His Eminence Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, honorary president of the Middle East Council of Churches, participated as a speaker at a symposium on Christians in the Middle East, on Monday 12 June 2023, at the Tapiola Church, Espoo, Finland.
During the symposium, His Eminence delivered a speech via an article he wrote under the title “The Future of Christianity in the Middle East”, in which he spoke about the role of Arab Palestinian Christians, highlighting the reasons of Christians’ emigration in addition to the challenges they face and how to support them in light of the situations they are passing through.
Following is the text of the address:
It is my honor and pleasure to be invited to address this symposium on Christianity in the Middle East. I would like to start with two general remarks:
• First: As we address the theme on Christians in the Middle East, it is very important not to generalize. The situation in each Middle Eastern country is different than the other and we have to objectively and scientifically delve into each countries situation.
• Second: The uniting factor among all Arab and Middle Eastern Christians is that they consider themselves as an integral component of the Arab and Middle Eastern fabric.
In my lecture, I will concentrate on the Arab Palestinian Christians as a vivid example.
The role of the Arab Palestinian Christian
In 2022, Dar Al-Kalima Lutheran University and the Catholic Pontifical Mission have launched a mapping of Christian organizations in Palestine. The study has come up with these findings:
• Despite the chronic and political challenges that exist in the Holy Land, a large number of Christian-related organizations (CROs) play major developmental and humanitarian roles in serving all Palestinian people.
• The size of the Christian community in Palestine has dwindled in recent years in comparison with other faiths. In spite of being 1 per cent of the total population, Christianity development and humanitarian work has continued to flourish by extending support to local residents of various backgrounds and in every aspect of life. A total of 296 organizations offer continuous assistance “in the service of mankind”.
• The study highlights the tremendous impact made by the small number of Christians in Palestine in improving the lives of many people, and demonstrates the sense of cultural responsibility among Palestinians towards community service regardless of religious belief, social status or political affiliation. Over 90% of the beneficiaries of these organizations are non-Christian from across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.
• At present 93 schools, universities, and vocational centers, 19 healthcare facilities, 47 social protection institutions, 77 cultural and tourism centers, 38 youth and scout centers, one environmental center, and 21 local and international development agencies deliver a variety of services to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians as part of their Christian identity, witness and culture.
• The Christian Related Organizations (CROs) are the third largest employer of Palestinians after the Palestinian Authority (155,000 employees), and the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) (17,767 employees). The CROs 9098 employees are 5017 Christians and 4081 Muslims.
Why are Christians Emigrating?
Recent surveys among Palestinian Christians has pointed into four clear reasons for emigration:
• The lack of peace and justice in the horizon.
• The deteriorating economic situation. The conditions of the Palestinian life have made many of our young people concerned about their economic future.
• The measures of the occupation, including dehumanizing experiences at checkpoints, property confiscations, home demolitions, the Israelization of East Jerusalem and the lack of possibilities for family re-unifications among others. All of these create an atmosphere of hopelessness.
• The growth of religious and political extremism both in Israel and Palestine has forced many peace-loving Christians to seek safer environments in which to raise their families.
We can see from the data that the main reasons for Christian emigration away from Palestine – lack of freedom and deteriorating economic prospects – are tied directly to the experience of the Israeli occupation. This is a long-term and harmful trend.
The just published US State Department Religious Freedom 2022 has the same conclusion. It states:
“The Christian heads of churches in Jerusalem continue to raise public concerns that the Christian presence and Holy Sites in Jerusalem were under threat. The statements identified pressure points on Christians that included violence and harassment against clergy and worshipers by Israeli extremist; vandalism and desecration of church properties; attempts by settler organizations to obtain strategic property in an around the Christian Quarter of the Old City and the Mount of Olives; and restrictions on residency permits for Palestinians as part of Israel’s Citizenship and Entry Law. This law remained an especially acute problem, according to church leaders, because of the small Christian population and consequent tendency to marry other Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (i.e., Christians who held neither citizenship nor residency). Local Christian leaders stated that Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates”.
On December 31, 2021, The Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches of Jerusalem published a statement on the current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land. In their statement, they truly admit that there is freedom of religion in Israel. However, they alerted on two serious assault: the first one is, since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priest and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with Holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidations of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives. These tactics are being used by such Israeli radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land. The concern of the heads of churches is that the known perpetrators are not legally punished.
Second, the radical Israeli groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence, often using underhand twisted and illegal dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their homes, dramatically decreasing the Christian presence and further disrupting the historic pilgrimage routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Their worry is if these radical groups illegally succeed in acquiring the Christian property at Jaffa gate, then the traditional routing to the local and international pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher will be directly affected.
