French-Lebanese theologian and philosopher Antoine Fleyfel emphasizes the importance of the Oriental Christian community for the diversity of the Arab world and warns against the temptation to turn inwards.
What have Christians contributed to the Middle East including during the period since it became Arab?
Antoine Fleyfel: Answering this question involves going back into the history of the region, which was once Christian. In fact, long before it became Muslim, Christianity was founded and spread from the region.
The achievements of the Abbasid Empire in the fields of science, including medicine and astronomy, as well as the arts, are sometimes emphasized for ideological reasons. On the other hand, the contributions of Syriac Christians, Copts, Assyrians or Melkites, who also lived there and whom the caliphs were smart enough to rely on, are underplayed.
The famous Beit Al Hikma or House of Wisdom in tenth and eleventh century Baghdad is an example of this.
More recently, Christians were among the leaders of the political and cultural Nahda or “renaissance” movement that emerged in the Arab world during the 19th century.
They contributed their reflections on human rights, citizenship, and laicity. During the 20th century, they also struggled alongside Muslims in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria in the battle against the Turk occupiers to promote an “Arab identity” that they created as well as for the independence of their countries.
Nor can one overlook the contribution of Christians in the foundation of the Kingdom of Jordan and the defense of Palestine.
How can this contribution be measured?
AF: It is becoming increasingly clear that the phases of greatness of the long history of the Middle East were periods of openness to diversity while, on the other hand, withdrawal and turning inwards led to civilizational impoverishment.
What is the legacy of the Mamluks, the dynasty that reigned in Egypt and Syria during the 13th and 14th centuries and who greatly persecuted Christians and other minorities? Very little.
The Middle East would lose a great deal if the hemorrhage of Christians continues. An Arab world reduced to its Muslim component would be deprived of the cultural, social, political, economic richness that it derives from its diversity.
Christians leaving would also accentuate the polarization between the various currents of Islam…
Is the Arab world conscious of what it lost with the departure of the Jews during the 20th century?
AF: Few will dare to admit it. The hatred of Israel cultivated in the Arab world since 1948 has led them to equate Jews with Israel. To deplore the departure of the Jews would inevitably be understood as a kind of support for the state of Israel.
Clearly, however, it was a significant loss. Until 1948, for example, one-third of Baghdad was Jewish!
The Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Iraq, have not had the intelligence to make sure they stayed although the Jewish state was also partly responsible since it encouraged immigration to its own territory.
In the difficult current context, can Christians still make a positive contribution to the societies in which they are living?
AF: Their participation has been downplayed for several decades and even more since the emergence of jihadist movements such as Al Qaida and ISIS.
As a result of the situation in the region, namely spreading violence and religious fundamentalism, we also observe a trend for Christians to withdraw at the moral, religious and cultural levels as well as in their relations with others.
For example, some Christians tend to turn inwards in a somewhat bigoted and superstitious expression of their faith.
The crushing majority of theses in theology today deal with the history of each Church, the great saints of past centuries. But we cannot stop there!
There is a huge shortage in the fields of ecumenism, systematic theology, Islamic theology, and ecclesiology. How can one imagine a future for these churches without a dialogue with Islam? Indeed, some churches are still governed like tribes by priests and bishops driving their beautiful cars. Or in the fields of science and particularly history?
In a way, like the Muslims, Oriental Christians are still living in an “enchanted” world in the sense that religious and magic explanations have taken the place of scientific study. It is difficult to make progress in such conditions.
And yet, their achievements, particularly in the field of education, are still highly appreciated?
AF: Certainly, including by Muslims themselves! Christians are also recognized for their hospitals, the aid they bring to the most disadvantaged, as well as their economic contribution.
They have a strong presence in commerce and the liberal professions in general.
One ought not to forget their literary and intellectual contribution either, which is fostered by publishers, journals and media, as well as their more general contribution to dialogue among the various components of Arab society.
In Iraq, only Christians are capable of bringing together Arabs and Kurds, or Sunnis and Shiites.
Professor Antoine Fleyfel is a theologian and professor at the Catholic University of Lille and is also responsible for academic relations with the L’Oeuvre de l’Orient.
Source: La Croix