Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: Christianity Fading in the Middle East

An Associated Press story on the ongoing phenomenon of the declining Christian population in the Middle East. A truly fascinating account of this cultural heritage and its loss can be read in the travelogue From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple. I picked that up back in South Bend and it – along with having met a number of Palestinian Christians who had fled to the United States to escape the terror and harrassment (even from the government of Israel) – first alerted me to this huge phenomenon and exodus.

I also include here a slightly related CNS story entitled "Pope takes on hard questions in new chapter of dialogue with Muslims." In just having looked at something as seemingly "dated" as the controversy over icons from the eighth century with my students, I pointed out how much of this cultural and theological heritage was going to be in play during Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to Turkey, and that the centuries-long fallout from the conquest of the Byzantine Empire was still a drama to which they might bear some witness.

Christian Population Falls in Holy Land
Nov 11, 11:03 PM (ET)


BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - The death threat came on simple white fliers blowing down the streets at dawn. A group calling itself "Friends of Muhammad" accused a local Palestinian Christian of selling mobile phones carrying offensive sketches of the Muslim prophet.

The message went on to curse all Arab Christians and Pope Benedict XVI, still struggling to calm Muslim outrage from his remarks on Islam.

While neighbors defended the merchant - saying the charges in the flier were bogus - the frightened phone dealer went into hiding, feeling less than satisfied with authorities' conclusion that the Oct. 19 note was probably a harmless rant.

Now the dealer is thinking of going abroad.

Call it part of a modern exodus, the steady flight of the tiny Palestinian Christian minority that could lead, some predict, to the faith being virtually extinct in its birthplace within several generations - a trend mirrored in many dwindling pockets of Christianity across the Islamic world.

This is one of the major themes the pope is expected to carry to Turkey for a four-day visit beginning Nov. 28 - his first papal visit to a predominantly Muslim nation. The Vatican calls it "reciprocity:" Muslim demands for greater sensitivity from the West must be accompanied by stronger protections and rights for Christian minorities.

In some places, such as Pakistan, it means more safeguards from extremist attacks. In Indonesia and elsewhere, it touches on appeals to quell growing sectarian clashes. In Turkey, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, it seeks to preserve communities dating back to the time when Jesus and his apostles preached.

But nearly everywhere in Muslim lands, Christian populations are in decline.

No place is this more striking than the Holy Land.

For decades, it was mostly economic pressures pushing Palestinian Christians to emigrate, using family ties in the West or contacts from missionary schools. The Palestinian uprisings - and the separation barrier started by Israel in 2002 - accelerated the departures by turning once-bustling pilgrimage sites such as Bethlehem into relative ghost towns.

The growing strength of radical Islamic movements has added distinct new worries. During the protests after the pope's remarks in September, some of the worst violence was in Palestinian areas with churches firebombed and hit by gunfire.

"Most of the Christians here are either in the process of leaving, planning to leave or thinking of leaving," said Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based peace group. "Insecurity is deep and getting worse."

The native Palestinian Christian population has dipped below 2 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, down from at least 15 percent in 1950 by some estimates. Meanwhile, the Muslim Palestinian birthrate is among the highest in the world.

Dire predictions abound. The Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land said Christians could become "extinct" in the region within 60 years.

"It certainly doesn't look good for us," said Mike Salman, a Palestinian Christian who has conducted studies on demographic trends.

A walk along Shepherd Street puts a face to the lament.

Hannah Qumsieh spends his days playing online poker, fretting about unpaid bills and trimming his lemon trees at his house overlooking the field where the Bible says an angel told shepherds of the birth of Jesus. Qumsieh retired from the Palestinian tourism office last year, but has received no pension checks since the militant faction Hamas won elections in January and the West slashed aid to the Palestinian Authority.

"If I had money to leave, I would," he said, casting a glance at the newly built white-stone house next door in Beit Sahour, one of the last Christian-dominated enclaves in the West Bank. Bethlehem, just up the hill, is now less than 20 percent Christian.

A day earlier, Qumsieh's eldest son turned over the house keys to tenants and took his family to Chile. Down the road, a Christian restaurant owner, Ibrahim Shomali, is selling what he can before he leaves with his wife this month. They will head for Flint, Mich., to join his brother and hunt for work in one of the most economically depressed areas of America.

Shomali also will leave a stack of paperwork for his lawyer, who is fighting a group that took control of land that Shomali insists has been in his family for more than a century. Christians claim Muslim gangs routinely try to seize Christian property using doctored documents, but Palestinian authorities say it's random lawlessness in areas where land deeds are not registered.

"Here is where Jesus was born and over there, across the hill in Jerusalem, is where he was crucified," Shomali said. "We Christians now feel like we are on the cross."

Some are trying to change the momentum.

Groups dedicated to Muslim-Christian cooperation are active. During the protests over Benedict's remarks, militiamen from Islamic Jihad vowed to protect a West Bank church. A poll released Oct. 18 by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found 91 percent of respondents opposed attacking churches to protest Benedict's comments.

