"Our discipleship in the Middle East has never been an easy way of life. Yet, it has made us constantly conscious of the preciousness of our faith and its imperatives."
– Catholicos Karekin II
The Middle East Context
For its strategic and religious importance, the Middle East has always been at the center of world attention. It is still an important zone for the so-called 'vital interests' of the super-powers. Marked by continuous conflicts and growing tensions on the one hand and new hopes and prospects on the other, the present juncture constitutes a decisive landmark in the history of the region. The Christian churches of the region share, in one way or another, all the acuteness of and the repercussions resulting from the problems and tensions of the Middle East.
The Middle East displays a rich diversity of religions, races, cultures and traditions. Obviously, this unique identity of the Middle East with all its particularities and complexities, tensions and ambiguities continues to have a direct bearing and a permanent effect on the Christian witness.
The centuries of coexistence of religions and cultures in the Middle East have given birth to an uninterrupted dialogue, which is existential in nature and scope, and manifold in ramifications and implications. This dialogical coexistence, which has produced a permanent interaction and interpenetrating in all spheres and at all levels of societal life, has been a source of mutual enrichment for the people of the Middle East. It has also been a major cause of political, religious and military confrontations and crises. However, in this part of the world, dialogue – with all the risks that it entails is both virtually unavoidable and absolutely imperative for an effective Christian witness.
The life of Christians of the Middle East is one of living and continuous witness to Christ. It is not a testimony in word alone; it is action, a cross-centered action, it is fundamentally a close identification with the poor and needy, with the oppressed and displaced. It is a deep involvement in the struggle for justice, peace and liberation. It is not one of the functions of the church, it is the life of the church. The church herself is a witness, witness is the corporate action of the whole church, it takes place in a given time and in a given place, the act of witnessing is and has always to be responsive and relevant to the concerns, demands and priorities of a given situation.
Christians of different denominations also played prominent roles in the politics of other emerging Arab countries where they happened to be found: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and now Palestine. Being naturally attuned to the ethos of the West, Christian Arabs who happened to be articulate were ideally suited to present the positions of their respective countries – also the Arab national position in general, on whatever issue – on international platforms. And this they have normally been entrusted to do by unanimous Arab consent. Until the present day, Christians remain leading spokespersons for Arab national causes, most notably the Palestinian Arab cause.
"Much concern about the future of the Christian Arab is currently being expressed in international circles and the international media. Also, much fear of the future is being voiced among Christians inside the Arab world, particularly in connection with the waves of Islamic fundamentalism that have been sweeping a number of Arab countries during the last decade. People who entertain such concern or fear rarely take into account that it is in the nature of waves, no matter their apparent enormity, to subside once they have consumed their initial driving force, especially in the case of waves of social behavior driven by ephemeral emotion rather than by solid reason."1
The words of Al-Hassan Bin Talal, brother of King Hussein, uncle of King Abdullah and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, clearly sum up the special role played by the Christian community in the Middle East.
Jordan in the Context of the Middle East
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is blessed by the words, deeds and miracles of Jesus Christ, and sanctified by the holy blood of Christian martyrs.
The Kingdom of Jordan was carved out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, but its present borders date to 1967. At present there 5,039,000 inhabitants living in a land of 89,342 km22, with very limited natural resources.
Christian Emigration from Jordan
Christian emigration from Jordan cannot be isolated from Christian emigration from the region. The phenomenon of emigration is one of tremendous concern for the churches in the region, as the number of believers leaving for greater economic opportunities, relief from the psychological pressure of living as a minority community, or relief from war and insecurity continues to grow.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians from what is now Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Israel and Jordan first left the Middle East for the Americas, Australia and Africa in the quest for better living around the turn of the last century. During the first half of the 20th century, particularly when famine hit the region between the two World Wars, significant emigration occurred from Lebanon and Syria.
Students of migratory phenomena have pinpointed a series of factors, which have triggered or accelerated this new trend:
– Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has continued unabated since 1948
– Two Palestinian uprisings or Intifada (1987-93, 2000 to present)
– Gulf wars (1982 and 1990)
– Lebanese civil war (1975-1990)
In addition to these factors, emigration could be related to the general growth of the population and the inability of local economies in the region to absorb such growth. More likely, however, are the political and economic calamities that impact traditional Christian places of employment, such as tourism.
The Regional Seminar on "Youth and Emigration in the Middle East," organized in Beirut in August 2001 by the World Student Christian Federation, Middle East Region, with the participation of 35 members of different Christian youth movements from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Sudan and Egypt, published an inquiry on emigration among Christian and Muslim youth. The study reveals that half the Christian youth in the Middle East will emigrate.
