Christian institutions and discourse
In the Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘The Church in the Middle East,’ the Pope pointed to the preeminent role of the Christian institutions in the mission of the Christians in the Middle East.
“For many years, the Catholic Church in the Middle East has carried out her mission through a network of educational, social and charitable institutions. She has taken to heart the words of Jesus: ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40). The proclamation of the Gospel has been accompanied by works of charity, since it is of the very nature of Christian charity to respond to the immediate needs of all, whatever their religion and regardless of factions or ideologies, for the sole purpose of making present on earth God’s love for humanity.[iii]”
Hundreds of Christian institutions are spread across the face of the Middle East: schools and universities; institutes for the frail, the elderly and the handicapped; hospitals; and other institutions that offer social and educational services. Almost all of them are characterised by their devoted service to the societies in which they were established and by their openness to all: Muslim and Christian, as well as other minorities. These institutions reveal the face of a Christian presence that seeks to serve not only Christians but society at large.
These institutions represent a very important Christian outreach beyond the hold of fear and isolation. Particularly notable are those institutions that serve almost entirely Muslim populations, showing the face of a Church that seeks to contribute to building up a society based upon conviviality and respect. In the Gaza Strip, 98% of the pupils in the Christian schools are Muslims. It is significant to note that after the Ba’athi revolutions in Iraq and in Syria, almost all the Christian institutions were nationalised, leading to the disappearance of this form of Christian presence in society. Perhaps the present catastrophe is related to this fact.
Christian institutions, particularly schools, universities and hospitals, are often places where Christians and Muslims not only rub shoulders but where relationships are established and discourse on diversity and respect is developed. It is through these institutions that the Christians can and do leave their mark on society.
The continued promotion of Christian institutions at the service of the entire population must go hand in hand with the development of an appropriate Christian discourse about the world in which Christians live. It is this discourse that must also distinguish the Christian as a voice for justice, peace, pardon, reconciliation and selfless love. Fear often provokes the development of a discourse that is reactive and insular, closing Christians off from their neighbours. The support and development of the Christian institutions which are at the service of all must be accompanied by the cultivation of a language spoken by Christians which opens them up to those with whom they share their daily lives. Faced with Muslim extremism, the Christian is called to discern, making distinctions between Muslim extremists and those Muslims who are friends, neighbours and compatriots, between extremism and those manipulated by the extremists. The Christian is also called to remember that Christians are no strangers to extremism, the toxic confusion of religion with political interests and the manipulation of God-talk in order to justify self-interest and greed.
The Christian presence in the Middle East is not and will not be measured by its statistical importance but rather by the significance of its contribution to society, particularly in its service of education, health and relief work and in its language of love.
Faith against fear
In the face of fears that Christians will continue to suffer as the Middle East continues to be shaken by instability and chaos, the only Christian antidote is faith. Christians are named for their Master who did not promise a bed of roses. Christ said to his followers: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ (Mark 8:34-35). These are words that have guided generations of Christians who have laid down their lives in faithful witness to the Gospel. It is perfectly understandable that many balk at these words, preferring to guarantee a better future for their children in a world that seems more secure in Europe, the United States or Australia. A Middle Eastern Christian diaspora can even be a support for those who consciously choose to stay behind as well as those who simply have no possibility to leave.
However, those that inspire by their courage, determination and faith are the ones who, despite everything, stay in their ancestral homelands because they know that it is their vocation and mission to bear witness to Christ in the lands he knew best. These are the Christians whose sense of mission secures the future of the Church in the Middle East. They have put their hand to the plough and do not look back, nor do they flee. They do not fear nor do they accuse, they do not isolate themselves behind denominational walls, they do not remain paralysed in bitterness, but rather they look ahead, attempting to discern the way forward. Faith is the only sure way beyond fear and isolation to openness and service, seeking Christ and following him as he goes out in ever-widening circles. Faith is the deep-rooted sense that the victory has already been won in the resurrection, and that no matter what crosses are encountered on the way – extremism, hatred and rejection – the forces of death have been overcome in Christ’s Cross and life reigns supreme.
The renewal of faith in the Middle East among sorely tired Christians surely brings about a greater sense of Christian unity, overcoming the divisions of the past. Pope Francis has pointed repeatedly to the ‘ecumenism of blood’, as he did in his discourse in front of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, flanked by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew.
“When Christians of different confessions suffer together, side by side, and assist one another with fraternal charity, there is born an ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood, which proves particularly powerful not only for those situations in which it occurs, but also, by virtue of the communion of the saints, for the whole Church as well. Those who kill, persecute Christians out of hatred, do not ask if they are Orthodox or Catholics: they are Christians. The blood of Christians is the same.[iv]”
This renewal of faith likewise brings a commitment to dialogue with Muslims (and Jews in the Israel-Palestine arena) in a frank and honest call to mutual respect and shared labour in building up a society free from oppression, ignorance and fear. It also strengthens the demand to be equal citizens, fully enfranchised and willing to bear the same obligations.
It is this voice of faith that is heard in the statement of the Holy Land Commission for Justice and Peace when they say:
“We pray for all, for those who join their efforts to ours, and for those who are harming us now or even killing us. We pray that God may allow them to see the goodness He has put in the heart of each one. May God transform every human being from the depth of his or her heart, enabling them to love every human being as God does, He who is the Creator and Lover of all. Our only protection is in our Lord and like Him we offer our lives for those who persecute us as well as for those who, with us, stand in defense of love, truth and dignity.[v]”
Fr David M. Neuhaus SJ serves as Latin Patriarchal Vicar within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He is responsible for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel as well as the Catholic migrant populations. He teaches Holy Scripture at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary and at the Salesian Theological Institute in Jerusalem and also lectures at Yad Ben Zvi.
This article has been published in Études and La Civiltà Cattolica.
[ii] Communiqué of the Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land and Justice and Peace Committee,‘Are Christians being persecuted in the Middle East?’ (2 April 2014).
[v] ‘Are Christians being persecuted in the Middle East?’