09/14/2011, 00.00
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The Christians of the Near East and Islamist ideology

by Bernardo Cervellera
At the 23rd European week on Euro-Mediterranean religious history, a series of interventions illustrate the great saga of the Churches of Antioch, from martyrdom to deportations, but also passionate evangelization and inter-religious and cultural dialogue. An overview by the editor of AsiaNews on the current situation of the Churches of the Near East in the throes of radical Islamism.
Gazzada (AsiaNews) - From September 6 to 10 last, the 23rd European Week focusing on the life history and tradition of the Christian communities of Antiochian tradition (Maronite, Byzantine, Syriac, Chaldean, Armenian, Malankara, ... ) was held in Gazzada (VA).

These weeks are organised by the Fondazione Ambrosiana Paolo VI and the Catholic Sacro Cuore University and are held in the magnificent setting of Villa Cagnola, an eighteenth-century jewel. The specific theme was "From the Mediterranean to the China Sea. The irradiation of the Christian tradition of Antioch in Asia and in its religious universe. "

Over the course of very intense days of academic study and debate on the various Christian experiences in Turkey, Persia, Central Asia, India, China, the characteristic of the Antiochian tradition emerged, a tradition capable from the outset of communicating with the surrounding cultures and religions, along with a strong sense of Christian identity. The conference was attended by personalities and scholars from around the world. Among them, some witnesses to the current life of these churches, such as Msgr. Louis Sako, Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, and Fr Samir Khalil Samir, an expert on Islam and professor in Beirut.

The concluding day, Sept. 10, was devoted to the situation of these churches, often subjected to severe persecution. The director of AsiaNews was asked to present a paper entitled "Islamist Ideology and situation of Christians in the Middle East", which we publish below. The Paul VI Foundation is already drafting a publication that will include all the interventions of the conference proceedings.

Radical Islam has always been present in Islam, but it has emerged in recent decades thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in Egypt in 1928) and with the support from the Saudi Wahhabi ideology. It supposes a literalist interpretation of Islam and a return to the origins of Islam - that of Mohammed and the four caliphs - as a way to reaffirm the dignity of the Muslim communities in the world.

Their enemies are the corrupt Islamic governments (almost all) the atheist and colonial West, the State of Israel, and finally Christians, often banded together with the West, although the Islamists often target the Christian communities who were present in the Middle East long before Muhammad.

The choice of violence and terrorism seen as a religious act in praise of Allah that purifies the world by destroying the enemies of Islam is linked to the Islamic world.

What weight does this interpretation of Islam have?

A survey by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion published by AsiaNews [1] March 4, 2009, showed that at least 30% of respondents in several Muslim countries - Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco - supported the use of bombs and murder to achieve political and religious purposes.

A large majority supported the goal of al Qaeda to "push the U.S. to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries". These include 87% of Egyptians, 64% of Indonesians, 60% of Pakistanis.

Other aims of al Qaeda also received wide support. Among these, "the strict application of sharia law in all Islamic countries and the unification of all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or Caliphate" received the support of 65% of Egyptians and 48% of Indonesians, 76% Pakistanis and Moroccans. "Keeping Western values out of Islamic countries", another of the organization’s goals gained the support of 88% in Egypt, 76% in Indonesia, 60% in Pakistan and by 64% in Morocco.

Support for figure of Osama bin Laden - still alive at the time – was more contentious With the exception of Egypt (with 44%), and the Palestinian territories (with 56%) in other countries, "positive feelings" towards him reached 14% in Indonesia, 25% in Pakistan, 27% in Morocco; 27% in Jordan, 9% in Turkey and 4% in Azerbaijan.

We can say that this mentality is still present, even after the death of Osama bin Laden. Tony Blair, former British prime minister, in an interview with the BBC (09/10/2011) said that the West "had beaten Al Qaeda militarily," but it has not yet won "from the ideological point of view."

There is therefore a discreet influence of this Islamist mindset in the Muslim world. It is enhanced by two other factors:

1) the silence of the moderate or modernizing Muslim world, that wants a reform of Islam based on a new interpretation of the Koran and Sharia law subject to universal human rights;
2) the spread of Islamist thinking through the preaching in mosques and Islamic schools.

Because of this, in recent decades Islamic propaganda has been on the steady increase in countries in the Middle East with mosques, movies, books, videos, use of the veil, the beard, the practice of Sharia law. Such propaganda has silenced the moderate voices and urged Christians to increasingly take refuge in their communities, at most resisting this new type of colonization, by remaining anchored to their tradition.

The political use of Islam was accelerated in 1979 with the Iranian revolution and the assault on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. However, it mainly feeds on a sense of crisis that pervades Muslim communities, who feel out of place in the modern world, incapable of producing influential and desirous cultures while at the same time wanting to live their religious faith.

The (easy) option is a return to the original Islam, the religious formalism proposed by the imams, who are repeating patterns taken from the past in every aspect of life: work, daily living, gender, justice, value of women, apostasy, etc..