Fuad Kokali, one of six Christian deputies in the 132-seat Palestinian parliament, proclaimed there "are no religious divides" in the struggle against Israeli occupation.

But, after a while, he told another story. He spoke of how Muslims and Christians mixed freely at weddings and other events in the 1980s. Now, it's a rarity, he said.

"The world is becoming a more unstable and frightening place," he said. "In these times, people revert back to their core identity. That means closing yourself within your religion and looking out at the other with suspicion."

These days Palestinian Christians - dominated by Greek Orthodox and Latin rite churches loyal to the pope - face questions about whether their hearts lie in their homeland or in the West. It gets even more complicated because of the strong support for Israel and Jewish settlers from American evangelical Christians.

"We are stuck in no man's land," said a leading Palestinian Christian activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of reported death threats. "In the eyes of the West, we are Arabs. In the eyes of Arabs, we are a fifth column."

The choice is either stand up against Muslim radicals or doom Holy Land Christianity to a slow death, said Ayman Abuaita, a Christian leader who previously served in the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, which has waged suicide bombings against Israelis.

"This is our land. This is where our faith was born," he said. "We cannot be weak and just fade away."

But being bold can bring a backlash.

On Oct. 12, Christians students at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank protested an exhibit by an Islamic group that included artwork mocking the pontiff and a poem deriding Christianity. The argument deteriorated into a brief melee with fists and sticks.

No one was seriously injured, but political and religious leaders rushed to the college to try to keep the violence from spreading - as it did in 2002 when Beit Sahour was engulfed by street battles after a Muslim man took a surreptitious photo of a Christian woman in a changing room.

At the St. Theodosius Monastery, a site with a Christian history dating to the fifth century, the Greek Orthodox caretaker, Father Ierotheos, said he mostly remains behind the walls. He claims he was harassed by "Muslim fanatics" for speaking about Christian fears on a local television show.

"It's a jungle for us now," he said.

Every Friday, the noontime bells from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ring out during prayer calls at a mosque on the other side of Manger Square.

"You can hear the bells and think that it is a sign that Christians will never be pushed out of this land," said Abuaita. "Or you can hear it as a cry for help."


On the Net:

Holy Land Trust:


Pope takes on hard questions in new chapter of dialogue with Muslims
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on Islam in Regensburg, Germany, opened a new chapter in the Vatican's 40-year dialogue with the Muslim world and brought the pope's own views on Islam into clearer focus.

In the controversy that followed his speech, the pope told Muslim leaders there should be no doubt about his commitment to the dialogue launched by the Second Vatican Council or of his "esteem and profound respect" for Muslim believers.

At the same time, the pope is not hesitating to raise some uncomfortable questions about the religious foundations of Islam and its cultural and political influences today.

"It is important that (interreligious) dialogue take place with much patience, much respect and, most of all, in total honesty," the pope wrote several years ago.

For the pope, the honest approach to dialogue with Muslims means not simply talking about the shared belief in one God but also facing sensitive issues like that of violence and religion. Against a backdrop of global tensions, the pope believes that question cannot be ignored and that moderate voices must be heard.

"Many people, including the pope, are asking whether there is not perhaps a link between certain interpretations of the foundations and sources of Islam, and what is being done by Islamic extremists," said Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll, professor of Islamic studies at the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany.

While the pope would not fall into the mistake of overly generalizing about radical Islam, he would like Muslim dialogue partners to take a closer look at the interpretation of the Islamic heritage, in particular those elements that can be misused in the direction of violence, Father Troll told Catholic News Service.

In his first major encounter with Islamic representatives in 2005, the pope asked Muslim elders to make sure their young are formed in attitudes of tolerance and cooperation.

"I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims," he said.

During his first 18 months in office, Vatican officials say Pope Benedict has adopted a new style of dialogue with Islam, but without setting off in an entirely new direction.

"Pope Benedict XVI is carrying on the work of John Paul II with a style of his own: It's a work of continuation, not imitation," said Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

In fact, over the course of his pontificate, Pope John Paul frequently spoke to Muslims about interreligious tolerance, cultural cooperation and reciprocal respect for religious freedom.

Pope Benedict has touched on the same points, but with more direct language. He has also tended to avoid the public gestures of interreligious friendship that were a trademark of his predecessor -- like addressing a soccer stadium full of Muslim youths in Morocco, praying in a Syrian mosque or riding in a "peace train" to Assisi with Muslim representatives.

"We are facing two different approaches to dialogue," Father Justo Lacunza Balda, an official of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies in Rome, told CNS.

For Pope John Paul, Father Lacunza said, encounters with Muslims were a key part of papal travels abroad and special ceremonies at the Vatican. Pope Benedict is less a "stage person" and more analytical, he said.

"His approach is one in which you have to identify issues that are absolutely relevant and important to discuss in our modern times," Father Lacunza said.

