The Civic State and Middle East Christianity (Part 1)

Interview with Jesuit Father Samir Khalil

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By Robert Cheaib

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 21, 2010 ( The role of the civic state in stressing values such as citizenship is key in keeping a place for Christians in the Middle East, says Jesuit Father Samir Khalil.

Christians in the Middle East are not victims of a systematic persecution, but they are subjected to a discrimination that is slowly extinguishing their presence in that region.
The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which is under way through Sunday, has a crucial responsibility in proposing a remedy to this phenomenon that the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Archbishop Louis Sako, called “the hemorrhage of Middle Eastern Christians.”
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Khalil, an expert in Islam and the history of the Middle East, gives an historical-religious picture of the present situation in that region, analyzing the most urgent challenges and suggesting some solutions.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.
ZENIT: Although it is not the only argument treated by the Synodal Fathers, we note, however, the great importance given to the geopolitical aspect of the Christian presence in the Middle East and in particular their relationship with Islam. Is this perhaps the most important and truly decisive aspect of their existence and permanence in the Middle East?

Father Khalil: There is no doubt that being a minority that does not exceed 10% of the population of the Middle East — whereas the vast majority is of the Muslim religion — our existence depends on the consent of this majority, above all because Islam is conceived as state and religion.

And as for more than 30 years now the majority of the Middle Eastern states have adopted an Islamist approach to the state reality, where religion decides all the particulars of daily social and political life.

It goes without saying that in these conditions our situation depends on the good will of Muslims and of the Islamic system. It’s not surprising therefore, that the issue has been given much importance, as you rightly noted.
ZENIT: You are of Egyptian origin, but you live in Lebanon, and being an expert of Islam you are often in direct contact with Muslims. How would you describe your relationship with them?
Father Khalil: I make immediately a distinction between Muslims on an individual level and Islamic systems, simply because with Muslims taken individually it is possible to establish a very beautiful dialogue and an intercultural and religious encounter.

Allow me to recount an anecdote to confirm what I say: Yesterday evening I was contacted on Skype by a Sunni Muslim of northern Lebanon, whom I met by chance on a plane a month ago.

Our conversation was centered on the Trinity and prayer. During the conversation he said to me: “Doctor, I would like to introduce you to my wife.” In the East, this gesture means that you are now part of the family.

Therefore, taken individually the Muslim — paradoxically — is much closer to us Eastern Christians than a European citizen. There is a religious sense that is shared and unites us.

But if we must speak of Islamism the discourse changes radically because it is a political project with a religious background.

As Eastern Christians, we would like to be treated simply as citizens with a constitution that transcends all religions. But in the greater part of cases in our countries the constitution is based essentially — if not totally — on Islamic law. And this is our problem. Apart from a few cases such as Lebanon, even the states that are constitutionally secular, as is the case of Tunisia, Syria and Turkey, they are culturally Islamic countries and favor citizens of Muslim religion.
ZENIT: The Islamic revival is a very complex phenomenon that has different origins: the currents of “ressourcement” such as Wahhabism; the antagonistic reading of the West presented in the mid 20th century by personalities such as Sayyid Qutb, founder of the Muslim Brothers; the different cultural prejudices which erroneously make the West and Christianity coincide; the recent American wars considered as crusades against Islam; Western partiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in your opinion, what is the pivot of this exponential development of political Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism?
Father Khalil: On one hand there is an Islamist wave, born at the beginning of the 70s.

Beginning in 1973, an economic phenomenon occurred following the war between Israel and the Arab countries, which saw the price of crude oil quadruple in a few months. Thus the oil countries found themselves unexpectedly with a mountain of petro-dollars.

Saudi Arabia, not knowing what to do with this immense fortune, used it to a great extent to build mosques and Islamic schools. Saudi Arabia financed the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and their plan was clear: to Islamize Egyptian society because it wasn’t sufficiently Muslim. Then it carried out the same operation in all the countries of the Middle East.

