Beirut (AsiaNews) – Sainthood and martyrdom are the two touching words highlighted by Michel Sabbah, the Patriarch Emeritus of the Latins, at the start of the Month of the Christian East, at Beirut’s Saint Joseph’s University. For him, the Churches of the Middle East need above all saints and martyrs. Going beyond the vague remarks that we hear every time the issue of the Christian presence in the region is raised—complaints about Islamic extremism and the community’s demographic decline, whether caused by emigration or a low birth-rate—, the old Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem went to the heart of the problem.
In order to remain in the East, Christians must aspire to sainthood and must be ready, as is the case in Lebanon, to suffer martyrdom “after doing all that is humanly possible” to defend themselves by all legitimate means at their disposal.
Speaking with courage at a conference held in Beirut on “The Future of Eastern Christians”, the patriarch focused on the topic that will be at the centre of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops scheduled for October in the Vatican on “The Church in the Middle East, communion and witness”, in which he will play a prominent role.
After doing all that is possible for self-defence against the threats that hang over the community, Christians must accept the path set by history. “To flee history is to flee the will of God. History is where we meet God,” he said. This caused a stir among participants from the Iraqi community, one of whom spoke on behalf of Mosul Christians. However, these are the words of the Palestinian patriarch of Jerusalem, a man chosen by John Paul II, who fulfilled his duties as patriarch for 20 years (1988-2008) at the cost of a lot of suffering, bitterness and efforts.
“The future of Christians in our region is shaped by internal political and social factors in which religion exerts its own influence,” Mgr Sabbah said, “but also by a powerful external element, namely international politics, which does not take into account the presence of Christians in its plans for the region”. Undoubtedly, this is why Mgr Sabbah urged all of us, Arabs and Christians, to be active players in our history and free ourselves from the notion that “a ‘saviour’ will come from outside”.
In relation to “internal factors”, namely the sociological presence of Christians in our Middle East, practically everything has been said. Their communities bear the signs of the centuries that shaped their original features. Now, they must find new life, renew their heart, and rediscover themselves whilst forgetting another because the cleavage between the Church and the community is spiritual in nature.
The community is moved by the “flesh” and we know what that causes, a thirst for power that leads to greater thirst for more, discrimination that leads to greater discrimination, fanaticism that leads to greater fanaticism. Even proclaiming the Gospel can generate new fanaticism when it is used against at rather than in favour of another community.
For the patriarch, religion “comes across as one more barrier. It accumulates all the capacities of refusal and exclusion of others” when like others it gets involved in a “struggle for power”.
“Flesh” can be expressed in political but also cultural terms. Christians may have played an important role at the time of the Nahda in the 19th century, but a lot of time has gone by. Christian civilisation and modernity have a serious score to settle. The West that is extending its cultural hegemony over the world is not Christian. In fact, in some instances, it is openly anti-Christian, when it comes to values about life and morality.
The Arab world as we know it emerged after the World War One, Patriarch Sabbah said. “In fact, all of our states were born after the First World War. Politically, they are not yet a hundred years old.”
The break-up of the Ottoman Empire led to new ambitions and violence rather than new freedom. This is the way of history because the fall of an empire brings the promise of freedom to some peoples but is a curse to others, something Armenians and other Christian minorities living in the Turkish-speaking area know very well.
This is why some people do not subscribe to any philosophy of history or “historical reason” but instead see history as a chaotic flow in which the word progress must be nuanced a thousand times before it can be used; that is, banned a thousand times, used but once.
The Arab world was born out of an empire that was broken up, duped by its new masters acting as its protectors, tied to its tensions, fooled by its own determinisms that progressively undermined its aspirations for freedom.
All this suggests that the issue of Eastern Churches, which has emerged today, is rooted in the First World War. The future of the Church lies in a space caught between political Islam and the confrontation with the West, one that is losing touch with its Christian roots every day, but is still seen by Eastern “minds” through a mental framework inherited from the time of the Crusades.
“When we talk about the future of Christians, we are talking about all this,” Mgr Sabbah said. “It is not only about the growth of Islam, but it is about the confrontation between East and West, a confrontation that is mainly political in nature, but one that affects all other sectors, leaving us Christians and Muslims at the mercy of one political vision or adventure or another” or of other “permanent destabilising factors” like the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Iranian Church will also be represented at the Synod, the patriarch said, with the same status as its sister Churches in the Arab world.
Similarly, “Christian survival and development in the Arab Middle East is also an issue for Arabs and Muslims,” Patriarch Sabbah said.
The authorities must also meet the challenge of Christian emigration whilst society must show its openness and that it can inspire tranquillity and stability.
In the meantime, Arab Christians are waiting for Arab Muslims to take a step towards them. Even though the situation is not the same everywhere, this is something urgent, just below the surface.
Lastly, Mgr Sabbah does not shy away from blaming “dialogue” and the public reassurances according to which “all is well” because “it is not about power”. For him, the issue is not about “Who dominates whom,” but about how “We can ensure equality.”