Christians in Middle East much more than a numbers game

October 7, 2010

Franciscan Father David Jaeger is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most authoritative experts on the Middle East. Until a few weeks ago, he was the delegate of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in Rome. A convert from Judaism who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1986, he is  a noted canon lawyer. He was part of the Vatican team that negotiated diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994 and is part of the Vatican team that is still ironing out the final subsidiary details of that accord. He spoke to Reuters and Reuters Television about the upcoming Mideast synod in the atrium of Antonianum University in Rome. Here is a transcript of parts of the conversation.

jaegerWhat do you expect from the synod?

I think it is intended to be a very significant step forward in the development of the witness of the Church in the Middle East.  Synods are convened not simply, or not necessarily, in response to a current affairs concerns but as a moment for the Church to grow, in faithfulness and in effectiveness of  witness.

(Photo: Fr. David Jaeger in a screengrab from a Reuters Television interview in Rome, 6 Oct 2010)

The moment in the  Middle East is particularly appropriate for this further development. There is hope for new ecumenical relations. There is a growth of the Church itself in the Middle East, in awareness of fundamental values of Vatican II, such as religious freedom and the civic responsibility of Christians. I don’t think people in the West appreciate to what extent the thematics of the synod are totally new to so much of the Church in the Middle East. Religious freedom some decades ago was not even a known concept. It had never been experienced in 13 centuries. It had always been presupposed that it could not be attained,  yet now it is being spoken of in the preparatory documents of the synod as a serious subject, not as something already existing of course, but as  something realistically to be looked forward to.

The whole discussion of the civic duty of the Christian, the Christian as citizen, the Christian communities as actors in the national lives of the countries where they live, this is totally new for the region as a whole. For 13 centuries, Christians in the Middle East had been made to live strictly in kinds of socio-political ghettos, not a physical ones necessarily, but socio-political and legal ones,  and it was a given that general society was something else, in which as Christians they had no part. Maybe individuals did manage to insert themselves into politics in different countries, of course,  but that the idea that as a Christian, as a Christian community, you had to participate in the formation of a national culture, in the development of the national political culture too,  these are all new insights in that region. These are all (examples) of Vatican II coming finally to fruition in that region too, so it is a very exiting moment for the Church.

There is great concern about a continuing exodus of Christians from the region. What can be done about that?

maronite cathedralLet us say two things to that. One thing is that Christians are not an endangered animal species, nor a vegetable one either.  Christians are not some ethnic minority like the Yamomani in the Amazon forests of Brazil or something like that. To speak of Christians is not to speak of a given quantity. The Church is a community of faith in a state of mission.

(Photo: Maronite Cathedral of St. George (L)  and Al-Amine mosque (R) in downtown Beirut, April 5, 2010/Jamal Saidi)

You cannot think of recruiting more Yanomami. They are a given quantity. When they die out, they die out. But this is not the case of  Christians. The Church is a community of faith in a state of mission. Some people move from one region to another. Some people leave the faith, other people come to the faith from all over the world.

Second, and much more importantly perhaps in this particular context, the situation of Christians cannot be divorced from that of the countries where they live.  In other words, we cannot simply say there is a problem of emigration of Christians from a given area and the Middle East is by no means uniform in this respect at all.  So what are we going to do about it? We always say that and we always try to do a great many things with a great deal of sacrifice — provide some housing in some areas, especially in the Middle East, try to increase the availability of jobs in certain areas, but whatever the Church as such can do, and does and will do, while being necessary as well as beneficial, is a drop in a bucket.

Essentially, Christians leave because the countries where they find themselves, their native countries, do not offer conditions of security and possibilities for prosperity, opportunities for their families, for various reasons.  Therefore, the only overall solution would be the development of their home countries, within the region as a whole. In other words, if we speak of the Holy Land, and specifically of the occupied Palestinian territories, where we do know, to be quite concrete about it, in recent years there has been a very considerable emigration of Christians, say, from the Bethlehem area.

bethlehem nativityThere is nothing ultimately we can do about this as Church, however much we spend on works of social solidarity or housing or jobs or whatever, because they leave because they live in a very difficult situation, as their Muslim neighbours do, under conditions of belligerent occupation which have lasted much more than the lifetime of so many of them, having been in place since 1967.

