THE position of Christians in the Middle East “is more vulnerable than it has been for centuries”, the Archbishop of Canterbury said last Friday in a speech in the House of Lords. Dr Williams was initiating a debate on the plight of Christians in the region.
He highlighted the significant exodus of Arab Christians from their homelands in the Middle East to back his assertion. There had been a marked increase in departures, he said, from Iraq and Egypt, and from Palestine, “as a result of the tragic situation in the West Bank”.
The current plight of Middle Eastern Christians, he said, was all the more disturbing because of their deep roots in the region, stretching back two millennia: “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. . .“We are not talking about a foreign body, but about people who would see their history and their destiny alike bound up with the countries where they live, and bound up in local conversations with a dominant Muslim culture, which they are likely to see in terms very different from those that might be used by Western observers.”
Dr Williams went on to discuss the impact on Christians of the Arab Spring, and, in particular, the success of Islamic groups in recent elections in the region (News, 9 December). At present, he said, it was too early to tell whether the Islamists’ strong showing would mean “new kinds of repression in which non-Muslim and, importantly, non-orthodox Muslim communities will become targets for discrimination, or whether something more like the Turkish model will emerge: an openly and strongly Islamic government with, equally, a strong commitment to practical pluralism and political transparency”.
The most important point to remember, Dr Williams emphasised, was that most Muslims believed “the continued presence of Christians in the region is essential to the political and social health of the countries of the Middle East. Their presence challenges the assumption that the Arab world and the Muslim world are just one and the same thing, which is arguably good for Arabs and Muslims alike.”
But any solution to the problems of the Middle East, he went on, would have to be home-grown. The task of Christians outside the region was not “to impose their own agenda, and certainly not to do anything that adds colouring to the false and pernicious idea that indigenous Christians are somehow natural allies of a foreign government or an alien culture.” On the other hand, the worldwide Christian community should “affirm as strongly as we can the importance of a political settlement in the region that will genuinely secure the good of all”.
The theme of Western attitudes towards Arab Christians at a time of growing Islamist influence was taken up by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Christopher Hill. There was no denying, he said, that Christians in the Middle East were “subject to surveillance and harassment, churches are torched or bombed, and the faithful are killed”.
While the spreading of ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam might be, in part, responsible, so, too, was “the political identification of Christianity with the West and Western political and economic influence in the Middle East. Many Muslims now see in Christians a political instrument of the West.”The Bishop of Chichester, Dr John Hind, also warned against “meddling, whether well meaning or otherwise, by Europe, and, recently, America. We must not compound these problems by thinking that we can solve other people’s problems, especially when we share some responsibility for them. “What we can do, however, is stand by in the sense of being alongside. . . our brothers and sisters throughout the region, of whatever religion or none.”
The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, pointed out that “while radical Islam might seem to represent a particular threat to Middle Eastern Christians, it is worth remembering that in terms of raw numbers, the primary victims of religious extremism in the Muslim world are other Muslims.
“In that context, the case for religious freedom as an essential component of human rights is a project that Christians and many Muslims and Jews can share.”
Contributions to the debate were also made by Lord Parekh, Lord Patten, Lord Carey, Lord Popat, Lord Boateng, Lady Butler-Sloss, Lady Morris of Bolton, and Lady Cox.
Dr Williams stressed Middle Eastern Christianity’s contribution to the spiritual life of the religion as a whole. He pointed, in particular, to the ancient monasteries in the Egyptian desert: “To lose the contemplative, reflective, and imaginative spirit represented in those monasteries and the communities that support and sustain them would be for us to lose great depth from our Christian identity.
“If our Christian identity in the West becomes thinner and duller, so does our political and cultural identity overall.”