Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Fr Georges Massouh: Is Christianity Doomed to Disappear?

Arabic original here.

Is Christianity Doomed to Disappear?

Christianity has gone extinct in many countries whose people had adopted the Christian faith from the very beginning of the Church. We can mention, for example, North Africa from Libya to Morocco, passing through Tunisia, Algeria, and Mauritania, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and the Arabian Peninsula... We can also mention Iraq and Palestine, where the Christian presence has almost disappeared.

Christianity began its decline in North Africa with the Islamic conquest until it completely disappeared in the twelfth century with the attacks of the Almohads who were distinguished by their intolerance. The African church witnessed great flourishing in the first centuries, when its bishops numbered around seven hundred. It gave birth to great teachers who even today remain points of reference in theology, such as Tertullian (d. 240), Saint Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), and the Blessed Augustine, bishop of Hippo (d. 430). 

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 at the hands of the Ottomans, Christianity started to disappear from Asia Minor. Ataturk's "secularism" was not any better for Christians than Ottoman Islam and those who survived the oppression of the sultanate were annihilated by intolerant Turkish nationalism with the complicity of the West, especially France which stripped Antioch and its surroundings (the Sanjak of Alexandretta) from Syria and gave it to Kemalist Turkey. Here we may recall the Armenians, Syriacs, and Greek Orthodox over the entire geographic expanse of Turkey from Anatolia, Cappadocia, and Antioch to every village and town.

Researchers agree that the demise of Christianity in these countries is the result of multiple causes: political, religious, social, cultural and economic and this demise cannot be blamed solely on the spread of Islam. It is true that the prejudice of some intolerant Muslim rulers contributed at certain times to tightening the noose around Christians. However, other causes also caused them to abandon the faith of their fathers and grandfathers.

What is happening in Syria right now forces us to ask the following question: Is Christianity doomed to disappear in the land of its birth? Historical experience tells us that anything may happen. Who would have thought that North Africa and Asia Minor, which witnessed golden ages of Christianity, would see Christianity completely annihilated there? Who would have thought only a century ago that Palestine, where Christianity had remained through thirteen centuries of Islamic caliphates, would nearly be emptied of its Christians on account of the Israeli occupation? Who would have thought that Iraq, which at the apex of the Abbasid Caliphate witnessed unparalleled Christian flourishing, would find its Christian presence in immanent danger?

The survival of Christianity in Syria and other countries of the Arab Middle East depends on them and their steadfastness. It also depends on the openness of Muslims and their willingness to ensure the survival of their countrymen. It is a grave error for Christians to link their survival to the survival of a regime that protects them or to a foreign intervention that would prop them up. However, the most serious danger is for Christians to abandon their mission and their witness, which can be summed up as bearing the cross, for the sake of their survival. The entire Syrian people, not only the Christians, is paying the price for rampant, uncontrolled madness. The village of Maloula is a dear part of Syria. What is happening there cannot be permitted to happen elsewhere. The blood of Christians is not more valuable than the blood of Muslims. Their churches are not more valuable than Muslims' mosques. The Christians must hold fast to their faith, hope, love and patience to the point of martyrdom, until these black days end and they can return to being the good leaven that leavens the whole loaf. As for Christianity, it will not be disappear if we do not want it to disappear.


The Anti-Gnostic said...

I think I've asked this before but I'm too lazy to research: what is the Orthodox view on self-defense?

Do Christians really have a duty to acquiesce in their extinction in their own homeland? What happens when there's no place left to run? Surely there's a distinction between martyrdom and passive nihilism.

Samn! said...


I think these are live questions that, in these circumstances are difficult to answer prescriptively.

I don't think there's much in the Orthodox tradition that advocates against collective (as opposed to personal) self defense. Very often in discussing these things, I see sources quoting the probably apocryphal meeting between St Methodios and the Muslim caliph when the former was sent to Baghdad as an envoy of the emperor. The caliph was supposed to have asked St Methodios how Christians can conduct war if they are told to turn the other cheek. St Methodios replied that while this is true, when Christ speaks of there being no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends, this applies to soldiers defending their homeland and families.

But, the current situation in the Middle East does not really allow Christians the option of mounting an effective self-defense with force. Looming large in the minds of especially Lebanese Orthodox is the fact that the Maronites used rhetoric of Christian self-defense during the 70's and 80's to commit all kinds of atrocities AND that they failed miserably in securing any of their goals.