The governments of the Middle East, all extremely fragile, depend on aid from Saudi Arabia and suspend the already marginal political value of the Christians - a minority - often they do not defend Christians, but prefer to leave more room in society to Islam, though sometimes they appeal for society to be protected from terrorism.

The West, for its part, by supporting the cause of Israel, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has also chosen a conflictual path in the relationship, while maintaining economic ties, and relegating cultural and religious dialogue to last place.

Not to mention the tendency in the West to blame itself for all the problems of the Arab world, attaching them to its colonial past. A West that defends sharia as an untouchable cultural element, which defends all the rights except that of religious freedom … it must be said that these positions of the West strengthen Islamism, which is convinced of the West’s "predator" and "atheist" character and he sees in the oppression of Christians ("Crusaders") a victory for these positions.

This situation of insecurity, war, cultural oppression is emptying the Middle East of Christians. Emigration is the road chosen by many, often forever.

In Lebanon, at the time of the Constitution in '46, about 60 years ago, there was a small Christian majority, compared to Muslims and Druze. Now nobody wants to do a census, but Christians have fallen below 40% (perhaps 35%). And this is undermining the country's political balance. In other countries of the region, like Turkey, we see the Christian presence in free fall: in the space of a century it has dropped from about 20% to 1%.

Some years ago the Custody of the Holy Land presented some striking data. It claims that between 1840 and 2002, the Christian population of Jerusalem fell from 25% to 2%. In 1863, Bethlehem was an almost entirely Christian city with 4400 Christians to 600 Muslims. Even in 1922 there were still 5838 Christians and only 818 Muslims. But in 2002 the City of David is home to only 12 thousand Christians, while Muslims are now 33,500.

Dr. Bernard Sabella, of Bethlehem University, a scholar of labour migration, says that since 1948 at least 230 thousand Arab Christians have left the Holy Land; since the war of 1967 35% of the Palestinian Christian population has emigrated. It is expected that in 2020, Christians will represent only 1, 6% of the total population. The unstable political situation, tensions with Israel which slow development and job prospects, the growth of Islamism among Palestinian Muslims (in a population that once was the most secularized in the Middle East); any violent incident against churches and Christian schools, especially in Gaza are all contributing factors to Palestinian emigration.

The case of Iraq

The situation of Christian communities in Iraq is even more emblematic. Since 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein, the country has become unstable, insecure, with fundamentalist groups that fight foreign troops, but also their Iraqi "allies", Muslims or Christians.

The lack of security, the slowness with which the political alliances and governments were formed have increasingly deteriorated the situation.

In this sense, Christians have suffered the same trials and violence as other groups - Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidi, Arabs, Turkmen, etc. ..

The Christians were, however, a particular target of violence, to the point that many bishops feared the existence of a plan to rid Iraq of Christians, similar to the 1970s when there was one to drive Christians from Lebanon.

The culmination of this open persecution emerged in the Oct. 31, 2010, terrorists attack on the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baghdad. In the afternoon, while Sunday Mass was being celebrated, a group of youths - 14-15 years of age - fully armed with machine guns and grenades entered the church and began to shoot, detonating their grenades among the faithful gathered for the Eucharist . 55 people were killed, among them many children, women, elderly as well as two priests, along with about 70 wounded [2].

The attack was immediately claimed by the "Islamic State of Iraq", a cell of al Qaeda in Iraq. In their rambling statement, they claim that the attack was retaliation against the Egyptian Church, "guilty" of incarcerating two Christian women who wanted to become Muslim.

It is important to note that since then they say that all Christians of the Middle East have become "legitimate targets" of the war of Islam against idolatry and against the "pollution" that Christians bring to Arab culture [3], referring to the church targeted in the attack as a "dirty den of idolatry." [4]

Christians are therefore "legitimate targets" for allowing more dialogue between East and West, for having encouraged a growth in the values of modernity Arab culture, for affirming the dignity and equality of women and men, for offering education to girls, for nurturing a mature secular state, for accommodating all religious minorities.

This explains why in all these years in Iraq priests, bishops, but also lay faithful - Christian university students, male and female, university professors, professionals - have been targeted.

Al Qaeda is against the Christian faith and its contribution to the advancement of society, wanting to return the country to primitive Islam, where the woman stays at home and does not study, where there is no culture if not the literal study of the Koran, where pluralism is absent from society.

The bombing of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has led many Muslim intellectuals to (re) discover the value of the Christian presence in the Middle East, and some have launched the slogan: Let us save the Christian presence in the Arab world [5].

The invitation of the Synod on the Middle East

One important coincidence is that a few days before the attack in Baghdad the Synod on the Churches in the Middle East had just concluded at the Vatican, where the importance of the presence of the Eastern Churches in the fabric of the Middle East was stressed.

And the Synod launched the urgent invitation to Christians to "remain" in the Middle East, not for masochistic voluntarism or blindness, but in the name of the vocation and mission that Christians have in these lands [6].

