Friday, June 23, 2017

Fr Georges Massouh: Syrian Islam and Syrian Christianity

Arabic original here.

Syrian Islam and Syrian Christianity

When dealing with questions of Muslim-Christian relations, the following observations must be taken into consideration:

1) Relations between Muslims and Christians, their flourishing and deterioration, are not necessarily based on the religious and legal rules of the Islamic and Christian religions. To put it another way, it is not possible to talk about Christian-Muslim relations solely on the basis of what religious texts say.

2) Distinctions must be made between historical experiences in various places and times. It is not possible to generalize specific events that happened in particular places and times to every place and time.

3) Historical Christianity is not one nor is historical Islam one. It is not possible to talk about Christians in general or Muslims in general as though they were a compact bloc with absolutely no diversity. Any religious has various aspects across various denominations, countries and times.

We started our article today by presenting these three observations before we attempt to correct certain objections provoked by our article "A Conspiracy against Christians?!" (an-Nahar, June 10, 2017), where we stated, "Christians will not be eliminated from their homelands so long as they do not contribute to the elimination of their existence and presence. Christians have lived under the Islamic state for thirteen centuries without leaving their country. It is not true that they all took refuge in fortified mountains for fear of being killed by Muslims, since most Christians lived in cities, mixing with Muslims and sharing a common life with them."

When we said this, we were simply presenting historical realities that continue until now. The Christian presence in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Tripoli, Jerusalem and other cities of the Levant has been uninterrupted from the rise of Islam until the present day. Thus there is no comparison between the historical experience in the Levant, where the Christian presence is continuous, and North Africa or Turkey, where the Christian presence has gone extinct.

It is also not possible to reduce the extinction of Christianity in North Africa or Turkey to the religious factor alone. The reductionist view is blind and distorts the facts. Among the reasons for the end of Christianity in North Africa is that the alliance between the religious authorities and the temporal authorities in Rome against the the native people of the country (the Berbers), in terms of the exploitation of lands  and preventing the natives from access to the necessities of life, particularly the exploitation of African grain for distribution to the people of Rome and starving the Africans, the imposition of an oppressive taxation system, is part of what inspired a hatred for Rome and the institution of the Church among the Africans. This is what led the Africans to adopt the new religion as it arrived in their country, since they saw in it an escape from those who were greedy for the riches of their lands (see Fr Paul Decizier, SJ The Reasons for the Disappearance of Christianity in North Africa after the Arab Conquest, Beirut: Dar el-Machreq, 1993, pp. 14-16 [in Arabic]).

As for Turkey, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the Christian presence in Asia Minor began to decline. However, Ataturkist "secularism" was no better for Christians than Ottoman Islam. Those who survived the injustice of the sultanate were defeated by hard-line Turkish nationalism with the complicity of the West, especially of France which stripped Antioch and its surroundings (the Province of Alexandretta) from Syria and gifted it to Kemalist Turkey. Here we can mention the role of France, Russia and other countries in the elimination of Armenians, Syriacs, and Greek Orthodox from the whole of Turkey, from Anatolia, Cappadocia, Cilicia and Antioch to every city and village. As for Palestine, where at the beginning of the 20th century Christians constituted around twenty percent of the population, it was Israel that put an end to them and not the caliphate that had ruled the country for thirteen centuries.

Researchers unanimously agree that the extinction of Christianity in these countries is due to numerous causes: political, religious, social, cultural and economic and it is not possible to blame this extinction on a single cause, the spread of Islam or Islamic intolerance. It is true that in some periods, the intolerance of Islamic rulers led to persecutions of Christians, but other reasons also led them to abandon the faith of their fathers and forefathers or to abandon their countries.

In closing, it is necessary to admit the fact that Syrian Islam is different from other Islams, just as Antiochian (Syrian) Christianity is different from other Christianities. Therefore, we still believe in the permanence of the Christian presence in this country and in the possibility of establishing ideal, exemplary relations between the Muslims and Christians of this country on the basis of complete citizenship and respect for equality and general freedoms. We will say once again that Christian-Muslim partnership is an inevitable fate, at least with regard to Christians if they hold fast to remaining in their country, where Muslims and Christians mix no matter what the price.

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