Future of Christianity in the Middle East & Call to Unity – Catholicos Aram I

September 2014

The following text is a summary of the reflections of H.H. Aram I during the International Summit held 9-11 September 2014 in Washington D.C.

Christianity is on the verge of disappearing from the Middle East, where, for centuries, it has existed in harmony with Judaism and Islam. As the Arab Spring has morphed into a desolate Arab winter, that harmony has given way to extremism and sectarianism, producing a series of crises that have impacted all aspects and spheres of people’s lives in the region. Only drastic action has any chance of preventing the further polarization and disintegration of societies with far-reaching consequences. The world must not remain silent when communities are subjected to massacre and extermination.

Extremism has reached its most violent expression in the Middle East where fanatics are exploiting religious beliefs, socio-economic grievances, political apathy, and the failures of the Arab spring, all in order to fulfill their political and ideological agenda.

The concept of nation-state is being crushed by the sectarianism that has followed in the wake of the fall of autocratic regimes. This sectarianism is defined most particularly by Sunni-Shiite tension, as national identity gives way to confessional belonging. Sectarian radical movements, nurtured by poisonous ideologies, are spreading destruction and death. These movements appeal to popular religious sentiments even as they employ terror as a psychological weapon. Through their support by visible and invisible sources, the extremists have acquired sophisticated political, economic, military, and informational tools.

Religious extremism and sectarianism threaten Islam, the Middle East, and the world. Their threat to Christianity in the region is existential in that they aim to erase minorities from the Arab world and extend their oppressive rule over the whole region. The twin evils of extremism and sectarianism will have far-reaching consequences for the people in the region. If we fail to take collective and swift action to contain and stop their onslaught, the Middle East will be transformed into a haven for radicalism, fundamentalism, and other “ism”s of this sort. We must commit ourselves to a common and long-term effort. Extremism cannot be defeated by military action alone. A comprehensive and coherent short-term and long-term global strategy must include political, economic, and military action. Because extremists derive their legitimacy from religion by exploiting it, we can confront them by empowering Muslim moderates and by stopping all kinds of support to extremist groups.

In the early stages of the Arab spring, the Christians were blamed for not associating themselves fully with the opposition, which was in the process of being organized. The Christians observed the increasing influx of extremists into opposition forces and chose not to engage as communities with any side. Now that extremists have highjacked the Arab spring, the Christians find themselves in a critical situation. As Christians how can we face this dilemma? Although there are no easy answers or simple solutions, I would like to share with you briefly six perspectives which could serve as a basis for a plan of action to save Christianity in its birthplace.

1.Democratization is crucial for the future of Christianity in the Middle East. The lack of democracy is a fundamental problem in our region. Without democratic institutions, it will not be possible to address regional issues or to combat extremism. Regime change should not be considered as the ultimate goal of democracy. If elimination of poverty, restoration of justice and respecting of human rights do not follow regime change, then that change becomes simply cosmetic and eventually counterproductive. Democratic governance needs to be organized on a solid basis and must empower civil society and become participatory, inclusive, and accountable; otherwise, it will generate violent protest and empower extremist groups. In order to avoid violence and radicalization, democratization must emanate from within, not be imposed from without. It requires education and awareness building. It also entails an accurate grasp of concrete realities, a deep analysis of the region’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and a carefully planned strategy.

It is particularly important that a secular and democratic state in the Middle East respect the role of religion in society. All segments of society must participate actively in the state-building process.

The Christians are caught between autocracy and extremism. We must advocate for a model of society that respects fundamental human rights and protects ethnic and religious diversities. Our commitment goes for a democratic, participatory and just society with inclusive governance. Indeed, democracy can become a bulwark against extremism. It may also ensure the future of Christianity in the Middle East and lead the whole region to a better future.

2.Christians are an integral and inseparable part of the Middle Eastern societies. The fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, exposed the Christian East to continuous persecution, oppression, massacre, and migration. Today, fourteen million Christians reside in the Middle East, mainly in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. They are well-organized communities and run several educational, cultural, social, and humanitarian institutions. Unfortunately, the autocratic regimes that preceded the Arab Spring, like the Ottomans under the ‘millet’ system, considered the Christian communities as minorities with limited internal freedom. Although Christians played a significant part in promoting Arab nationalism, they were never considered as equal citizens in the region with equal rights and obligations. However, Christians have never and will never accept to live as second-class citizens. They are deeply rooted in the history of the Middle East and refuse to be marginalized.

