Reversible and irreversible effects of the Middle Eastern crisis on the region’s Christians

By Heleen Murre-van den Berg Professor of Global Christianity, director Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (hlmvandenberg.me)

27 October 2015 – Settling in back home after a week of talks in Beirut about the effects of the current crisis in the Middle East on the region’s Christians, I’m trying to make sense of everything I saw and heard. I’ll be writing more about this visit in the coming weeks, but for now a remark made by a well-informed and well-placed interlocutor kept coming back to me: that of the difference between reversible and irreversible effects. He used this phrase to capture the tension between seemingly conflicting stories, stories about loss and migration, of ‘loosing’ the Middle East for Christianity on the one hand, and stories about return and resettlement in areas that previously had been lost on the other.

What are the possibilities for Christians to survive and even blossom in the Middle East that will be emerging after the crisis, even if we don’t know exactly how that is going to look like? What is reversible and what not, and why does the difference matter?

Undoubtedly, the first story, of deep losses and increasing numbers that leave the region, is the dominant one, one that I heard in many places, one that we see happening before our eyes. It was told by the leaders of Christian communities that I spoke with as well by whoever I happened to meet during breaks and travel. No one doubts the continuous drain on the Christian communities, everyone described to me how the Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria that have found temporary refuge in Lebanon, are taking every opportunity to move on, away from the region, to what they consider a safe and hopeful future in the United States, Canada, Europe or Australia. Different from earlier periods when the bishops were worried about their flock deserting the Middle East, this time there was no reproach in their voices. Today even those who have most to lose from the diminishing numbers of Christians in the region and who are most concerned with the long term effects for both the local and international Christian community, sympathize with and often actively support those who want to leave.

Despite all this, I also met with people who in their actions and their words expressed their commitment to the region, their willingness to stay in Lebanon and to return to Syria and Iraq as soon as the worst is over, as well as their strong motivation to contribute to this new Middle East that will emerge from the current crisis. Uncertainties about its future merely contribute to the resolve of these mostly young people to commit themselves to the world in which they were born and which they think should benefit from their Christian involvement. These included Christians from all churches, Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics. Notably, the Assyrian Church of the East recently chose to remove their patriarchal see from the United States (Chicago) to the Middle East, to Ankawa near Erbil in North Iraq, by electing a patriarch deeply rooted in the region. Patriarch Catholicos Giwargis III Sliwa, who previously served as the metropolitan of Baghdad, staid put in the difficult years of the war and has no intention to leave now.

Clearly, not everyone has given up on the region. And indeed, as one knows from earlier migration waves, there is always people who stay behind, who find reasons not to leave their country.

For all of this I was, and I still am, hesitant to agree with those who all to easily pronounce the end of Christianity in the Middle East. People will stay, communities will be rebuilt, and perhaps even, in some unknown future, some of those who leave now will return. Some of yesterday’s and today’s developments are indeed reversible.

Yet, this latest visit has convinced me that something irreversible is taking place, that the masses of Christians that are now leaving the region is changing the Christianity of the region in a way different from the gradual though continuous trickle of migration of the last decades. Not only is the number of Christians leaving higher than it ever has been, the various wars that have been and are being fought also have emptied complete villages and neighborhoods from their Christian presence, like in Mosul, in Baghdad, in the northeastern Khabur (al-Jazirah) region of Syria, in Aleppo, and in and near Homs. For most of these places, it is unlikely that they will ever regain their Christian character to the extent they used to be before the current crisis.

While Christians, Christian communities and Christian churches to some extent will remain a feature of the Middle East, the numbers will be too small, and the people too dispersed to have any real impact on politics and wider culture. This is especially the case in Syria and Iraq, that were home to so many vibrant and often longstanding indigenous communities of Christians. In addition, such small communities will probably also have trouble in maintaining their distinct local Christian subcultures, with music, literature and art, especially when they are dependent on a language other than Arabic, such as Armenian or Syriac.

Indeed, Middle Eastern Christians and Middle Eastern churches will not disappear in the near future, despite the fact that many of their living places, their houses and their churches in the Middle East are being destroyed. They will survive, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, and perhaps even grow in some of the Gulf states. But the face of these communities will alter dramatically, with the diaspora, the transnational global community, becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Middle Eastern Christianity will not die, but it will be radically different from its previous incarnations, in ways and forms that cannot be predicted exactly at this time. Christians of the Middle Eastern churches will have to find new ways to relate to each other, as well as to their neighbors in the Middle East and in the host societies elsewhere. When the surroundings change, the communities will change, influencing the meanings of language and religion, the roles of clerical and lay leadership and the importance of nationalism and ethnic belonging.

Much is irreversible then, more so than I tended to think a few years ago. And so we have to start thinking about what this means: for western host countries and for the Middle East, for the transnational communities of Middle Eastern Churches and its leaders, and for those, who like myself are interested as reseachers in these churches’ history and heritage.

Heleen Murre-van den Berg is Professor of Global Christianity and director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Instituut voor Oosters Christendom) at the Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands. You can follow Heleen Murre-van den Berg on her personal blog hlmvandenberg.me.

The Radboud University, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies in cooperation with the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies last year started the project Rewriting Global Orthodoxy.