According to the study, an unhealthy economy, unpredictable politics and high unemployment are cited as the primary causes of emigration. The presence of a family member residing abroad also induces emigration. Every Christian family has a relative in the West; a high percentage of Muslims expressing an interest in emigrating also have family abroad. Only a stable political and economic environment could slow this wave of emigration, or even put an end to the emigration of Christians. The majority of Christians interviewed during the inquiry of 2000, while expressing their intention of emigrating, were not willing to emigrate if peace were near, and if the political and economic situation were to improve.
The inquiry also shows that in the last 30 years – a period of economic, political and military uncertainty – emigration of Jordanian Christians increased. The percentage of Christians in Jordan (including the West Bank) in 1952 was 18 percent. Now it is just 3.4 percent.
Emigration concerns Muslims as well as Arab Christians, but the Christian minority is in danger of collapsing. The smaller the Christian community, the study shows, the probability of emigration increases.
Arab Christian communities have always played an important role in the great mosaic that is the Middle East. Their demise would diminish the hope of establishing open, pluralistic societies.
The challenges of peace building – between states and communities – and the promises of regional economic partnership and integrated markets open new possibilities for the Middle East. The development of these promises will be essential to curb Christian Arab emigration and to launch an era of stable and prosperous societies and communities.
Future of a Continuous Witness
"The fact remains that the Christian Arabs are in no way aliens to Muslim Arab society," writes Prince Al-Hassan Bin Talal, "a society whose history and culture they have shared for over fourteen centuries to date, without interruption, and to whose material and moral civilization they have continually contributed, and eminently so, on their own initiative or by trustful request."
"With such a heritage of trust and good faith in their favor, Christian Arabs need not feel any more apprehensive than other Arabs of things to come. With the patience, resilience and empathy for which they have been historically known, and the imaginative leadership they have rarely lacked, they will surely not be at a loss to find their place in the Arab world for the future, to their own benefit, and to the benefit of all other parties concerned."3
Arab Christian communities of the Middle East form a complete part of their respective societies. The continuity of their presence in the region is necessary in order to maintain the rich patrimony, and to contribute to the creation of multireligious and pluralistic societies, armed with a vision of the future that takes into consideration all the citizens on an equal plane, able to respond to all their needs, no matter their religion, ethnicity, or ideology.
Considering the land as a space or place of witness where Christians should carry out their diakonia, Christian Arabs should therefore be encouraged to remain in their society and not emigrate. It is not possible to reach this goal without any specific plans for development, as well as the cooperation of institutions, donors, nongovernmental organizations, churches and other institutions interested in different regions.
Such fields of development should stress on the following issues:
– Interfaith dialogue programs
– Spiritual and theological education programs
– Youth and women empowerment and leadership programs
– Family awareness programs
– Popular education and literacy programs
The economic factor is key in understanding the emigration of Arab Christians. Therefore, some action plans would be necessary in order to help Middle Eastern Christian communities create new job opportunities and encourage initiatives that involve parishes, cooperatives and other groups. In order to develop such plans, it is important that funding agencies offer their competence and support to communities to activate community development projects.
An example in the Jordanian context would consist of building a conference center with adequate hostel facilities in the region of Amman, Madaba or Jerash to be used for Christian pilgrims. Such a center could offer jobs to the local community, motivate the tourism industry and create new job opportunities in related sectors. The local community, unable to act on the plans for such a project alone, needs the advice and expertise of specialized agencies operating in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
Microcredit projects would enable small businesses to develop and improve their own projects by providing them with rotating credit, with reasonable interest rates, suitable to the economic conditions that characterize the different countries of the Middle East.
Schools, healthcare facilities and social institutions offer services both to Christians and Muslims, providing places of concrete interreligious exchange. Christian students, however, also need financial support to maintain these institutions and their services. Scholarships would guarantee education for worthy Christian students.
Close rapport between Jordanian parishes and Christian communities abroad should be encouraged; this would present spiritual and practical advantages for both.
3. Research and Study
It would be useful to create and support research centers in Amman for the purpose of studying the problems of Arab Christian communities. A strict follow-up could follow, of the developments that will enable these communities to provide citizens with up-to-date events occurring in those communities.
4. Health and Social Care
This challenge is not a Christian challenge but a call for all. How this challenge is handled will reveal, in fact, the position of the Middle East and Jordan in the coming decades. In order to build a better future, it is necessary to get involved in the actual dynamic of the Arab Christian communities and the Middle East.s perspectives of the future.
To face this challenge, supporting childcare issues (such as child labor, the problem of street children and child abuse) as well as supporting Christian hospitals and medical centers will generate good will and offer hope for the challenges ahead.
1 Al-Hassan Bin Talal, Christianity in the Arab World SCM Press ltd., 2nd ed., 1998, pp.88-89
2 Department of Statistics,Jordan in Figures, Issue No.3, Amman, June, 2001, p. 1-2