(Photo: A Greek Orthodox priest sweeps in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, 29 Dec 2009/Ammar Awad)

This is an objective fact. It has nothing to do the rights or wrongs of the conflicts in the area, about who attacked first and who responded and who attacked again and who responded. It has nothing to do with that. The objective fact is that the resulting situation for the people of that area is this, whoever is responsible or not for it. Under those conditions, a family — to say it rather provocatively — that can emigrate to the free world and doesn’t do so, may not be responsible at all towards itself and the children.

It is often easier for Christians to go than for Muslims because they will find it easier to integrate in the Western world. They often already have a great number of families, of extended family members, settled in the U.S. or Canada or Australia and so on. The Palestinians are very family oriented, extended family oriented, in the sense of a great generosity and warmth towards their kin. They will receive them well and help them integrate. Nothing can change that except peace. This is why I believe that the greatest charity that is required, with regard to the Christians in the Holy Land and for the Middle East in general, is peace.

It is for Catholics everywhere in the free world to press their respective governments to be truly pro-active in assisting the coming about of peace and security in the Holy Land. This is the only remedy and it is not within our power as Church to create.  It is within our power to encourage, to call for, but there is nothing we can ultimately do unless the situation becomes stabilised for everyone in the land.

Some say the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its ramifications on the conflict is the greatest obstacle to Christians leading a normal life in the region.

You should edit your question. It is the obstacle to leading a normal life. It doesn’t matter if these are Christians or Muslims or atheists. Of course, who of us in the free world, who of us as a free citizen in a free country, could conceive of himself living without civil and political rights, when you are never secure in your person, in your home, in your property and your papers. When you are always subject to arbitrary stopping, detention, arrest and so on. This is not a criticism of the occupying power.  It is a description of what the situation of belligerent occupation is in this case. It’s not a criticism of anyone at all, it’s an objective situation. And this situation makes it impossible for anyone to live anything like what we in the West or we free citizens of our own countries could ever consider a normal life.

bethlehem wallIt is so different from what any of us has ever experienced that I cannot even imagine myself living that kind of life, let alone for a lifetime, let alone stably,  without prospects and without ever changing .We just don’t have enough resources mentally to picture that. This is why — and his has nothing to do with whether you are Christian or Muslim or whatever — it is a human question.

(Photo: A Palestinian at the Israeli barrier in Bethlehem, 9 Nov 2009/Darren Whiteside)

In addition, of course, in the occupied Palestinians territories, Christians are a minority within the Palestinian population itself, which brings with it further problems. But it is subordinate to the situation overall of those people.

But many say the situation is that the land of Jesus will have fewer and fewer Christians.

Well, we are not engaged in a head counting exercise. This is why at the beginning of our conversation I expressed very serious doubts about the usefulness of a numbers game. We are not engaged, we as Christians, either in the Middle East or in Europe or anywhere else, we are not engaged in competition, with anyone else, with Protestants, with Muslims, with Jews, whoever.  It’s not like Pepsi and Coke. It is something that is totally different.

It’s not that we should say we are alarmed because there won’t be Christians or there won’t be Muslims or anything. We should say that yes,  in certain areas of the world, and specifically in the Middle East, progressively fewer persons professing the Christian faith remain in their native countries.

This is a source of concern, of course, because Christianity is not a numbers game.  But if  the faith it to be witnessed, someone has to do it and if this witness is to be effective, there has to be a critical mass of witnesses and so on and so forth.  One of the situations is in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories under occupation. This is not fundamentally due to any specifically Christian problem and we could never, ever think of resolving it as a Christian problem among ourselves. It is radically dependent on the general context in which Christians and all others live. The only way to really respond to it is to change that context, for everyone.

This is true if you think also of other situations. You think of Iraq. There has never been an exodus of Christians from the Middle East that I know of comparable to that from Iraq in the post-2003 period, except perhaps from Syria-Lebanon in the 1860s after the events everyone knows of.

iraq christiansBut again, yes, of course, Christians are subject in Iraq and have been subject in Iraq since 2003 to an unprecedented degree of harassment, persecutions, and killings in many cases — something on a scale of a kind that had never existed in their country before.