Thus at the beginning of the 80s, the Muslim Brothers became so numerous as to be considered a danger in Syria, and the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, subjugated them with force.
Indonesia, a couple of decades ago, was considered the paradise of religious liberty in a Muslim country; so many priests were converts from Islam. Now this is an impossible phenomenon.

The same in Nigeria: In the last decade the number of provinces that have implemented Islamic law has risen from four to 12. Europe, with about 5% of Muslims, already feels invaded and threatened.

Thus German chancellor Angela Merkel launched the alarm a few days ago announcing the failure of the model of integration, because it is precisely they who do not wish to integrate. And why don’t they integrate? Because they have a religious project, whereas the states where they live have religious-national projects.
ZENIT: In the face of this rather complex and critical situation, what has the Synod of Bishops done and what does it intend to do?
Father Khalil: We Christians of the East live in the midst of this rampant phenomenon, where Islam gains a footing day after day, to such a point that in the Arab League the first question is always this: How to address Islamism.

And the synod is giving particular attention to the relationship with Islam. Those seated in the synod are asking why people are leaving their lands, the cradle of Christianity.

In the Arab world there isn’t persecution against Christians, but there is discrimination. Christians are not treated in the same way as Muslims. Muslims are the normal citizens, recipients of the laws. Others, constitutionally, are citizens, but concretely the laws — in as much as they stem from the Muslim system — leave Christians in a disadvantaged condition.

Moreover, liberty of conscience is non-existent; there is only tolerance that consists in putting up with Christians staying in Muslim land but with so many limits. It’s not possible, however, to leave Islam for another religion. All these situations have been in recent days the focus of attention of the synodal fathers.
ZENIT: The diagnosis you have given touches on different causes of suffering for Christians of the East, but the question is: Is there a way out, or are the proposals and resolutions only a utopia and will they remain only a reserved prognosis?
Father Khalil: There is only one way out, and that is to point to certain shared concepts, such as that of “citizenship” or of “Arab membership,” both mainly recognized by Muslims.

Movements that promoted these values at the beginning of the 20th century had so much success because they carried with them a breath of novelty that invited coming out of the tribal view; but lately this view has been set aside and replaced by the concept of the Umma, the Islamic nation.

During Nasser’s presidency, up to the mid 70s, the concept was the Umma al-Arabiyya [the Arab nation], but from the mid 70s and after the concept prevailed of the Umma al-Islamiyya [the Islamic nation], which does not leave room for non-Muslims.

The solution is to try to propose to Muslims and Christians a modern concept of state, not only at the political level, but also at the cultural level.
ZENIT: The proposal is concrete but somewhat unrealizable in the cultural scene of the East. How can the feasible be made factual?
Father Khalil: Precisely here the proposal of the synod for the Middle East comes in: It is not about devising a Christian project, and much less so a project of Christians or for Christians, because in this way we reflect our being a minority seeking to be protected.

We are not seeking protection for ourselves, but what we say reflects the word also of so many Muslims who recognize, as we do, that the Arab nation is not well because it suffers from a breakdown in the exercise of democracy, in the distribution of riches and in the establishment of social justice and of a state of law, in the reform of the health system.

Islam is very sensitive to these dimensions. Liberty of conscience and of expression is desired by so many, and this not because people want to distance themselves from Islam, but because they want to live Islam in a more personal way.

In the Islamic world there is a sense of modernity and liberty that does not dare to manifest itself. A Christian can write criticizing his patriarch or bishop, whereas it is difficult for a Muslim to do so. Not because someone in particular prohibits him, but because the culture itself impedes him. The imam are the ulema [the learned] and their learning is not disputed.

And I confirm that with the above-mentioned proposals it is not about rendering Muslims less Muslims or Christians less Christians but of saying that faith is a personal issue even if it has its social dimension, and each one must live his faith as he is inspired by God.
 [Translated by ZENIT]

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