Christians Set Aside Differences as ‘Arab Spring’ Presents Uncertain Future

 John Burger – 4/7/13

Threats of radical Islam to Christians the Arab world put old Christian disputes in perspective.

While full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches may be a long way off, members of both bodies in Western countries are beginning to work on social issues of common concern, particularly life, marriage and religious freedom.

But while Christians in the West collaborate in defending their values amid a culture of death and permissiveness, their co-religionists in the Middle East are uniting in the face of another threat.

That reality was in the background of many discussions during the recent Orientale Lumen Conference in Washington, D.C. The annual, unofficial ecumenical gathering seeks to foster ties and greater understanding between Orthodox and Catholics. The meeting this year examined the 2010 vision statement produced by the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, “Steps Toward a Reunited Church: A Sketch of an Orthodox-Catholic Vision for the Future.”

The original intention to hold this year’s conference in Istanbul, as well as Washington D.C., drove home the point that Christians in the Near and Middle East have more to worry about than old theological disputes.

“We would have gone there this year but there were some economic issues, and thank God we didn’t go because of the riots and things going on in Turkey,” said Jack Figel, a Byzantine Catholic who heads Eastern Christian Publications and organizes the Orientale Lumen conferences.

Istanbul is, of course, home to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople. The Orientale Lumen Conference has convened in Istanbul several times, most recently in 2010. While this year’s three-day conference was getting underway June 17, anti-government protests, aimed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s authoritarian style, were spreading from Istanbul to the nation’s capital, Ankara.

Elizabeth Prodromou, affiliate scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and former vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Alexandros Kyrou, professor of history at Salem State University, writing in the Huffington Post May 29, noted it was the 560th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. They said that Erdogan in 2012 had floated the idea of designating May 29 as a Turkish national holiday.

“More recently, he suggested the possibility of a referendum on the conversion of the historic Byzantine Christian Cathedral of Hagia Sophia…from its current status as a museum into a functioning mosque,” Prodromou and Kyrou wrote.

The Long View

Throughout the Middle East, Christians have been nervous about how the so-called Arab Spring will affect them. Churches have been attacked in some areas, most notably in Iraq and Egypt. And in Syria, where rebels have been trying to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad for months, a Syrian Catholic monk, Father Franҫois Mourad, was shot and killed by Islamic rebels who stormed a convent in al-Ghassaniyah, a predominantly Christian village, June 23.

Gregorios III, Melkite Patriarch of Alexandria and All the East, writing from Damascus June 8, said that Christians in Syria have united in the current crisis by “coordinating relief efforts for all citizens in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus…and by appealing for the release of Greek and Syriac Orthodox kidnapped bishops, Metropolitan Boulos (Yazigi) and Archbishop Gregorios Yohanna (Ibrahim).”

The whereabouts of the bishops remain unknown, two months after they were captured, presumably by Syrian rebels.

Gregorios made his remarks in a letter to Orientale Lumen participants, which the Catholic leader has addressed in person in the past. He reported on progress in Orthodox-Catholic relations in the region, including the formation of interdenominational councils of Churches in Iraq in 2010 and in Egypt in 2013.

“We are also hoping to create a council of Churches in Syria,” he said, adding that the Churches are looking ahead to reconstruction and reconciliation in the wake of the civil conflict, “rebuilding our churches, schools and homes and planning for the future of our young people who will embody our country’s Church.”

Father Sidney Griffith, S.T., professor in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America, took the long view of the difficulties Christians face in the Middle East today. Even before the so-called Great Schism of 1054, there had been smaller schisms over disputes about the nature of Christ. The rise of Islam in the 7th Century presented a new challenge, which led some Christian writers to encourage the various groups to get over their differences, he said.

Asked by an audience member if the Koran encourages violence, Father Griffith said that although it speaks favorably of Christians, there are “passages that speak of a heavenly reward for people who fight ‘on the way of God.’”

“That’s one of the ways exercising jihad, which just means ‘make an effort.’ The primary jihad is within yourself, to conquer your passions, to become obedient and submissive to God’s law. Mostly, it has to do with repulsing those who would attack Muslims,” he said.

But the concept of jihad “quickly became something one did pressing into territories, say, in the early Islamic period, where there were no Muslims yet, said Father Griffith, author of The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque: Christians and Muslims in the World of Islam. “Every year there’d be a big campaign across Anatolia aiming for Constantinople, which wasn’t achieved until 1453. So this was often thought of as making an effort on the way of God.”

