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Book review: In the Eye of the Storm: Middle Eastern Christians in the twenty-first century, edited by Mitri Raheb

28 March 2024

Michael Lewis reflects on Christians’ situation in the Middle East

AROUND the world there are those, Christians and others, who have long watched and followed events, politics, and religion in the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine; and there are those, a far greater number, whose attention is caught only when something tragic, even seismic, happens.

The Revd Dr Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Arab Christian ordained in the Lutheran tradition, and President of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, has edited and himself powerfully contributed to a volume of case studies exploring the situation not only of indigenous Christians, but also of those alongside whom they live. It ought to be required reading for anyone seriously wishing to understand the region and its pluralities. None of the authors pleads for Christian exceptionalism, but all write conscious of, and informed by, the various Christian particularities.

What Hamas did on 7 October 2023, and the course that the government of the State of Israel has chosen to implement since then, postdate this collection. Its value lies in presenting granular, scholarly, and at the same time heartfelt accounts, from almost exclusively indigenous contributors, of the societies and cultures within which as Christians they live. Where there is explicit theological reflection it arises contextually and practically from the anthropological and sociological approaches taken by the eight writers.

The Middle East is often linked acronymically with North Africa in the even more extensive region MENA. Of its many countries, those chosen here for study of the context in which contemporary Christians live are five of those in whose current geography Christian presence has been documented since the earliest days of faith: Egypt, Israel, Palestine, the Lebanon, and Jordan. Syria and Iraq might equally have been subject to similar focus. One thread is the high hopes and the unrealised expectations of the so-called Arab Spring, which broke out from late 2010 to late 2012, but, in each case, the historical perspective is usefully longer.

Miray Philips, on Christians in Egypt, does not shy away from highlighting tensions in church-state relations in a land where the Coptic Orthodox tradition accounts for the vast majority of Christians, though other confessions have long been present. She traces the positioning adopted by the Coptic leadership during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, then Mohamed Morsi, then Abdel al-Sisi, in a context in which anti-Islamist and Islamist authoritarianism have been the only polities on offer.

Amir Marshi and Khaled Anabtawi write of those Palestinian Christians who live in the 1948 territories (“in Israel”, as many would say, though the authors are not alone in eschewing that phrase, for reasons set out). They highlight some of the history and deploy demographic data, discussing Christians’ economic status, educational provision, loss of land, a “multilayered dynamic of attachment”, and much more.

Bernard Sabella addresses, in its great complexity, the situation in Palestine, in the sense of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza (on which his final words, “the future does not bode well,” are tragically predictive). Among much else, he touches on notable Christian initiatives and movements from recent decades, including Sabeel, which grew from the early 1990s and is known to not a few outside Israel/Palestine, and the Kairos Palestine document of 2011, as well as a growing number of joint statements from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, among whom is the Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum.

The position of Lebanese Christians is explored by Antoine Salameh and Roula Talhouk. The status accorded constitutionally to the dominant Maronite Church is not an unmixed blessing. Christians in the Lebanon are living in a nation suffering from a dangerous dysfunctionality that feels like stasis. It is bedevilled by dishonourable politics and irresponsible actors and is at the mercy of proxy power-plays by external regimes and interests.

Finally, Paolo Maggiolini documents Christians in Jordan, where precise data are unavailable, though perhaps there are between 200,000 and 250,000 of them out of a population of ten million.

Nowhere is the challenge of drastically diminished numbers of indigenous Christians in the region ignored; nor is the understandable temptation to give up on hope, or sometimes to transfer it to lands of migration. But Dr Raheb ends: “even when Middle Eastern Christians find themselves in the eye of the storm, they do not give up easily. Based on their faith in their Lord who stills the storm, they stay alert, engaged, and faithful to their call.” All Christians everywhere must surely be in radical solidarity with that faith, and with them.

The Rt Revd Michael Lewis is a former Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf and Primate of the Province of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

In the Eye of the Storm: Middle Eastern Christians in the twenty-first century
Mitri Raheb, editor
Pickwick Publications £27
Church Times Bookshop £24.30

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