Christians in the Middle East: Building Bridges between East and West, Old and New

Article excerpt

I am no expert on the problems and trends in the Middle East, and my daily life is not fraught with the difficulties faced by those who contend daily with the experience of living in the Middle East. Yet I believe that witness functions in a two-fold manner: those of us outside of Palestine and the Middle East have much to learn about the daily lives and problems of the Christians there, but perhaps we also have something to convey to Christians of the Middle East, not because we know their situation better than they do, but because our study of the problems under discussion, as well as of the tradition and life of the Christians of the Middle East, has taught us much.

In my presentation, then, starting from my limited experience with the people, churches and countries of the region, I would like to share here some of what I learned from my visits to the Middle East. This is about how a Greek Orthodox theologian understands the presence and witness of Christians in the Middle East today, what he sees in them, and what he fears for them. Rather than a systematically developed paper, this is essentially a personal witness and testimony, which may risk falling into oversimplifications or even "orientalistic" stereotypes.

This began for me in July 1982 in Thessaloniki, when, upon entering a religious bookstore, I was captivated by the Arabic and Greek chanting that I heard there. A woman's voice, like a soft caress and smooth as silk, transported me to another world, both familiar but also quite different from what I had known. No one could tell me exactly what I was hearing except that it was from Lebanon. Later, during post-graduate studies in France, I discovered that the music and chanting that had so moved me was from the album "Good Friday" by Fairuz, a Christian singer from Lebanon. Before then I had been unaware of the significance of that name, and unaware of the nostalgic emotions and feelings that it evoked in the East--and not only among Christians.

This was the beginning of my long and multifaceted relationship with the various people of the East. After Fairuz, many other artists--mainly musicians, but also poets and writers of the region, Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Armenians, Jews--came to enrich my "secret garden" and broaden my horizons. Slowly, during my time living abroad, many things started to become clearer for me, and I began to move beyond various stereotypes and taboos, including, most importantly, Greece's relationship with Turkey and its other neighbors. During my stay in Paris I came to understand what Hellenism really was, diachronically, in its movement through history, before it was nationalized: a utopia (a compound Greek word meaning, literally, "no place"). Rather than an actual place or state, it is a way of life, a culture. "Hellenicity" or "Greekness" was always a vague and undefined mix of education, culture, religion, language and intellectual choices, which could not be delimited by geographic or ethnic boundaries. (1) Emerging from the narrow confines of the Greek milieu allowed me to better understand not only my own identity and tradition but also that of others, especially those others near to us in the Near and Middle East, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.

Before actually travelling to the Middle East, I had already traveled there many times in my mind, soul and heart. I read books of all kinds, and spent countless hours in the old record shops of Paris, searching for albums of "oriental" music, from which I culled not only the sounds but also important information about the peoples and countries that were provided in the liner notes. I came to know people from different countries of the region; each of them had their own religion and culture, but primarily their own personal stories, which often did not accord with the official narrative and history of that country or religious community.

Of all that I learned, here I focus on what pertains to the theological/political theme of the Christian presence in the Middle East and the call for "witness," as well as some of my fears and uncertainties about these developments. …