The alarming ‘health bulletins’ and the lists of migrants are never-ending. In the avalanche of news coming from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey, who is still interested in the Christian minorities of the East - ten million, including six million Copts in Egypt? Those Arabs who are not Muslims, who blur the binary international game (Israel-Palestine, West-Islam) are "too Oriental" to be understood by Westerners, “too Christian” to be secular and progressive currents. “Who is concerned with the fate of those excluded from the grand narrative of ‘West versus East,’ or ‘Jihad against McDo’,” asked Regis Debray during a conference recently held in Paris, which was organized by the European Institute of Religions’ Science (IESR), which he presides over, and l’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE).
That a French university takes up such a topic shows that at least part of the battle for public opinion has been won. The survival of the Christians of the East is a matter of culture rather than religion. “Our future is at stake in yours,” says Régis Debray launches to his interlocutors. Their communities are divided, crushed, their rituals are archaic, but their concern about their future, as has shown in Paris researchers, historians, diplomats and religious leaders, is to abandon fatalism, save the Christians of the East the destiny fossils or of surviving folklore. “Christians have been the catalyst for the Arab modernity. They are more so at home in the land of Islam because they predate Islam,” said the historian Henry Laurens.
But between the plight of Iraqi Christians (500,000 Chaldeans have left the country since the first Gulf War) and the reaffirmed political authority of the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch, the apparent satisfaction of Christians in Jordan and Syria and the marginalization of religious minority (Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syriac, Jews, etc.) in Turkey; how could one assess the situation of Eastern Christians?
The rule has long been one of fear and of complaint. Behind Mgr Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Palestinian, Christians call into question the inaction of the international community and the ‘occupation’ of Israel. The Iraqi Christians do not see a way out of the American strategy. Only 500 out of 2000 Christian families remain in Mousol. “Christians of Mosul and Basra must choose between a return to dhimmitude (a regime for the protection of minorities in the Ottoman Empire, coupled with submission and the payment of a tax), emigration or death. Terror and blood have shattered the coexistence,” laments Bishop Jean-Benjamin Sleiman, Latin Archbishop of Baghdad.
The novelty is that the hidden thoughts of Christians of the Middle East regarding radical Islam are being expressed out loud. Insecurity, wars, Israel, the attraction of the West are no longer enough to explain the regrets and the exodus. Long spared, by fear, forced loyalty towards Islam or by memory of coexistence over the centuries, “fundamentalism” is now openly denounced. The Muslim fundamentalism is no longer a political or religious “current;” it has become a “culture,” a “way of being,” a “mentality.”
The Coptic Catholic Bishop of Cairo, Bishop Youhanna Golta describes an Egypt where the extremists are gaining ground in public life, schools and universities and the media (60% of programs on TV are religious). For them, “citizenship is first Islam.” A “deaf war” opposes them to a secular and modernist current which does not want that Egypt returns to the Middle Ages. “And yet, there are no two Egypts,” insists Bishop Golta. “There are no two peoples. Fundamentalism, terrorism are not part of Egyptian culture. These are imports from outside.”Democratic and Secular Arabism Nationalism in the secular Turkish has not been spared. The Kemalist ideology remained a “deep power,” invested in the government and the courts, which control the unrecognized ethno-religious minorities. “It is not a question of religious difference, but the definition of citizenship,” says Philippe Kalfayan, of the International Federation of Human Rights, who is surprised at the lack of “political courage” of Europe in face of a discrimination that is manipulated by radical Muslims.
In one year, a Catholic priest and three Protestant missionaries have been killed in Turkey. Jean Colosimo, Professor at the Institute Saint-Serge (Paris), denounced the situation of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, primate of Orthodoxy (250 million followers), who is recognized around the world, except in Istanbul where, for the Turks, he is only the “priest of a few thousand Greek Orthodox," forbidden to reopen his unique seminary at Halki.
What is the way out? At the Paris conference, the Eastern Christians have rejected any possibility of returning to a status of “dhimmitude” claimed by some radicals. Emigration is no better solution: the Christians of the East are now more abroad (Europe, America, and Australia) than in their countries of origin, and their disappearance would give reason to proponents of the “clash of civilizations.” “We can no longer spend our time lamenting,” says Monsignor Michel Sabbah. We are not Christians facing Muslims, but Christians and Muslims together, in the face of extremism that grows inside Islam.” Another strong voice in the Middle East, Bishop George Khodr, bishop of Mount Lebanon, hopes for the rebirth of a “democratic and secular Arabism” in which Christians and Muslims would again have a common cause. As for Emile Shoufani, a Melkite priest from Nazareth, he invites his co-religionists to be the “translators” between the West and the Muslim world.
At Aleppo (Syria), high place of historic Christianity, the Christian population has dwindled from 50% to 6% in half a century. Its bishop, Jean-Clément Jeanbart, proposes a burst of energy to stem the “Islamist wave:” energy to preserve models of good coexistence (family, neighborhoods and associations) between Christians and Muslims. To address together the real ground of Islamism: the misery, poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. Schools, clinics, hospitals, vocational training centers: the “little rest” of Christians of the East intend to put act, convinced that the real challenge, as the bishop in Cairo says, is “to plant love” in the land of Islam, to show that “the law of love is stronger than the law of hate.