World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” (WPF – DC) – Rhodes Forum – 12th Annual Session
September 25–29, 2014
“CHRISTIANITY IN THE MENA REGION” PANEL
Fr. Boulos Wehbe – Moderator
Christianity in the MENA region is as old as Christianity itself. It is there where it was born and it is there where the apostles of Christ established the earliest Christian communities and churches, spreading out after that to the rest of the world. The Book of Acts in the New Testament says that it was in Antioch “where the disciples [of Christ] were called Christians first” (Acts 11:26), and my Patriarch still holds the title of “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.” Christians have survived and often flourished under Islam, often helping and sharing in fashioning the different facets of its civilization, despite the turmoil and hardships they faced here and there.
Unfortunately, we hear a lot in the West that Christianity is a western religion. While Christianity is very much rooted in the west and in the formation of its cultures and psyche – and much more – this saying is not a just one. And what is more unfortunate today is that, due to ignorance and malicious intentions, many in the Arab and Muslim worlds look at Christianity and Christians as a foreign comer or a foreign body which needs to be extracted. By doing so they are also falling into the hateful trap of labeling Eastern Christianity a ‘western religion,’ often calling it ‘crusader’ and its adherents ‘crusaders.’ They do not know that one of the chief objectives of the crusader attacks on our area was to subjugate Eastern Christianity to the dominion of the Pope in the wake of the Great Schism which separated the Churches of the East and of the West.
Perhaps in the wider spectrum, Christianity is not in the best of shapes globally. The number of its adherents in the west has dwindled sharply, especially those belonging to the historical Churches, and a parallel fundamentalism is sprouting in many of its regions, while new forms of radical evangelization are gearing it onto hazy or harmful directions.
Today eastern Christians feel that they are being threatened in their very survival, directly because of the attacks to uproot or extinguish them by the fundamentalists, and indirectly because of the shameful silence and lack of action by the moderate (which I believe are the majority) Muslims and Muslim leaderships and governments and of the West. Why did everyone wait for the hundreds of thousands to be uprooted in Iraq to start ‘thinking’ of doing something?
I would like to stress that Christians in the East have never felt that they were living in a minority status or as a minority. They have always felt indigenous and part of the societal fabric of the communities, societies and counties they have always lived. Any success to change the societal fabric of the MENA countries by emptying them, God forbid, of their Christians, will not only be irreversible but will ultimately change the culture of those countries which was fashioned by the adherents of both religions together. The Arab World will not be Arab anymore, because the term signifies a historical/cultural identity which is the result of this intertwined work.
On a parallel note, I would like to stress on the model and role of Lebanon. Lebanon, as many do not perhaps know, is a country that was established by the joint will of the Christian and Muslim religious leaders, and which continued to survive and be governed by a partnership of all the 18 religious communities which make it up. It is the only country in the MENA regions which has a Christian president, and in which total freedom of worship and opinion is the Modus Vivendi. Many consider that this model is, albeit with necessary modifications, not only a viable one to be emulated, but that the insistence of the Lebanese Muslims on it is an issue to highlight. Many even consider that the status of the Lebanese Christians is a catalyst to strengthen the other Christians of the area, as I heard many Arab Christians say. I hereby call on all those in a position to have their voices heard or impact to highlight this.
This panel today aspires at discussing these issues and more. Praxis is needed not only words or theories. I urge all of us to gear his or her efforts to this.
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Note: MENA stands for Middle East and North Africa.