(Photo: Iraqi Christians with olive branches protest against  violence against their community in Basra, 2 March 2010/Atef Hassan)

But the solution to that cannot be by concentrating on Christians. That won’t lead us anywhere. The solution is in the general destiny of Iraq. The suffering of Christians are only a symptom of Iraq precipitating into a state of theocratic, Islamist autocracy rather than evolving towards a secularised democracy. It had been been secularised before 2003 but it wasn’t democratic.

So the hope, of every reasonable person of good faith, had been that it would keep the gains of secularism while progressing towards democracy. What happened is that a certain kind of democracy has happened, a very limited one indeed, but at the expense of losing the gains of secularism. You cannot solve, in any stable way, the fundamental problems facing Iraq, unless the society as a whole progresses further towards a secular democracy.

What about the situation in Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot profess their faith in public?

The situation in Saudi Arabia results from the fact that there had not been any Christians there at all and that the presence of any Christians there is very recent in historical terms.  First, there are diplomats and foreign engineers, and so on, and then there are masses of cheap foreign labour from other countries, mostly in Asia. So it’s not as if there has been a persecution of a resident, deeply rooted Christian community.  The phenomenon of the presence of Christians is a  a very recent one, challenging therefore the mono-religious history and self-perception of Saudi Arabia, which as a state is also a fairly recent state. This is a huge problem but it is not new.

It’s been there for many decades, in part because many countries of Christian tradition for many decades now have cultivated  to an extreme decree their commercial and defence ties with the kingdom (and) studiously  avoided attending to it.

baghdad church bombI have the impression that when we speak of religious freedom or security for Christians in Muslim lands,  in the West the discourse tends to be entirely instrumental.  At times nothing is said about it when it not convenient. When it is convenient, the subject is taken up and used in a disproportionate and not historical way for the purpose of fomenting the  dreaded clash of civilisations,  making it be where it does not exist or further stoking the fires when they are there.

(Photo: Damage from a car bomb outside a Baghdad church, July 13, 2009/Saad Shalash)

So this is a very delicate subject. I always want to be sure that people who speak of it and show concern do so for genuine reasons, not in the service of another agenda. I find it very, very curious when the concern from some Western sources for Christians in Saudi Arabia comes from quarters which before, say 10, 11 or 12 years ago, would have done anything simply to avoid thinking of the subject.

No-one can force societies into higher stages of cultural evolution than they can themselves reach on their own, with help. We’ve seen this in the Middle East, just in the last decade or so. We’ve seen this. You cannot force democracy. Maybe you can force elections but elections are not democracy. Elections without the rest of what makes for democracy are actually extremely dangerous, as we have seen repeatedly in Iraq, in Turkey.

In Egypt the West coerced the Egyptian government to make it easier for opposition candidates to be elected to parliament only to find the parliament with many, many more Islamists, Islamic fundamentalists, Muslim Brethren representatives than ever before. This is not democracy. Pressing countries to hold elections only so that anti-democratic forces can be elected is not democracy.

Some say there is a question of reciprocity with  Saudi Arabia, that we should not treat Muslims well here if Christians are not treated well there

Saudi Arabia will develop towards a more open society, or a less closed society, at its own pace, in its own way, under pressure of its own people, women especially. We see many signs of that within that changeless monolith as it appears on the outside. We see many signs of developments there and one of them is the astonishing, unprecedented and to the uninitiated unexpected visit of the king of Saudi Arabia to the sovereign pontiff.  (NB: Jaeger was referring to the visit by Saudi King Abdullah to Pope Benedict in 2007)

doha-church1It cannot be insignificant, even in regards to Saudi Arabia, that  enormous advances have been made already in the countries of the Arabian rim, from Kuwait to Oman, in terms of  relations with the Holy See, the possibility of  public worship for Christians and so on. It’s not as if it’s a hopeless scenario. Not at all. On the contrary, it shows signs of evolution that would not have been imaginable.

(Photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

Do you fear that Israel may become the whipping boy at the synod?

I reject this whole way of looking at the synod. The synod is not there to take positions on any political questions, for or against any country. The Church is not there for that in the first place, least of all the Holy See. The Holy See and the assemblies it convenes, such as the synod, and the pronouncements of the pope do not intervene, by their very nature, in temporal disputes between nations and states. They give moral judgments on the moral dimensions of temporal issues, in the name of God, in the name of God’s moral law, in the name of humanity.

Absolutely, inevitably, when the Holy Father, or any other truly authoritative expression of the Church speak out on moral judgment and human affairs, there is always someone whom it secretly or openly pleases and there is always someone it displeases. Because obviously, the result will be that someone is said to have been doing good and someone else will be said not to have been doing good.  But this is absolutely indifferent.

The judgments are rendered, the assessments are voiced, objectively, without prejudice, without regards to persons and without regards to nations. So it is profoundly distorted to say that the synod could speak in favour of one country or against one country. That is not the perspective at all.

But before you used the term belligerent occupation.

Belligerent occupation is a term of international law. It means that there has been a war and, at the end of fighting, one country is found to be in occupation of somebody else’s territory pending a peace treaty. This is what it means, pending a peace treaty. Now, the peace treaty is still pending to end this situation. Now, there can be debate whether the occupying power has done all it could have done to bring about this peace treaty,  whether the absence of the peace treaty is due to the insufficient will on this part or that part.

hebron occupationThese are political judgments. They can become moral judgments, but they are essentially political judgments. It depends on how you assess the realities in the area. There can be debate over the extent to which the occupying power has abided by the extensive body of international law that governs situations of belligerent occupation.

(Photo: Palestinian children walk past Israeli soldier  in the West Bank city of Hebron June 5, 2007/Yonathan Weitzman)

This is a debate. It is a political debate, it’s a legal debate and it can also be a moral debate. If there have been — and there have been — apparent criticisms by various levels of the Church of this or that aspect of this situation, of the  occupying power’s handling of its responsibilities, they have not been and they are not in order to do harm to the occupying power in itself, to diminish it, to discredit it, to de-legitimate it.  This is never the purpose of the Church.
If there is such criticism, it is meant to address the situation. They are not cards being played …  Whenever the Church voices a criticism of anyone it is not a card being played in an adversarial relationship. I think this is fundamental for people to understand if they really want to report truly what the Church is and does.

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[…] Christians in Middle East much more than a numbers game […]

Posted by CIPEI » Christian Decline in the Holy Land and the Mid-East Arab States | Report as abusive

If one were to put all the most eloquent speakers for the major – and even the minor religions in the same room and had them explain to each other whet they thought the most important part of their religious traditions were/are or should be, they would most likely not be able to agree on anything, not even the smallest details. Perhaps Judaism, Christianity and Islam could agree on some common bible stories but they would not agree on the meaning.

And yet all of them would claim they spoke the truth. They cannot afford to believe that they speak the truth and all others also speak truth because none of them really believe that. They may as well be talking about their own DNA.

And all of the religions throughout history and even in the present day, tend to act like dictatorships. They all tend to want supreme authorities of some sort or another and that is not how democracies function. Religions also have a very strange way of claiming they speak definitive truths until they change their minds and claim another truth is now the definitive truth. Their followers are expected to reeducate themselves with the appropriate theological updates.

I am not sure anymore whether religion offers a single salutary benefit to the societies it is frequently imposed on, and if one disagrees with their programs or theologies one is likely to be cast out anyway to live in the secular world.

It might be all together better to read the literature of them all and suffer the intellectual and emotional meltdown in the peace and quiet of one’s own library rather than take up a lot of space and exert a lot of energy acting it out in the streets. It is going to be impossible to live in a world where all the religions expect all believers and non-believers to bend the knee and to refrain from offensive comments. They can all get very touchy on the issue of what is offensive. One has to be a well-practiced hypocrite to carry that off successfully.

The major religions of the world were established in times when they served a purpose of bringing meaning and some common rules of conduct to the lives of their subject societies. But they could also be monsters, intolerant tyrants, greedy, selfish, liars, bigots, and madmen and murderers in the name of the “faith”.

We can get all of that in civil society now but that still doesn’t make the faiths any more consistent or agreeable with one another. I am glad I am getting too old to have to live with the contradictions and double talk much longer. I look forward to the utter silence of flat lining. I look forward to the moment when the towers of babble collapse into the dust from which they were formed, that is my own dust. .

BTW – What is “a critical mass of the faithful”? To reach critical mass in physics means one has reached a point where the atomic pile explodes. Is the writer sure he wants to use that metaphor?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I noticed the priest remarks about Israel as OCCUPIERS as if God’s Jewish Covenant People are trespassers. That proves what I learned years ago,the Vatican religion has always been hostile against God’s Covenant Jewish People. Jesus and Mary were Jews not Italians. The Apostles and Prophets of the Holy Bible were Jews and not Italians. I noticed the priest referred to ‘Protestants’ as if they were some new religious group. A Protestant is a Christian 1st who has a working knowledge of the Bible and proudly protests as false religious teaching. To expose another’s unBiblical beliefs is normal Christianity. 1 more thing: The Roman Catholic religion has a track record of opposing Israel and siding with Israel’s enemies whole pretending to be a negotiator for peace. Thanks: Stan

Posted by 126GENESIS | Report as abusive

To Genesis or Stan – What is a “working knowledge of the Bible”? Do you mean that in the same sense of the word as an actor or comedian can “work” his audience. Or do you mean it in the sense of a grifter working his con? Are you perhaps thinking of the book as an operating manual? A do it yourself – or your faith club’s – Popular Mechanic’s guide to spiritual what? Perfection?, holiness?, staying on the good side of the great unknown and unknowable?

The only thing I can see in your comment is a very old attitude that a particular mixture (probably an admixture) of genes are necessary for a promise from God. That attitude is why Judaism has remained a very small minority religion. It didn’t “sell” well to the Romans even though many Roman’s admired their way of life: the regularity and ethic of it. Augustus himself wrote of them and wanted the Roman’s to have the same integrity.

You profess a belief in a God who hands out real estate like it was a grace shed from above and all those who occupied the territory prior to God’s grand scheme are expected to disappear or “submit to the will of God”. If the will of God as defined by those “working the word” isn’t enough, ten of thousands of troops, billions in cash and arms, friends in very high places of the very worldly sort, help too.

In case you haven’t noticed, “submission to the will of God” is a basic principle of Islam. It is the professed operating motive of the Taliban. They profess a total submission to their version of the will of God and expect everyone they encounter to do the same. It is a very old attitude and every world power from the times of the Egyptians (they probably invented it, but it was common enough beyond their borders) had used the idea that they were God (or the Gods’) favorites.

What do you suppose the criteria for the winner in a contest of competing interpretations of the will of God might be? Does your working knowledge shed any light on the subject? If you know you might do well to share it but you better work fast because a lot of people I meet think 2012 is the end of the world because somehow “God” loved the Mayans too?

God sounds very like my grandmother, who had a different story for every one of her children about each one of them, didn’t always get her facts straight, knew how to motivate them with rivalry and tended to take the Enquirer as good reading. But she was lovable, strong and ambitious and wanted her children to do better in the new world. She was a daughter of a large immigrant Italian family, but she did not want them to be raised as Italians. With my Grandmother, ethnicity was something she wanted to overcome. She couldn’t do anything about her genes but she did not make a great fuss about her children marrying into other gene pools. Neither did her husband.

A “nice Jewish girl” married one of my Grandmother’s cousins and she was disowned by her family and even given a ritual burial. My Grandmother was able after a decade or so, to bring the families together again.
My Grandmother died confessing that she “always wanted to be a big shot” and she never realized how big a presence she actually was. Go figure?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I happened to notice that the situation of the Christians in the state of Israel proper has not been discussed at all during such an extensive interview. Isn´t Israel in the Middle East any more? Aren´t 160,000 souls worth a comment? Sounds like ‘if you don’t have anything particularly nasty to say, don’t say anything at all’.

Posted by mordavig | Report as abusive

Just one comment.
In the whole middle east Israel is the only country were the christian population is increasing in size. This tells everything as where christians have better life as a minority.

Posted by minskaya | Report as abusive