The Civic State and Middle East Christianity (Part 2)

Interview with Jesuit Father Samir Khalil

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By Robert Cheaib

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 22, 2010 ( The exodus of Christians from the Middle East is a dilemma, but there is also a positive side if the people keep their faith strong, says Jesuit Father Samir Khalil.

ZENIT spoke with Father Khalil, an expert in Islam and the history of the Middle East, about several issues being discussed in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which is underway through Sunday in Rome.

Part 1 of this interview was published Thursday.
ZENIT: The proposal of «positive secularism» cannot be successful in the Islamic ambit because secularism — ‘elmaniyya in Arabic — sounds like a distancing from and an abandonment of God in favor of worldliness. Do you think the other concept proposed, namely, the «civic state» will be more fortunate, or will the East choose the Islamist proposal whose slogan is «al-islam huwa l-hall,» [Islam is the solution/answer], disappointed as it is by the religious, moral and identity failure of the West?
Father Khalil: The West, to tell the truth, has gone too far, to the point of dissolving the roots of its own identity. Let’s recall the Pope’s address at Regensburg on 2006 where the criticism was essentially of Western culture that has gone beyond the Enlightenment to identify culture with materialism.
Your question refers to the force of fundamental Islam. The reasoning of the fundamentalists is the following: The West has a plan of civilization, but its model is a model of corruption: sexual perversion and libertinage, adultery, the dissolution of the family, abortion. It’s an unacceptable plan for Islam which sees it as corrupt and far from God.

The modernity preached by the West is now a synonym of atheism and immorality. For them, Christianity, identified in turn with the West, is finished. Similarly, Marxism and Socialism have failed in the eyes of all.

The solution is Islam, and the proof is that when in the past we implemented Islam to the letter, we conquered the whole of the Mediterranean. This was Ghaddafi’s reasoning when he visited Italy recently: «In 2050 Europe will be Muslim in the majority.» His forecast will happen if the attitude of Christians doesn’t change.
ZENIT: So many Eastern Christians are tired of exhortations to remain in their land, above all because these exhortations come from those who live comfortably in their rich and free West. The eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the first persecution of Christians, which scattered the community (with the exception of the Apostles). This negative event was revealed subsequently as a kairos that allowed Christians to spread the Gospel everywhere. Don’t you think that the present situation, which is causing the exodus and flight of Christians, can be a sign of the times?

Father Khalil: So many people in the Middle East say to me: «To stay here is ever more difficult. If it’s true now for us, we don’t know how it will be for our children.»

I answer with three points: In the first place, no one can oblige anyone to stay. Every family has the right to decide where and how it will live. It’s not up to us because we are priests to tell them that they should stay.

However, I add a second point: If at the personal level, perhaps it is best for one to emigrate to Canada, Australia or France, it isn’t so at the community and general level. If all did so, this region would soon find itself without Christians; in fact, in the land of the birth of Christianity there would no longer be any Christians. Hence we have a great vocation and responsibility.
The third point: If we all find ourselves in the land of diaspora, can we still maintain our Eastern identity? It is difficult to maintain the culture and tradition of origin more than two or three generations.

And this, again, is not a personal problem but a problem at the level of the universal Church: If an Eastern tradition disappears, this constitutes a great loss for the whole Church. John Paul II said that the Church has two lungs, the Eastern Church and the Western Church. If one of these realities was to be lacking, the Church would be reduced to only one lung and it would lack breath.
Hence, I say to Christians: Whether you emigrate or stay isn’t the real question; the essential thing is to keep your faith. Propose the faith to your children; and if you see wherever you go that many Christians no longer have faith, transmit it to them.
What you say from the book of the Acts is that the mission was born from an unexpected difficult event, and that it was revealed as a chance for the faith itself. But this happened with one condition: They had the fire of the faith in their heart. If we, instead, start by having at heart the desire for money, our immigration will contribute nothing.

What is essential is that this fire of the Gospel remain in the heart. If one stays in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, one must maintain this fire to transmit it to the brethren of Islam. If one goes to America or other countries, one must transmit it to one’s new fellow citizens.
ZENIT: Is it enough to give advice and pastoral guidelines to Christians of the East to make them stay in the East? Don’t you think, rather, that it is necessary to support them economically, knowing that in Lebanon, for example, the Shi’ites were strongly supported economically by Iran and the Sunnis by the Gulf countries, and this fact allowed them to improve their social and political condition?
Father Khalil: I think our problem in the Middle East is not financial.

Let’s take the case of Lebanon. In the country we have billionaires in every quarter of Beirut. There are so many works of charity in Lebanon launched by Christians. The aid that comes from abroad, to which you referred, comes as part of a political propaganda that the Church cannot do because it isn’t a nation. And there is no Christian nation to do it.

Immigrants certainly can help, and we know that many immigrants contribute to the support of their relatives. This help can be improved, but this is not what solves the problem.

There is a need to project, to offer clear and secure projects, so that the money that is requested from Christian benefactors has a traceable route, and it is not stolen along its route to concrete works. And in this our clergy does not give a good example of affability given their not very evangelical attachment to appearance and riches.

Hence, the invitation to conversion resounds again, to purification of our lives to make it more consonant with the Gospel.
ZENIT: The synod was covered in the mainstream by only two Mideast television networks (both Lebanese). It is also lamentable that the Italian media gave it scarce coverage. To what is this fact due? To the prejudice that what the bishops will say will remain only ink on paper? To indifference to what the Church lives and says? To lack of interest in the Middle East?
Father Khalil: I wonder perhaps if the fact is simply due to the presence of few Arab journalists to follow the news in Rome. Or perhaps they have asked themselves: What can a bishop do to change the situation in Iraq, in Palestine or in Lebanon?

Catholics are a small minority in Egypt, therefore the Copts and Muslims are not interested. The only ones who can follow the synod whether out of interest or capacity are journalists of Lebanon.
As regards Western newspapers, I believe they start from a concept of consumerism. They do not make a product if they do not know if it will sell and will make them earn money.

The headlines unfortunately do not value the importance of the arguments and events in themselves but are conditioned by the audience. A scandal or sexual scoop sells much more than a synod that seeks its path slowly.
At times the fault is ours. People are not informed either on the ev
ents or on their meaning and importance.

I think that in this area Lebanon does so much: through Zenit, Tele Lumiere and LBC. This media contribution gives Lebanon its avant-garde post for all Christians in the Middle East.
ZENIT: To conclude, in your opinion what are the attitudes that make the investment of human and economic resources in this synod fruitful?
Father Khalil: I think that the principal attitude that the participants must assume is sincerity, and a critical sense to specify with frankness and clarity what goes, what doesn’t go, and what can be improved.
In regard to the attitude that I desire for Christians of the East, I think they must have a priori a favorable outlook. At the bottom, so many positive resources are invested in the synod: There are thousands of hours of work and effort that commit a great number of persons intent on doing their best.

Because of this I would say that the corresponding attitude of Christians must be seriousness. It’s a question of our future, not of the future of bishops, but of the future of several million Christians and not only of Catholics.
In his intervention Mohammad Sammak confirmed the role that Christians played in forming the identity of the Middle East, stating that without them our society would not be what is it. Christians have played a fundamental role in past and recent history, enriching Arab society culturally, sociologically, politically and spiritually.

If this role is not to be a memory of the past but a reality of the present, Christians — bishops and faithful — must foster communion — not only among themselves but also with others, with the Muslims. And they must also live the mission, not in the sense of dull proselytism, but they must live the essence of the Gospel which is a proclamation, beautiful news of which we, modestly, are the heralds.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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