3.Pluralism will ensure a peaceful co-existence of communities. By promoting pluralism, we may combat extremism and help build peaceful cohabitation and a coherent integration of all segments of society. Extremism rejects all forms of pluralism and by doing so, violates the right of people to preserve their specificities while co-existing with others in mutual respect and acceptance. Only democracy can protect pluralism and, in turn, only pluralism can safeguard the Christian presence. Hence, pluralism must be promoted; religious, political, ethnic and cultural diversity must be respected and equal obligations and rights of all people as co-citizens, irrespective of their religious, confessional, and ethnic belonging, must be protected and constitutionally guaranteed.

Democracy affirms a collective identity through the rule of law and safeguards specific identities based on religion, culture, and ethnicity. If democratization fails to integrate confessional and ethnic divisions within state institutions, it will become a failed state and will generate extremist movements, thereby destabilizing the whole region. The rejection of pluralism is rooted in intolerance, a source of hate and violence. This rejection renders Christians at best as second-class citizens and, at worst, as unwelcome communities, leaving no place for them in society.

4.Cohabitation among monotheistic religions is imperative for the future of the Middle East. The three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which were all born in the Middle East and share common roots, values and traditions, have a common history characterized by both conflict and peaceful co-existence. In spite of important differences, these religions are challenged to work together. The common concerns they face in the region should drive their partnership. Because religions in the region have such a strong impact, close collaboration among them can create an atmosphere of mutual trust and pave the way for the solution of regional conflicts.

Islam is not a religion of violence. Only a very small portion of the Muslim population associates itself with the objectives of extremists. The vast majority reject the violent exploitation of Islamic beliefs. This silent majority has the potential to transform the situation by speaking out clearly and firmly. They must be empowered to challenge all forms and expressions of the abuse of Islam. The Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar recently stated that “an extremist and bloody group such as the (ISIS) poses a danger to Islam and Muslims, tarnishing its image…” (The Daily Star, Aug. 13, 2014, p. 8). This statement is highly significant. Key Muslim leaders, centers, and organizations should raise their voices to condemn and dissociate themselves from those who kill and kidnap people and destroy religious sites in the name of religion. They should be on the front line of the battle against extremism.

In fact, for the leaders of the monotheistic religions to create a solid basis for action, they must work inclusively and commit themselves to a greater collaboration. Islam accepts Jews and Christians as “people of the book,” and considers them as legitimate communities, deserving “protection” under Islamic authority. The Qur’an appeals to Christians and Jews: “O people of the Book, let us come to a common word between us and you…” (al-Imran 3:64). Islam by its very nature and vocation is a religion of peace and justice. In all its forms and expressions, extremism is against the teaching of the Qur’an. Reshaping the Middle East is a common responsibility. Actors of civil society, particularly religions, must be partners in combating this global danger in order to build a culture of life that promotes peace with justice and a quality of life sustained by moral values and human rights.

5.The continuous support of diaspora communities is indispensable. The churches of the Middle East must not be left alone. They are in dire need of support from their diaspora, foreign governments, and fellow churches.

The diaspora is a critical asset; its human, economic and political potential must be effectively channeled towards the mother churches of the Middle East. Diaspora communities can act in a number of significant ways: They can lobby their governments about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and urge those governments to express their concern and solidarity in tangible ways. They can organize awareness-building and advocacy campaigns and challenge the actors of civil society to be more sensitive and vigilant in respect to the challenges and concerns facing the Christian communities. They can financially support their church’s important projects and programs aimed at community building.

In addition, the ecumenical solidarity of the Western churches is of pivotal importance at this critical point in time of the Christian presence in the Middle East. That is not to say that we are looking for a new crusade. The West should seek to develop a credible, reliable, and effective policy towards the Middle East and a unified and concerted action to prevent attempts aimed at marginalization and even the forced migration of Christians.

6. A comprehensive and consistent policy towards the Middle East is urgent. Although Western governments have reacted with a firm unanimity to the terror of extremists in Iraq, the reaction of the Western media and politicians to the plight of Christians has been weak. Humanitarian aid and air strikes have been forthcoming, but Christians are not looking for humanitarian aid; they are seeking humanitarian action. For the Western powers to truly help, they must act not only where and when their “vital interests” are at stake, but where and when basic human rights and values are ignored and violated. The policy of the West towards the Middle East, which seems to waver between engagement and disengagement, has failed to grasp the complexities, interconnectedness, and inner layers of regional realities. The West must shift from reactive to proactive, from crisis management to crisis prevention. In fact, crisis prevention is easier, less costly and more effective than crisis management.