"Today, these problems include the relationship of faith and reason, the link between religion and violence in the minds of some supposed religious leaders, the question of religious liberty, and questions about science, democracy and freedom," Father Lacunza said.

"He is putting all these issues on a plate for the church and the Muslim world to discuss," he said.

At the University of Regensburg in September, the pope touched on several of these themes in language that he later acknowledged was open to misinterpretation.

Most of the Muslim criticism focused on the pope's quotation of a medieval Byzantine emperor, who said the prophet Mohammed had brought "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith." The pope afterward clarified that he was not endorsing the emperor's words.

Much less attention was given to a broader question the speech posed about Islam: whether God is absolutely transcendent for Muslims and therefore not bound up with "any of our categories, even that of rationality."

That echoed a question that arose last year, when the pope hosted a two-day, closed-door seminar on Islam with some of his former graduate students: If Muslims understand the Quran's revelation as literally divine and unadaptable, can Islam really engage the modern world and accept concepts like democracy?

According to one participant, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, the pope believes Islam and democracy are compatible, but not without difficulty.

Father Troll, the German Islamic scholar who gave a presentation at the papal seminar, said the pope avoided categorical judgments about Islam. But he said the pope understands that the traditional, mainstream theology of Islam may make it difficult for Muslims to critically evaluate how their faith interacts with history.

The pope has long held that Islam's all-encompassing approach makes it a challenging dialogue partner. As he said in the 1997 book, "Salt of the Earth," the Quran is "a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic."

Father Samir, an Egyptian-born expert on Islam, said in a recent article that Pope Benedict is one of the few figures to have understood Islam's struggle to find a place in modern society.

He said this awareness has led the pope to broaden Christian-Muslim dialogue, emphasizing cultural issues above strictly religious aspects.

"The essential idea is that dialogue with Islam and with other religions cannot be essentially a theological or religious dialogue, except in the broad terms of moral values; it must instead be a dialogue of cultures and civilizations," Father Samir said.

That interpretation would explain why the pope, as one of his first reorganizational acts at the Vatican, made Cardinal Poupard, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the head of the interreligious dialogue council.

Cardinal Poupard told CNS that this was a natural move, given the complementary nature of religion and culture.

"There is a close connection between faith and culture and, therefore, between cultural dialogue and interreligious dialogue. The faith is not 'born' in a vacuum, but inside a culture," Cardinal Poupard said.

In promoting what he calls a "dialogue of cultures and religions," the pope also has outlined a potential area of Christian-Muslim cooperation -- the struggle against secular trends in contemporary society. As the pope said in Regensburg, it's a society that risks becoming "deaf to the divine" and that "relegates religion to the realm of subcultures."

Cardinal Poupard said the pope was, in effect, offering "an outstretched hand" to Islam in the battle against an oversecularized global culture.

But the pope has also made it clear that for Christians, the struggle against a godless society is based on a rational approach, one that rejects violence, that does not see faith and reason in conflict, and that affirms the centrality of the person. His Regensburg speech, then, could be viewed as an invitation for Muslims to clarify the teachings of Islam on the same points.

The strong initial criticism of the Regensburg speech has given way to more thoughtful evaluation by Islamic scholars. Even though the Muslim commentary is still largely unfavorable, Vatican officials now say the papal speech may turn out to be providential in promoting a frank, in-depth look at Christian-Muslim issues.

One problem demonstrated by the controversy, however, was that Islam speaks with many voices. In the absence of a Muslim hierarchy, a small group burning an effigy of the pope may make a greater global impact than a group of Islamic scholars calmly dissecting the pope's arguments.

That's something the pope has long recognized. In "Salt of the Earth," he said the currents of Islam run from "noble Islam" to "extremist, terrorist Islam." The Islamic religion as a whole should not be identified with a militant minority, he said.

"I think that first we must recognize that Islam is not a uniform thing. In fact, there is no single authority for all Muslims, and for this reason dialogue with Islam is always dialogue with certain groups. No one can speak for Islam as a whole; it has, as it were, no commonly regarded orthodoxy," he said.

An important issue the pope and his aides have raised with diverse Muslim audiences is the need for mutual respect for religious rights, including those of minority Christian populations in majority Muslim countries.

But reciprocity is not seen at the Vatican as a prerequisite for dialogue, nor is it a Pope Benedict invention. Pope John Paul repeatedly raised the issue, notably in his 1985 speech in Morocco -- at the same soccer stadium appearance where he was cheered by 70,000 Muslim youths.

Pope Benedict has said he wants to build on the work of his predecessor and the relations of trust that have developed between Christians and Muslims. He has described his own approach as recognizing with joy the shared religious values and respecting "with loyalty" the differences.

His recent prodding on some of the differences, his aides say, only illustrates the crucial importance he gives to this dialogue.

As the pope told Muslim leaders in 2005: "Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is, in fact, a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends."
Tags: benedict xvi, books, cultural, desert monasticism, historical, interreligious, islam, middle east, papacy, political, teaching, theological notebook

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