Christianity at the Crossroads

Islamic Studies Professor on the Reality of Christianity in the Mideast

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ROME, MAY 4, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil Samir SJ, professor of History of Arab Culture and Islamic Studies, and an expert in interreligious dialogue in Rome and Beirut.

Q: I want to give an understanding of the situation of Christians in the Middle East. What kind of the numbers are we talking about? And what would be the different experiences that Christians are undergoing in the different countries in the Middle East.

Father Samir: It’s difficult to be exact about numbers. I would say about 16 million. The greatest number is in Egypt, around 8 million to 10 million. The Patriarchate says much more but the government says much less. In Lebanon, we have the greatest proportion of Christians – the ratio of Christians to the general population, even if it is small in number, is around 2 million. Then we have Christians in Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq; this is the area where there exist the native Christians. The great numbers of Christians outside of Egypt are in Arabia in fact; these are Filipinos, Sri Lankan, and Indians…

Q: …foreign workers coming in

Father Samir: …foreign workers who are imported and they are suffering a lot because of the situation in these countries.  In Egypt, the situation is difficult but there is no persecution, we would say discrimination. And then we have the wartorn areas like Iraq and for over 60 years in Palestine. These two situations make it very difficult for Christians. In Palestine, the Christians have lost hope and they leave the country if they can. We find the same situation, more or less in Iraq. The Christians are migrating from their area to the north, the Kurdish north of Iraq.

Q: Let us leave the question of war to the side for a moment.  How would we grade, if you will, when we are talking about discrimination and when it is an outright persecution?

Father Samir: War is the worst situation and the discrimination in Egypt is the second level. For example, the whole day and during the whole year, you are bombarded with Islamic propaganda starting at five in the morning. They start their preaching using megaphones and this is five times a day. Then you have the radio and television; often your neighbours play these programmes at a high volume. You cannot complain because your neighbour will justify by saying that its God’s word. The television and film are also inundated with Islamic propaganda. In the schools, the boys and girls start their day with Islamic teaching. It starts when the students are outside they are again inundated by Islamic propaganda; it is called Khutbah. When there is a transition from one teacher to the next the same ritual is again repeated. In terms of employment when one is looking for work particularly in the public sector, you are asked for your name, which is normal, but in Egypt, you are asked your name; this is the system, and through your name particularly in Egypt your name, your father’s name and your grandfather’s name and if there is no mention of Mohammed in your series of names then you are known to be a Christian.

Q: And in fact, in your ID card religion is mentioned.

Father Samir: Exactly, but they will not ask for your ID card, just your name, but then you will know that you have been classified and it could be a reason for a refusal of a job and things like that. You feel that you are treated differently. The atmosphere is the Islamizing of society. And during Ramadan the whole running of the system is altered. The hours are changed. The transit system stops running from 5pm until 8am; life is dependent on one’s religion and because it is Islamic in nature, being a Christian one feels not being counted or one feels marginalized. These are simple things but you also find discrimination in the university. A Christian cannot be a gynaecologist, or teach Arabic because their reasoning is that being Christian, how can one teach Arabic when it is based on the Koran and how can you teach the Koran if one is not a Muslim.

Q: …and a gynaecologist obviously because as a Christian how can you be looking at a Muslim woman ...

Father Samir: Yes, or if a Christian girl is outside without wearing a veil, the criticism will be so strong that in the end it is better to acquiesce. There is this pressure. In the cities this is not a problem but in the small villages this is more apparent.

Q: Can we say that this is a mirror reflecting across many of the countries in the Middle East?

Father Samir: No, not so much, obviously in the Arabic peninsula this is reflected. I am speaking of these countries where Christianity existed before Islam like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine where native Christians have always existed; Egypt is the worse. On the other end you will find Lebanon, which is not a Muslim country. It is an Arab country. It is the only Arab country, which is not Muslim but a religious one where Christians and Muslims are equal; that means that we recognize that religion is an essential part of society, the system and the state, so that in the Lebanese parliament you will find 64 Christians and 64 Muslims, Christians from different denominations and Muslims from their three or more denominations.

Q: So this, in fact would be the model of what an ideal situation of living together would be…

Father Samir: …and in between you have countries like Syria and what was once Iraq which pretends to be secular and under the political party, the BAATH party which is still the situation still in Syria. The state is aware of your religion but you are free and politics does not change. The president of Syria is certainly a Muslim but the system is secular.

Q: Although there is no freedom of religion only the freedom to worship.

Father Samir: Yes, but it is not so bad. A Muslim can convert but it is not easy because of family and social pressure and not because there is a law or it is entrenched in the state constitution; that is the difference. In Egypt you will be punished because of the Shari’a law which is a basis of Egyptian constitution. The same situation in Syria exists in Jordan. The king and the kingdom is open minded especially towards the Christians and actually welcomes, with great esteem, the Christians. The Christians, most of them of the Latin are from Arab tribes. So they cannot say that they are westerners. They speak like the Bedouins; they are after all Arabs.

Q: They are from the roots of the country.

Father Samir: Yes, like Bishop Twal the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Bishop of Algiers, both belong to Arab and Jordanian tribes. In Saudi Arabia, you cannot do anything. You cannot even pray.

Q: I want to come back to question now of the emigration of Christians as a consequence of this horizon of discrimination to outright persecution. What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Father Samir: This is difficult to say. We have to take it by country, but what is sure is that the migration is growing and the number of Christians annually is dwindling everywhere. I just heard from the Bishop of Tier, Lebanon, where there is no discrimination and he said: “When I was a child in the 50s in Tier, there were 10,000 inhabitants, 5000 Christians and 5000 Muslims. Today 3000 are Christians of the 80,000.

