Christian Citizenship in the Middle East. Divided Allegiance or Dual Belonging?
Ed Mohammed Girma and Cristian Romocea
London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017
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Reviewed by Stephen Griffith Former Chaplain in Jordan and Syria
The presence of Christians in the Middle East reflects a wide array of relationships with the states in which they find themselves. From a nominally Christian Lebanon (where the ancient native Christian population is probably about 40% of the total), to a massive and ancient Coptic Church in Egypt, and the migrant workers in the Gulf (where their worship is in some places welcomed warmly and elsewhere absolutely forbidden) the relationship of the Christian to the state varies hugely. A book looking at the nature of the relationship between the Christian Church or individual in a mainly Muslim world where democratic ideals are hardly practised is therefore valuable.
There is an issue of course about which Middle East we are talking about. The temporary residence in the Gulf countries of huge numbers of Christians from Kerala and the Philippines in particular means that they have no sense of belonging, let alone of loyalty to the state in which they reside, whereas the numbers of native Christians left in Iraq or Syria, Lebanon or Palestine have a deep ambivalence to the state which has failed to protect them over the last decades, as is the case for those Christians in the nascent Kurdish state which sometimes sought to engage them seriously in greater Kurdistan, across parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
This book of essays looks, sometimes obliquely, at the issues. Some of its essays are abstract thoughts about the nature of citizenship in the Bible, and too brief to deal with issues in depth. Awad’s essay on ‘Social Harmony in the Middle East’ launches a totally justified and stinging attack on the leadership of the churches in their collusion with appalling political leaders and needs to become a book in itself. He needs to give much more detail and examples (of which there are surely plenty) of the lies told by Syrian church leaders in defence of the murderous and divisive Assad regime. He does this when he tells the story of the ninth century Syriac Patriarch Dionysius of Tel Mahre who rebuked the Muslim Caliph al-Ma’mun for his harsh treatment of demonstrators. Why, he asks, are the Patriarchs so feeble in standing up for the values of Christ?
Issa Diab’s piece ‘A place to call home’ recounts well the close relationship native Christianity had with developing the nascent Muslim State, but fails to deal with the way in which Christians can be citizens in the states of the Levant in these critical days. He resortsto ‘reading the Bible helps Christians to cling to the Christian testimony in their own land.’ That may excite the Catholic Bishops who suggested it in 2010, but does nothing to keep young Christians living, working and having families in the catastrophic remains of Mosul or Aleppo.
Casey Strine’s article on ‘Migration, Dual Identity and Integration’ is an engaging and challenging piece, having as much to say about integration in the UK as anything, and offers clear ideas about a Christian answer to problems in the Middle East. What it does not do, and maybe it cannot do as a book written in 2017, is offer a way in which pressure can be brought on the now generally anti-Christian governments of Egypt, Israel, Syria, (and Turkey,) and the internally challenged leaders of Iraq and its Kurdish north, to embrace the contribution which Christians can and do make to their nations.
Maybe I am asking too much. These essays are by serious academics and the book should have offered more on Christians as Citizens of the countries of the Middle East as its title suggests. Philip Lewis (in Islamic Britain) in particular and Anshuman Mondal (in Young, British and Muslim) have written seriously about young British Muslims and their citizenship, and there is a need to go into more detail about the situation of the corresponding Christian minority in the Middle East. There is probably too much trying to uncover Biblical roots for the concept of citizen, nation, state, migrant and not enough on how the Christian minorities manage. How did they function in the past and how do they function today, at the level of church leaders? For they face the power of generally violent and unstable leaderships. In my experience they share a pragmatic alliance with the powerful. And at the level of the individual how does one attempt to be faithful in daily confrontations and friendships with others? Most of my friends have simply left. It is easier to be an unhappy Iraqi Christian in Belgium than in the Nineveh Plain, and who can blame them?
Featured in Bible Lands, Winter 2018