By Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem
This column has been percolating with me for some time as events in the Middle East grow consistently worse for Christians. In the West our understanding of Islam, much less Eastern Christianity, fails to grasp the seventh century split between Muslims: Shia and Sunni. With the disintegration of a pan-Arabic nationalism, after the American invasion of Iraq, these ancient religious animosities resurfaced. Christians and other minorities are suffering persecution from this regional religious war.
Our faith is a Middle Eastern religion. We sometimes forget that Jerusalem, not Rome, was the first center of our faith. It was from Jerusalem that the Apostles reached out to the world around them. Rome was the capital of the world. It was also the place where Christians were later fed to the lions.
It was in Antioch, in Syria, that we were first called ‘Christian.’ In Syria they celebrate Mass in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Christianity spread both East and West from Jerusalem. Babylon, in what is now Iraq, was still a functioning city and both Jews and Christians lived there. The Jews composed the Babylonian Talmud while living there. The Talmud is a collection of commentaries on Scripture and Jewish law written by rabbis. Christians, too had a strong presence in the region, including thousands of monasteries. Basra, for instance, was a monastic city in Christian times. There was all this, and more, in the centuries before Mohamed.
When the Muslims came to power, they granted protection to the “religions of the book,” that is Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians had to pay a tax, but were allowed to run their institutions, churches and monasteries. The history of Eastern Christians to the present has been a history of generally amiable coexistence with the Muslim rulers. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the creation of modern Arab and non-Arab states in the region, and especially after WWII, a pan-Arabism brought people together, both Christian and Muslim. While this lasted, it was a time of peace for Christians. That is all gone now.
The region is rife with religious and tribal warfare. Ancient hatreds came to the surface. Fanatics kill Christians, seize everything they have, and destroy centuries-old churches, monasteries and shrines. As one Chaldean Christian reported, “For 1,600 years Christians have been in Mosul, now they are driven out!” By the way, Chaldeans are under the jurisdiction of the Pope.
History has a way to create new memories and new realities. Our religious history separated Eastern and Western Christians. With the consolidation of the Muslim caliphates and the split between Rome and Constantinople, we in the West, disconnected ourselves from the fate of our Eastern brothers and sisters. Now is a good time to reclaim that history and remember we are all united in Christ, no matter where we live.
The Crusades were a total disaster for Eastern Christians, Muslims and Jews, and centuries later, the fallout lingers throughout the Middle East. In the West, more concerned by what separates us, we became oblivious of what unites us. We are at a point where Christianity could be eradicated from the place of its birth. That is a horrible thing to think of, that the religion of Jesus is no more in the region we read of daily in the Scripture.
Further, the Western powers who could do something do not have the fate of Christians at the top of their list. Pope Francis has been speaking out, pleading, calling for prayers to save “our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.” He continues to call world leaders to reach out with humanitarian aid to help the Christians in the Middle East. As I say, “They are us and we are them.”
We must continue to pray for peace and call upon world leaders to create lasting structures to establish and support peace between the three faiths who all claim that region as their birthplace.
(Father Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem, lives at the Priory of St. Moses the Black, Jackson.)