, there are glimmers of good news for the Middle East's long-suffering Christians. There is tangible evidence in many Christian communities across the region of spiritual renewal among the youth. Such a phenomenon is bound to guarantee the persistence of Christians rooted indefinitely in their native Middle Eastern environment. Outsiders are free to wash their hands of these Christians; however, certain steps that are not costly if undertaken could help advance the interests of both the Islamic societies and the wider world at large.

Nurturing settled, stable, prosperous, and reasonably free and secure native Christian communities in the Middle East has served in many instances as a factor promoting Islamic openness and moderation. What Muslims living in the West demand for themselves – and receive – by way of rights and legal protections they ought to be ready to grant to Christians living in Muslim-majority countries. Promoting democracy among Muslims that stresses minority rights, contemplating boldly federal options for local autonomy, and supporting benign liberal secularism wherever feasible – these would be ingredients for a roadmap toward anchoring a healthy pluralism in the Middle East.

Sun, 07/30/2017 - 18:40
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