The heads of churches are asking to deal with these challenges by radical Israeli groups in Jerusalem to both the Christian community and the rule of law, to ensure that no citizen or institution has to live under threat of violence or intimidation. They asked to have a constructive dialogue with all concerned authorities.
Some important remarks:
1: There are certain circles that enjoy promoting the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Open Doors USA has published a report that mentions the worst 50 countries for the persecution of the Christians in the world. I admit that certain countries in the world are persecuting Christians and/or other religions that do not belong to the religion of the majority and/or state. However, if the notion of the persecution of Christians becomes a political tool to pick on certain religion and not the other, then we lose objectivity. As I read the reports on persecution of Christians in some countries where Christian churches and their adherents enjoy freedom of religion, I wonder what is behind it. Is the aim to show that a certain religion is always evil versus other religions? Is the purpose of such report an apocalyptic one where some Christian circles believe in the persecution of Christians as a sign of the Great Tribulation that the book of Revelation is talking about? I wonder what is behind all of that. I propose to come in ask us churches and Christians in the Middle East and listen to our voices not to those fringe voices that aim to create confusion.
2: As we speak on freedom of religion in the world, it is very important to have one equal standard for all religions and countries. Reports tell us that there is persecution against Muslims in certain countries, such as the Rohingyas or Uighurs and their plights. There is a growing hatred of religion today. We see growing anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, Christianophobia, and xenophobia. The struggle for freedom of religion must not become a tool to oppress certain religions, or to treat religions unequally. If there is a violation of freedom of religion in any country, then the international community must address all those violations equally. We should not use the method of “pick and choose” to serve particular political and cultural agendas.
3: When the American president declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the state of Israel in December 2017, Middle Eastern Christians and others expressed a great deal of frustration and fear. They felt that they were betrayed. Many Christian voices asked if Jerusalem has now become exclusive to one religion and one state; if so, is there any future for us in the Middle East? Christian churches in the whole Middle East believe that Jerusalem should be a shared city for the three Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity and Islam–and foe the two peoples Palestinians and Israelis. They continue to believe that East Jerusalem can be the capitol of the State of Palestine and West Jerusalem the capitol of the State of Israel.
4: The Middle East is facing unprecedented spike in religiously-sanctioned extremism. No community in the Middle East is immune from extremism. We are seeing extremist attitudes among Muslims, Jews and Christians. In order to stand against the wave of extremism, we need-now more than ever – educated, engaged populace ready to take on the challenge of navigating between sometimes competing forces of religious commitment and good governance. In other words, we need to promote equal citizenship for all people in the Middle East. This citizenship needs the common protection of an agreed-upon democratic constitution that protects all persons equally. In societies informed by citizens enjoying equal rights and accepting equal responsibilities, all human communities will be able to flourish.
5: Some people think that Arab Christians are nothing but a minority in the Middle East. They prefer to think of us as dhimmi (subject to Sharia law) or as millet (an autonomous community allowed by Sharia). Others try to distinguish us from Muslims. Recently, we have seen the Knesset pass the so-called “Nation-State Law” which recognizes self-discrimination in historic Palestine for Jews alone. This was a serious offense for Christians living in Israel. It is understood that the right of the land is exclusive to Jews only and not to Christians, Muslims, Druze and others.
People who think like this forget that Arab Christians have been in the Middle East since Pentecost (Acts 2.11). Since the beginning of Christianity, Arab Christians have been an integral part of Arab society. We are neither dhimmi or millet, nor an expatriate religion; we are an integral part of the component of our societies. As an integral part of Arab society, the joys of the people are our joys; their struggles are our struggles. We have carried the gospel of love among our people for 2000 years. I am neither a stranger to the Middle East nor the Holy Land; I do not consider myself a minority. I am part of the fabric of Arab Palestinian society. No legislation or attempt to manipulate Christian identity can change that.
The challenge for Arab Christians today is to promote notions of equal citizenship and equal rights. When I attended the Marrakesh Conference in 2016 under the title of “The Rights of Religious Minorities under the Muslim Rule”, I publicly challenged this theme. I empathetically emphasized that our discussion in the Middle East must be on equal citizenship with equal rights and equal responsibilities that embrace diversity. I also emphasized that all religions in any state in the Middle East must have equal standing. We can understand that in Israel the majority of the population is Jews. We also understand that in all Arab countries the majority of the inhabitants are Muslim. But, in the name of freedom of religion and equal citizenship, we demand equal standing for all religions in the Middle East states. It is not acceptable to speak on equal citizenship for some, while those who belong to other religions or nationalities are less equal. I know this is a very challenging concept, but it is possible if we accept the principle of diversity within one state.
