The Future of Christians in the Middle East
15 Mar 2011 La Salle University, Diplomats-in-Residence Program
One early Sunday morning last November, I accompanied 12 journalists to a children’s Mass. Despite our camera equipment and shoddy attire, the pastor escorted us to the front of the cavernous church, feet from the youth choir, whose members were still practicing for the liturgy. The sanctuary was swarming with children — toddlers left their parents in the pews to sit on the steps below the altar, teens posed for their photograph or lighted a candle near an image of the Blessed Mother. The noise before Mass was deafening; the church was packed.
We were not in St. Laurence’s in Upper Darby or St. Pat’s in Malvern (forgive the revelation of Delaware County roots), but at St. Elias Church in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Run by the Franciscan Anthonite Fathers, the Maronite Catholic parish has five regularly scheduled Masses each Sunday. And though the neighboring Maronite parish is but a few blocks away, each Sunday Mass at St. Elias is as crowded as that 9 a.m. children’s’ liturgy.
The journalists who accompanied me were in shock: They did not expect to see hundreds of well-heeled middle class families park their cars and run to Mass — most of them late. The images of Middle East Christians many had conjured up involved elderly parishioners, empty churches, armed guards and secretive locations. While this may, God forbid, be the future of Christianity in the Middle East, it is far from its present in most of the region.
There can be doubt that Middle East Christians live in jeopardy and their fate hangs in the balance: Should they stay or should they go? But concerns for the oldest of Christian communities — descendants of those who first responded to the call of Jesus Christ — should be extended to all people of good will in the region. Is it in the best interests of the Middle East if the region’s Christians emigrate and settle elsewhere? Is it in the best interests of the West if the Middle East is deprived of its Christian heritage? What are the implications of a region bereft of its moderate and well educated citizens, Christian, Jewish and Muslim? How will the Arab revolutions of 2011 impact the marginalized and minorities?
I will not attempt to address all of these questions. But I hope my observations will help you understand better the Christians of the Middle East and of their concerns, which they share with their non-Christian neighbors and friends. Perhaps, too, it will provide an inkling into their future.
What defines the Middle East?
In a special edition of ONE magazine published by my agency, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, we defined the Middle East as those modern countries historically associated with the four apostolic patriarchates of the Eastern churches. They include: