Caught in the Middle

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

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The Middle East is the homeland of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jews feel at home in one part of it. Muslims feel at home in most of it. Increasingly, Christians do not feel at home at all.

Once and former lords.  Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a story, “The Absentee From 6 Molcho Street,” an interview with Claudette Habesch, Secretary General of Caritas Jerusalem. She reminisced about the house where she was born and spent her childhood, which is now occupied by an elderly Jewish lady. Mrs. Habesch’s family was caught away from Jerusalem during the first Arab-Israeli war. After the cessation of hostilities, she and her family were never allowed to return to their home.

Most Middle East Christians understand her feelings. They recall with pride and nostalgia that once most of the lands of the Middle East were Christian. They also recall their influence, role and wealth — which was often disproportionate to their numbers.

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire 17 centuries ago, the lands we now know as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Cyprus, Israel, Palestine and Jordan were filled with churches, monasteries and shrines. These dynamic centers of Christian life and thought were organized into the four great patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

As the Arab followers of the Prophet Muhammad conquered and occupied the lands once under Rome, Christians gradually became the minority — though a very importantand influential minority — in what became an overwhelmingly Islamic Middle East.

Foreigners in their own land.  Christians, though second-class citizens in Islamic societies, were esteemed as “People of the Book” and, for the most part, learned to live with their Muslim overlords and neighbors.

The Crusades changed that. For the first time, in the name of God, Christian militias from the West invaded the heartland of the Middle East, seeking to reclaim it from Islam. Though sometimes harassed and victimized by the Crusaders, local Christians were nevertheless associated with the invaders —because of their shared Christian faith — by the Muslim community. Consequently, they were perceived as allies of the enemy.

In later centuries, Middle East Christians looked increasingly to the West, confiding in Western powers to protect them and emulating many of the West’s ways.

In modern times, Middle East Christians often traveled to the West, sent their children to schools there, adopted Western styles of dress and customs, and even studied and spoke Western European languages in preference to their native ones.

Their links to the West aggravated their position during the 20th century. With the post-World War I dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Western powers, the United Nations partition of Mandate Palestine, and the invasions of Iraq, extremist Muslim political movements have become increasingly more hostile to the West — and that hostility has been increasingly directed at their Christian Middle Eastern confreres.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Violence against Christians Christian-Muslim relations Religious Differences