Promoting democracy is the right path to embark on. Cosmetic approaches and short-term engagement may be good public relations, but they are not productive. The Western powers must develop a policy towards the Middle East which is comprehensive and consistent, contextual and holistic, which is based on an accurate assessment of the realities of the region, and which reconciles strategic interests with human rights values. Indeed, the future of the Middle East and the Christian communities will be ensured when its states and societies are built on plurality, equality, and liberty.

The churches of the Middle East are called to deepen their unity and broaden their collaboration. Christian migration is a terribly serious problem. Every conflict has brought with it a new wave of Christian migration. The recent exodus of Christians from Syria and Iraq is the largest Christian exodus in the Middle East since the Armenian Genocide. Giving in to pessimism and hopelessness is not the Christian way. We neither compromise our rights nor do we resign from our obligations and responsibilities. We are determined to remain firmly attached to our lands, which are imbued with the creative spirit of our fathers and mothers and the blood of our martyrs.

History eloquently testifies that Christianity in the Middle East has brought a unique contribution to all spheres of human life. It has played a pivotal part in nation-building. The world should realize that the end of Christianity in this region would be a terrible blow for the future of the region. It would mean that intolerant ideologies and terrorism will have triumphed. The Christians of the Middle East, in their turn, must realize that there is no future for Christianity in this region except in partnership with other monotheistic religions.

ARAM I
Catholicos of Cilicia

CALL TO UNITY

Indeed, this is a call of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of his earthly ministry, the Son of God, in His prayer to the Father, referring to His disciples, said “that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21).

It is vitally important to underscore two points pertaining to Christian unity. First, Christian unity is a gift of God in Christ; it is not a human achievement. The God given unity was broken in the course of history because of human sin. The churches are called to heal the brokenness of unity in obedience to the call of Christ, and articulate it through their life and witness.

Second, Christian unity is not a goal in itself; it should be at the service of the church’s mission. Christ said: “As you have sent me to the world, likewise I sent them to the world” (Jn 17:18). The church is sent to the world with a missionary mandate, and the church’s mission is God’s mission. The church cannot compromise its mission of salvation, humanization and transformation of the world in the power of the Holy Spirit. Under all circumstances, the church is called to remain faithful to God’s mission, which is a mission of love, hope, reconciliation and peace with justice.

Call to unity

This is a call of our forefathers and foremothers who for centuries in the Middle East, in the birthplace of Christianity, prayed together, reflected together, worked together to restore the unity of the church. Persecutions, suffering, oppression and massacres have marked the history of the church in our part of the world. The life of Christians has been one of martyrdom in life and even in death. The upheavals and vicissitudes of history have never undermined and weakened the firm commitment of churches to witness and evangelism. The spirit of creativity and openness towards their neighbors has become the sustaining power and driving force of their life.

The churches of the Middle East have brought a significant contribution to the cultures and civilizations of the region. They have promoted human, moral and spiritual values. They have become the pioneers of human rights in spite of the oppressive role of the Ottoman Empire and autocratic regimes. The survival of our churches in the midst of massacres and persecution is, indeed, a miracle. And miracle is the fruit of faith and hope that have undergirded the life and witness of our churches.

Call to unity

This call of Christ echoes with renewed emphasis and urgency in a Middle East torn apart by uncertainties, polarizations and conflicts of various nature and scope. Violence in all its forms, dimensions and manifestation has become a daily reality in the life of societies. The impact of these realities on the life of the churches is far reaching, indeed. What the outside world sees on the screen of television and computer is only a small portion of what our people experience daily.

The life of Christian communities is seriously threatened. The survival of Christianity in the Middle East is at stake. Resignation or alienation has no place in our life. We remain firmly attached to our lands, to our rights and to our God-given mission. In 5th century, at a most critical moment of Armenian history, when the very survival of our nation and faith was threatened, the Armenian people said with one voice: from this faith no one can shake us.

Today, in the face of the growing threat of extremism, the churches of the Middle East say with renewed faith and hope and with one voice: from our faith, from our rights no one can shake us.

Unity is a source of strength. Let the theologians discuss Christological, pneumatological or dogmatic issues that caused divisions in world Christendom. Unity for the churches of the Middle East is: being together, praying together and working together and giving concrete and visible expressions to our presence in the region.

The division of the church started in the Middle East; unity of the church too must start in the Middle East. This is a great challenge before the churches. We must respond to this challenge responsibly and committedly.

Unity is both a gift and call of God in Christ. Let us accept in humility and obedience the gift of God; and let us respond with renewed commitment to the call of Christ.

ARAM I

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