Although there is a “muscular element” in Islam right now, most Muslims are law-abiding, religiously sincere, and disposed to look with kindness on their neighbors,” Father Griffith said. “I don’t think there’s anything to fear from living next door to a Muslim or even living in a Muslim neighborhood for that matter. Most of the dangerous situations are in parts of the world where the animus is aroused not initially from religious considerations but from lots of other—economic, historical, sociological.”

‘How Do You Say Hypostasis in Arabic?’

Father Griffith said that Islam’s “major problem with Christians is what the Christian says about Jesus of Nazareth. Once Christians confess that in Jesus of Nazareth they see God in person in a certain sense, from a Muslim perspective this immediately presents a problem with regard to the oneness of God.”

He suggested that the most succinct and comprehensive part of the Koran with regard to Christians is Sura 171, which he translated loosely: “Oh people of the book, do not go to excess in your religion. Do not say about Jesus, the messiah, the son of Mary, anything but the truth. He is the word of God and a spirit from him. Do not say three. Stop it! It will be better for you.”

“The ‘word of God’ it mentions is not the Word of God as we would think,” Father Griffith said. “He is but a man. He is like God’s other messengers. The root problem the Koran recognizes is what we have to say about Jesus. Sura 112 says God is one. He neither begets nor is begotten.

“So it never brings up the idea of the Trinity except in that one verse” ‘Do not say three.’ In 73, it says, ‘They have disbelieved who say God is Jesus the messiah, the son of Mary.’ Of course, Christians say Jesus is God, not vice versa.

“The next verse says, ‘They have disbelieved who say God is third of three or the third one.’ That’s an epithet for Christ in the Syriac liturgy: ‘The Treble One.’ Three days in the grave, just as Jonah was three days in the whale. The real problem is with Jesus, as far as the Koran is concerned. But after the Koran, when Christians and Muslims started arguing with each other, the Trinity loomed large. They know Christians know there are not three gods. The problem is: how do you say ‘hypostasis’ in Arabic. They tried different terms. All the terms you can use are not very helpful because they suggest something where you can count one, two, three individuals.

“Should we say we worship different gods?” Father Griffith continued. “I think not. What we believe about Jesus is creedal, important for our faith. So we have to have a way of talking about that. The difference is not just theological, I think it’s creedal. But is it so that it’s a different god? Not really, I think.”

Archimandrite Robert Taft, S.J., an expert on the history of the Byzantine liturgy who taught at the Baghdad Jesuit University early in his priesthood, in the 1950s, noted that, to counteract what Muslims say about Christians, Arabic Orthodox add a phrase when they make the sign of the cross in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God.”

Intercommunion and Concelebration

It hasn’t always been Islam that has presented the challenge to Christians, said Father Griffith. He said the Christian population actually seems to have increased under the Ottoman Empire, which had a system that provided for “a social identity for these communities. The bishops would be seen as leaders of their communities. The Archbishop of Constantinople received more importance in the Ottoman Empire.”

Later, under Kemal Ataturk and the system of laicete, life for Christians became more dangerous.” One example, he said, was the Armenian genocide.

Ironically, he said, under Islam, Christians had a legally protected status in Turkey, “albeit not very high. Now? I don’t have a crystal ball.”

“To this day, it’s a very difficult situation in Turkey,” Father Griffith said. “It’s not a Christian-friendly place.” He said that the government closed down a monastery school near the Iraqi border that ran summer programs for Syriac Orthodox children from abroad because it was “an illegal school.”

“There have been encroachments on their land, which they’ve occupied since the 4th century. Who knows what’s going to happen now.”

In these situations, Christian ecumenical relations have taken on new significance, said the panelists, most of whom were members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Lebanon and signed what emerged from the special synod on the Middle East, leaders of all the Churches came, Father Griffith said. “It was a moment of togetherness.”

“The reality of community is the fundamental social reality in the Near East,” said Father Taft. “In our culture we think freedom is a quality of the individual. Over there it’s the community that has rights. There is no way you escape from the community. A Muslim atheist doesn’t have to believe in God, but just let him become a Christian atheist and you’ll see what happens.”

The sense of community for Christians seems to be so strong, in fact, that in some parts the differences Catholics and Orthodox have seem to take a back seat. Father Griffith related that when he attended a big liturgical celebration in Northern Syria, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch and local Catholic bishop concelebrated. “Most people received,” he said. “Later I learned that the Orthodox and Catholic regularly go to one another’s churches. One said to me ‘Father, you come from America, where everything is clear but here we’re all one family and God loves us.’”

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