The Synod's invitation to "stay" was voiced by Benedict XVI to the Christians of the Holy Land, during his trip in May 2009 [7].

This "stay" is an integral part of the search for a more complete religious freedom, but also that of a constantly growing collaboration as equal citizens of Middle Eastern society.

Arab Spring

A historic occasion for the implementation of this mission is the turbulence that is crossing many countries of the Middle East.

The so-called "Arab Spring" or "jasmine revolution" that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and especially Syria.

All of these riots started because of hunger (rising food prices), unemployment, injustice, corruption. The many young people who participated in the demonstrations were asking in particular for dignity and work, but also democracy and constitutional reforms to eliminate the personal dictatorships that dominated their country for decades, enriching themselves and groups linked to them.

The demonstrations were mostly non-violent and without Islamic confessional elements. Indeed, especially in Egypt, the friendship between Christians and Muslims was openly stressed and the demand that the constitution ensure full citizenship to all the minorities remains.

It is true that the situation of greater freedom created by with the fall of dictators (in Tunisia and Egypt and now in Libya), is bringing out the highly organized Muslim Brotherhood or fundamentalist groups linked to al Qaeda, (in Libya), who make their influence felt.

It is possible that in future elections in these countries, fundamentalist forces may gain the upper hand, aided by their organization and perhaps even the ignorance and illiteracy of the masses.

The fear of a future dominated by fundamentalists has pushed and is pushing almost all the Christian leaders to see every change of regime in a negative way and to condemn the "Arab Spring".

Not so among the Christian laity, who instead are divided between advocates of change and supporters of these regimes.

The most typical example is Syria for months in revolt at first, non-violent, but now in danger of generating a civil war. The leaders of Christian churches, however, continue to defend Bashar el-Assad. In the words of Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham, "We are not afraid of Islam. We are afraid of a chaos taking over, similar to that in Iraq. " [8]

The pope, for his part, called on Christians to pray, but he also asked the parties to find ways of reconciliation, also seeing just demands in the requests of the anti-Assad protesters.

It is a critical moment of discernment for the Christians of the Near East, to augment the demands for justice with the need for order, security and freedom. And that is part of their mission and of their "staying".

Concluding this overview, it is worthwhile to at least touch on some important paths that are emerging in these times and which mark that a change is underway in the Middle Eastern world:

a) increasingly the Muslim world, including Muslim institutions, are openly condemning terrorist violence;

b) many Muslim intellectuals have spoken out in defence of Christians and their presence in the Middle East, and for their contribution to society, without which their lands would become "barbaric" and places of perpetual ethnic wars;

c) facing the threat of extinction of Christians in the Middle East, the various churches are seeking ways to collaborate and to evangelize together, e with a much more solid ecumenism than in the past (see in particular Turkey, Iraq, the Holy Land);

d) the Christian communities of the Diaspora do an excellent job in supporting religious freedom in their communities of origin, but are tempted by a singularly conflictual approach to the Islamic world, without being of real help to the mission of Christians in Middle Eastern societies;

e) the West (see the U.S. and Europe) seem less interested in a Middle Eastern solutin in justice, peace and respect for human rights. Their only concern is maintaining economic ties without any political or cultural dialogue;

f) the churches of the West are engaged in charity and in solidarity with the churches of the East, but hesitate to suggest ways of engagement in
Middle Eastern societies inspired by the social doctrine of the Church; at the same time they fail to influence their governments to bring political and cultural pressure to bear on the Middle Eastern States.

[1] Cfr.: AsiaNews.it, 04/03/2009, Islamic countries reject al Qaeda, but also American policy.

[2] For the massacre’s story told by the injured, s. AsiaNews.it, 11/25/2010 The martyrs of the massacre in Baghdad, a sign of unity for all Iraq’s Christians (by Simone Cantarini) and AsiaNews.it, 11/30/2010 I try to forget, but I will always see the blood stained church of Baghdad (by Giulia Mazza).

[3] Cfr AsiaNews.it, 11/03/2010 Al Qaeda threat: Christians are legitimate targets.

[4] Cfr. CBN News, 11/05/2010, Al Qaeda Group Promises Attacks On Iraqi Christians.

[5] For all, s. AsiaNews.it, 11/13/2010 Christians in the Middle East essential for the survival of the Arab world.

[6] Cfr the nn 106-110 of Instrumentum Laboris on “The Catholic Church in the Middle East:Communion and Witness”, Vatican City, 2010; the No. 5 of “Message to the People of God” (cfr. AsiaNews.it, 10/23/2010, Synod for the Middle East: a Message to the People of God ). 

[7] Cfr. AsiaNews.it, 05/10/2009, Pope prays Christ will give “his courage” to the Christians of the Holy Land.

[8] Cfr. AsiaNews.it, 08/09/2011 The Pope's appeal and the fears of Christians in Syria.


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