Christians in the Middle East
by the Archbishop of Canterbury
Following are edited extracts from the Archbishop’s address in the House of Lord’s debate.
“It is all too easy to go along with the assumption that Christianity is an import to the Middle East rather than an export from it. The truth is that for two millennia the Christian presence in the Middle East has been an integral part of successive civilisations – a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, a culturally very active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a patient and long-suffering element in the complex mosaic of ethnic jurisdictions within the Ottoman Empire. To be ignorant of this is to risk misunderstanding a whole world of political and religious interaction and interdependence and to yield to the damaging myth that on the far side of the Mediterranean or the Bosphorus, there is a homogeneous Arab and Muslim world, a parallel universe. The Middle East is not a homogeneous region, and the presence of Christians there is a deep-rooted reality. We are not talking about a foreign body, but about people who see their history and their destiny bound up with the countries where they live, and bound up with a dominant Muslim culture, which they are likely to see in terms very different from those that might be used by western observers.
Yet at the present moment, the position of Christians in the region is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries. The flow of Christian refugees from Iraq in the wake of constant threat and attack has left a dramatically depleted Christian population there. In Egypt, this involves a notably significant percentage of the population, with a deeply distinguished history, and it is not surprising if the current situation is causing apprehension, despite the many excellent examples of Christian-Muslim cooperation on the ground there. The Coptic community has seen levels of emigration rise to unprecedented heights, in a way that would have been unthinkable a very few years ago. Perhaps the most troubling example is the case of the Palestinians, one of the most sophisticated and professional Christian populations in the region, but now a fast-shrinking presence as a result of the tragic situation in the West Bank. Whether in Egypt, Israel and Palestine or Syria, what were once relatively secure communities are now increasingly vulnerable.
Christians in the Middle East are very sensitive to being described as “minorities”. For them, never mind the statistics, this can imply that they are somehow alien or marginal, rather than being both indigenous to their countries and historically bound up in the fabric of their societies. One of their real grievances is the twofold undermining of their identity that comes from a new generation of Muslim enthusiasts treating them as pawns of the West and, on the other hand, from a western political rhetoric that either ignores them totally or thoughtlessly puts them at risk by casting military conflict in religious terms. Talk of crusading comes to mind. They are looking at the prospect of centuries of coexistence being jeopardised in a new, polarised global politics.
Many of the Christian communities face a painful dilemma. Under some of the discredited regimes of recent years, they have enjoyed a certain degree of freedom from aggression or discrimination. The first tremors of political change were felt by some Christians as a bit of a threat to this status quo. Yet many of them felt equally that the popular pressure for accountable government and clear principles of civil liberty for all was a welcome development—indeed, a development of exactly the kind that so many Arab Christian intellectuals of the early and mid-20th century had eloquently argued for.
At the moment, most of these communities urgently want to know whether the ‘Arab spring’ will be good or bad news for them, and for other non-Muslim or non-majority groups. The potential for a radical political renewal throughout the Middle East and North Africa is immense, as are the risks. My contention has been that the security and well-being of the historic Christian communities in the region are something of a litmus test in relation to these wider issues of the political health of the region.”