The ongoing Christian flight from the Middle East was high on the agenda of the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, when I met with him recently in Rome.
The lengthy exodus of ancient Christian congregations from the greater Middle East’s last redoubts of religious pluralism is accelerating. Terrorism, conflict, and the rise of intolerant Islamism are to blame, Vatican officials explain. There is a real fear that the light of Christian communities that was enkindled personally by the apostles of Jesus Christ could be extinguished in this vast region that includes the Holy Land.
This trend could be reversed or at least halted, but probably not without Western help. Thus far, the rapid erosion of Middle Eastern Christianity has drawn little notice from the outside world.
Pope Benedict XVI, however, is planning a special synod of Roman Catholic bishops next October to discuss this crisis and to promote greater ecumenical unity in the Middle East. The hope for the synod, as reported by the Catholic news agency Zenit, is that “new generations must come to know the great patrimony of faith and witness in the different churches” of this region.
The greater Middle East, of course, holds profound theological significance for all Christians. Broad Christian engagement may be the best hope for the survival of these ancient Middle Eastern churches — the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics, the Armenians, the Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, and others.
Evangelical Christians are gaining thousands of converts in the Middle East, and millions of Christians have migrated within the region. (Asia News reports that today there are more Syriac faithful in Saudi Arabia than in Turkey and Syria combined.) However, these populations are relatively small and isolated and are usually forced to live as “catacomb Christians,” suppressed in their witness and compelled to worship in secret. The same is true of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other more recent arrivals, who must keep a low profile, especially since Saudi Arabia’s state textbooks started teaching that the Christians’ schools, colleges, and clinics are signs of a “new crusade.”
Encompassing the land in which the mysteries of Christian salvation were fulfilled, this region should be a particular focus of Christian reflection during this holy season. But Christians and non-Christians alike should take note for worldlier reasons as well. As citizens of the free world, whose core civilizational values bear the imprint of Christianity (even if the European Union refuses to acknowledge this fact), we should all be concerned.
The disappearance of living Christian communities would signal the disappearance of religious pluralism and a moderating influence from the heart of the Muslim world.
Christians, numbering about 15 million, are the largest non-Muslim religious minority left in the Middle East. The Jews, the ancient Zoroastrians (sometimes known as “magi,” three of whom visited the Christ Child), the Mandeans (who follow John the Baptist), the Bahai, the angel-worshipping Yazidis, and other, smaller groups — all have joined the exodus, and for the same reasons.
Within our lifetime, the Middle East could be wholly Islamicized for the first time in history. Without the experience of living alongside Christians and other non-Muslims at home, what would prepare it to peacefully coexist with the West? This religious polarization would undoubtedly have geopolitical significance. So far, official Washington has not taken this under consideration.
However, there is something ordinary citizens can do. They can become better informed and they can give support in a variety of ways. I want to highlight three Christian leaders who desperately need and deserve our support. Each from his unique perspective is working directly to sustain Middle Eastern Christianity: a scholar promoting regional openness, human rights, and respect for women from relatively free Lebanon; a bishop reinvigorating Christian communities and culture in repressive Egypt; and a priest working just to keep Christians and others physically and spiritually alive in terror-wracked Iraq.