CHRISTIANS in the Middle East should not be viewed as a persecuted minority: they need to build up their societies with their Muslim neighbours, the acting secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches, Dr Souraya Bechealany, told an audience in London last week.
“We have to move from a reactive reflex to a proactive one; we have to abolish the language of the persecution and the dialectic of majority and minority — it means nothing to us,” Dr Bechealany, who is based in Beirut, said during a panel discussion organised by the charity Embrace the Middle East.
Charities that support Middle Eastern Christians have warned that conflict, persecution by extremists, and the constant lure of emigration could empty the region of its historic Christian communities.
In a press release published before the panel discussion — at which a Dominican Friar and former Master of the Order, the Most Revd Timothy Radcliffe OP, and the Coptic Bishop Thomas of El-Qussia and Mair, in Upper Egypt, also spoke — Embrace said that the proportion of Christians in the region had fallen from 20 per cent to five per cent in the last century. It continued, however: “It’s time for Christians in the West to move on from unhelpful stereotypes about Christians in the Middle East, and celebrate their success.”
Dr Bechealany said that Christians should be helped to remain in the region and to build their societies with their Muslim compatriots. “We have to build transparency, citizenship, the equal roles, the education, to construct our cities, and to stop wars and reconstruct our village[s]. We have to see together the future and . . . go beyond the darkness.”
She hinted at the discrimination sometimes experienced by some of the region’s non-Muslims. “We have to build a culture of otherness. The other has the right to exist,” she said. “We [Christians] are the others for the Muslims in the Middle East.”
And she urged Christians in the West to learn from Middle Eastern Churches’ centuries of coexistence with Muslims. “We have the know-how since the 14th century; so let us collaborate.”
Asked if it was helpful that some Western Christian charities gave aid only to Middle Eastern Christians in situations where many communities were in need, such as in northern Iraq, she replied: “You have to help them, because no one is helping them. You have to help them stay and build their societies with Muslims. But, if you help them because you have a hidden political or economic agenda, that’s not acceptable.”
During her talk, Dr Bechealany argued that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, was pluralist, and said that there were many examples of friendships between Muslims and Christians. Asked how confident she was that the region’s pluralism could withstand the impact of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia, she said that Islam “needs a hermeneutic”, a theory of interpretation.
“We must ask that the Qu’ran can be interpreted; that it is not literal.”
Bishop Thomas said in his talk that Egyptian society would “need” its Christians — who make up about ten per cent of the population — if they helped to transform it into one that is more democratic, gender-equal, spiritual, and accepting.
Fr Radcliffe painted a mixed picture of his recent visit to Iraq when he said that Dominican Sisters had reopened the schools they ran, all of which had been destroyed, and, “at risk to their lives”, had returned to teach at the University of Mosul, after the city’s liberation from IS.
An Iraqi Christian at the event, however, who was expelled from Mosul when Islamic State seized control of northern Iraq in 2014, said that the problem was not about whether to protect Christians, but about preventing foreign powers using jihadi groups as proxies to further their interests. He also suggested that potential for interfaith friendships would be limited by intolerant views of non-Muslims propagated in school textbooks.