When the Palestinians were working one decade ago on their constitution, Patriarch Michel Sabbah of the Roman Catholic Church and me were asked by the churches to represent them. We emphatically demanded to stipulate in the constitution that all religions in Palestine are equal in rights and responsibilities. This is a model that gives every citizen equality in various societies. It is my conviction that these goods can only be enjoyed under democratic constitutions that respect human rights, including: gender justice, freedom of religion, freedom of conviction and conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Promoting these values for the good of our societies is an important role Arab Christians must play today in the Middle East. We must not be shy to be good citizens in our countries and to demand and promote the values that our respective countries must implement. Thus, while celebrating the notion of global citizenship, we must also commit to taking steps in support of local citizenship throughout the Middle East.
Christians seen by others
Many Muslim and Jewish pundits and columnists are nowadays writing about the future of Arab Christianity in the Middle East. I am intrigued by these arguments. I can summarize their ideas in the following:
1. The religious diversity that had long characterized the Middle East, a diversity that engendered cultural richness and allowed different religions and sects to coexist peacefully for centuries, is disappearing. This does not bode well for different components of Arab societies. In the light of major transformations in the Arab world today, I assert that respect for diversity is central to the development of stable pluralistic societies. Religious diversity is a key component in building and maintaining respect. Its absence will be dire not only for Arab Christians, but for Arab culture in general.
2. Dr. Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote on January 21, 2019: “The United Stated has been primarily concerned with the security of Israel in the Middle East. It has failed to consider that the falling numbers of indigenous Arab Christians, brought about in contemporary times by radicalism and the Israeli occupation, will not help the cause of stability or prosperity in this part of the world. The plight of Arab Christians can no longer to be neglected.” I would add that Western countries including the EU must continually address the issue of Christians in the whole Middle East.
3. The presence of Arab Christians in the Middle East is a balancing force. In the Israeli-Palestinian connect, the presence of Christians ensures that conflict is understood as national and political rather than religious. That is the difference between a solvable and an unsolvable situation. This is true throughout the region as well, where smaller communities are coming under immense extremist pressure.
4. As was true in the past, Arab and Middle Eastern Christians are strong proponents of developing modern civil societies that respect human rights, gender justice, freedom of region and expression. This is the reason that we Arab Palestinian Christians consider ourselves to be instruments of peace, brokers of justice, defender of human rights including gender justice, initiators of interfaith dialogue, ministers of reconciliation and apostles of love. Please, pray for us and for our ongoing mission and witness for our Lord and Savior in Jesus Christ. For what is the Holy Land without Palestinian Christians!
What to do?
Many would ask us how they can help Christians in the Middle East. Of course, I do not have a shopping list to give you. I am thankful that many churches are accompanying us in the world. I would ask you to reconsider your way of thinking. The future of Arab Christians is not war, and /or intifada, occupation, immigration, colonialism, extremism and radicalization. The future of Arab Christians is in justice and only justice. This means that the discussion should be the responsibility of the respective countries to bring peace based on justice to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The resolution of this conflict is key to the continuity of Christianity in the Middle East.
We must agree on this: solving the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict will diminish radicalization and extremism throughout the Middle East.
It is very significant also to create a theology of stewardship in our people. Their presence in their respective country is a witness. Churches are to assist in explaining the significance of our presence from a theological and political point of view. I admire my friend His Eminence Cardinal Saco of Iraq, who asked the Christians of Iraq to return to Nineveh, Irbil, Baghdad and the whole Iraq after the defeat of Isis. I admire how in Easter 2017 in the Nineveh plains, Easter Mass was held on the rubble of a church. This is a sign of the real resurrection. Churches must dare to facilitate their believers with the theology of steadfastness . We are an integral part of the Middle East. We have lived here since the Pentecost. We continue to have a witnessing role in our societies for the next two thousand years.
It is also very important to teach our people that combating extremists and their ideologies can only be done through our continuing educational ministries. One member of my church told me the more the other two religions become extremist, the more I will become an extremist. I told him: “No, my son. The more the others radicalize themselves, the more I will be a robust moderate accepting the rich tapestry of diversity. The more some use the methods of fear and extremism, the more I will use the method of love by accepting the otherness of the other. This is what love is about”. This is the reason we need to change our curricula in all the countries in the Middle East. We much create new models and teachings about the different faces of other religions and the richness of plurality. It is a must that the language used in the media and sermons be changed to accept the beautiful tapestry of diversity in the Middle East. It may take time to transform and change, but the Kairos for change is now!
This is the reason I use the word of Christ.
“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”. (Matthew 12:35)
May God bless you all.
His Eminence Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, MECC honorary president | abouna.org