Andrea Riccardi is the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio. He teaches History of Christianity at Roma 3 University.
Debates about Christians in the Middle East are nothing new. It happened recently in Paris, and debated again in Rome by the Saint Egidio Community only a few days ago. Why? Oriental Christian communities cannot be compared in numbers to those resulting from missionary work in Africa, Asia or Latin America. And yet they assume a special meaning. They are considered so relevant that in 1917 the Holy See created a Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
Oriental Christians are often however not infrequently consulted by their Italian coreligionists, who pay greater attention to missionary or aid-related commitments in Africa or in Latin America. The destiny of these Middle Eastern Christians seems a remote and complex issue, while public opinion in Italy hungers for simplifications. Complexity is the characteristic with which Europe currently observes the “Middle Eastern complex”, as General de Gaulle called it. There are however three important situations that have attracted attention. First is the Holy Land, once again an area of great attraction for European Christians. The secondly element is Lebanon, from the Seventies to recent times, even with the involvement of military forces, this country has been a central issue. Public opinion of course finds it hard to understand Lebanese events and came to the conclusion that this crisis, considered a conflict between Christians and Muslims, if ever an accurate label, has certainly not been so for years. I will only briefly mention the third element, Iraq, with most Italians opposing the war against Saddam Hussein. Nowadays we all no that the post-war period in Iraq has almost halved the Christian community in that country.
Oriental Christians have never been a priority in Italian politics. Within the pendulum of Italian interests over the last fifty years, the opposing poles have been the Arab world, the Palestinians and Israel. Traditionally, interest in Oriental Christians has at times been anti-French, but this was only temporary. Nowadays however, in Italy it has become impossible too to not show interest in the Oriental Christian world. This because it has become impossible to ignore the Middle East. Oriental Christians may be one of the many ways available for approaching the Middle Eastern situation. For the first time, Italy has en masse discovered the Christian Orient, and this for a variety of reasons. First of all there is Islam. Starting with the oil crisis of the Seventies, then terrorism, and finally with extremists, we have become aware that Islam also directly concerns Europe, and that Oriental Christians are those coexisting with Islam. On the other hand, Europeans have begun to take a greater interest in religious matters in general. This interest has increased because Oriental Christians are experiencing a difficult transition; their numbers are dwindling through emigration, hence their percentages are decreasing compared to their Muslim compatriots, their survival is at risk.
It would be a serious mistake to envisage an attitude involving a modern version of the protection provided by Christian powers to Oriental Christians. This is ancient history, filled with ambiguity, in which Oriental Christians were exploited by European powers until the beginning of this century. These are policies that often led to a process involving Christians becoming estranged from their own environments. But the history of Arab or Arab-speaking Christians was different; Arab patriotism saw them play leading roles in many national battles. The Holy See, first with Propaganda Fide and then with the Oriental Congregation, battled to affirm a religious vision of the lifestyle and interests of Oriental Catholics that was detached from the politics of the great powers.
Another form of the widespread exploitation of Oriental Christians, saw them as the victims of a barbarised version of Islam. The history of the suffering experienced by the Oriental Christian world is long and little known. Restricting ourselves to 20th Century history, it is sufficient to remember the genocide of the Armenians, which resulted in the transformation of the ethnic and religious composition of entire regions of Anatolia. As events become more distant, it is significant that there is no loss of interest for those sad events now experiencing a revival in studies and remembrance. A scenario involving a nationalist massacre seems increasingly clear. To succeed in Anatolia this became anti-Christian, and mobilised the Anatolian world using the excuse of religion. In addition to more important events, one can see how the allied powers had no interest in guaranteeing Christian survival in the Middle East; the Assyrians abandoned by the British and the French withdrawing from Cilicia are clear examples of how these countries considered the Oriental Christians a quantité négligéable.
Christians are not only the victims of the past, but also of the present turning them into second class citizens. In a way they are also the leading players of current events. They could play leading roles, in spite of their marginal citizenship position. The situation experienced by Oriental Christians is rich, complex and difficult. These Christians are not only the victims of Muslim intolerance, but also a great opportunity for the Muslim world not to be self-absorbed. Despite their small numbers, they are organised in communities with a domestic and international life; they produce important personalities and contribute intellectually.
Two modest but fervent ideas inspire us. Christian solidarity for the Oriental Churches involves an exchange of gifts, history, and spirituality, but also the persuasion that the Christians around the Mediterranean must undergo radical change. Faced with the many challenges of the contemporary world, the Christian communities, following their various traditions, are in need of a ressourcessement. Such a renewal however does not happen on its own, but within a framework of close communion. Perhaps we should better ask ourselves how Oriental Catholics received the Second Vatican Council. We should address the Copt renewal undertaken by Shenouda III and that of the Antiochian Patriarchate. It is of course difficult to isolate Oriental Christians from the nearby Church of Cyprus, from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and from the Catholic Church as a whole.
The second idea is that, without Christians, the Muslim world would be destined to experience a slide towards totalitarianism- The problem of other religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities would emerge. In fact, the presence of Christians, in the name of a two thousand year old tradition, is that of otherness, the most ancient and the most legitimate. The disappearance of otherness not only marks its end, but also the end of a basis for peaceful coexistence and for democracy.
This article appeared in the daily newspaper La Stampa on March 7th, 2008
Translation by Francesca Simmons