Q: Here we must say then that economics is playing a role because you say Lebanon is not under discrimination. 

Father Samir: Absolutely; there is no discrimination and let me emphasize that the dwindling number is primarily due not always to religious reasons; my family emigrated to the US and Canada. My brothers are still there and nobody constrained them from migrating, they simply and I, feel that it is not anymore our country. The atmosphere is changing; it’s a psychological thing. You feel that there is no freedom as we used to have before. The Christians are more amenable to freedom than Muslims are; they do not support it. So, if for cultural, political and social reasons the Christians have the possibility of migrating, they will migrate.  They may also have families who migrated in the 19thcentury or the beginning of the 20th century or they speak fluently the western languages. My family at home spoke French fluently and a little English so the adaptation and enculturation to the US was not so difficult. In other countries, the reason could be religious.

Q: What you’re saying is extremely pessimistic; the trend is growing. Is it irreversible?

Father Samir: If we leave it to take a natural course then it is irreversible because this situation will not change in twenty years. Democracy suddenly will not come from heaven. You need to build a generation of freedom-loving people and this is an important element, freedom. This Islamic movement, which tries to Islamize, the societies will grow and will not stop within our lifetime.  So it will grow and if it comes to a certain point, we have seen this in Turkey, how the proportion of Christians at the beginning of the 20th century was over 20% to 24 %. The number today is 0, 2% a hundred times less as a proportion to a century ago, because when you reach a certain point, 1 % or 2 % there is a movement…

Q: It feeds on itself.

Father Samir: Yes, yes. That is why it is important to stop it now and maybe propose to those who have left to come back. It is difficult.

Q: It’s impossible. I mean in a certain way, at the same time as we are seeing this natural, if you will, tendency to leave the country, it is being further provoked by the reality of violence, the war in Iraq, by the situation in Palestine, which is provoking a further radicalization among Muslims and consequently a further pressure on Christians?

Father Samir: Yes, yes, but I will give an example to show that it could be stopped. Let me show Lebanon as an example. I remember that Hezbollah, about 10 to 15 years ago, wanted an Islamic society based on the model of Iran. They even said that they are more dependent on Iran than from Lebanon. The great figure of the Shia Muslim in Lebanon at that time was Imam Chamseddine (Imam Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad Din) who died three years ago. Chamseddine in his biography which he dictated during the last week of his life said; “I was convinced that an Islamic society was ideal but now after 10 to 15 years I must confess that the society as it is now, in Lebanon, is better because Christians bring a contribution;” another approach to us living together, and Hezbollah for some other reason said the same, they do not want an Islamic society. So here is my point: is it possible to stop this trend in the Arab world and to show to the Muslims that we, the Christians, are a chance for you to move towards a more open society. If you want, we will work together.

Q: But that is the question: do they want? There is within the Muslim society a new term that has surfaced which is “Islamist”. What is a difference between a Muslim and an “Islamist” and how does this play into what we are just talking about?

Father Samir: This word was unknown twenty years ago. In Arabic we distinguish very clearly, between: Muslim” that means Muslim and “Islami” which is a neologism because the reality is new. “Islami” plural “Islamiun” means those who have the intention of Islamizing society which is also connected to Salafism ; Salaf [Arabic “predecessor” or “forefather”] being the ancestors: We want to go back to the ancestors; that means to early Islam; but early Islam nobody knows how it was, what they wore… but we can predict.

Q: There is even an external appearance as indicated by the “Islamiun” for both men and women, isn’t?

Father Samir: Yes, They say the prophet certainly had a beard… So they wear a beard. They all wear a beard and when the beard is not trimmed the better it is. The more Islamic it is in their mind. They also do not wear trousers but wear the long white robe. You also recognize them with their teeth. They chew a root from a tree, the miswak, because they believe that the prophet was using this to clean his teeth. He certainly did not have the Japanese made toothpick. He just used what he could find and for the women the veil. In Lebanon where there are different Muslim denominations, you can see which denomination these Muslim adhere to. With some practice, you will recognize these variations whether one adheres to Shia, Sunni or Alawites. In fact it is a political sign not a religious sign that indicates ones political affiliation and to a specific group, for example if you are “Hezbollah” you wear yellow and if you are from Hariri you wear blue etc., You are not wearing these colours for religious choices but political reason. That is why I say to the European and the West, particularly about Lebanon, that it is true that every one has the freedom of religion but it is more political and not religious because religion and politics are so convoluted in the subconsciousness of the Muslims.

Q: But even in the religious field the Muslim is not free to worship?

Father Samir: The reality, especially amongst these Islamist, is their ideal and vision: We respect people but we push everyone to be a good Muslim. A good Muslim must pray five times a day and if you are working during prayer time, you will be punished so that you will learn to be a good Muslim. A religious police comes and closes the shop. If you are eating during the time of Ramadan, you will be punished, put in prison and beaten, so that you learn to be a good Muslim, it is for your own good. But they cannot understand freedom, that I am free to do something, which you consider bad, but in itself is not bad, it’s neutral. Here we have two visions of society. The ideal society for them is from God. We have to learn the inner freedom and here again, I think, we Christians, we have no merit. This is more in our tradition whether we learn that from the Gospel or from our Western Christian friends. And the fact is that it is an essential point.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps," a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net: www.WhereGodWeeps.org and www.acn-intl.org