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The Future of Christians in the Middle East

Unlike the strong denominational divide here in North America, the Middle East’s Christian communities are considerably more inclusive. Intermarriage is the norm and not an issue — according to custom prevalent in a region that remains traditional, wife and children follow the rites of the husband and father — thus complicating efforts to gather accurate numbers. But intermarriage also contributes to a marked degree of fluidity amongst the region’s Christians and a greater awareness of one another’s own histories, rituals and traditions.

While the region’s many Catholic churches are, with few exceptions, smaller than their Orthodox counterparts, their social service institutions play a disproportionate and crucial role in shaping the attitudes and the forming the minds of society, Christian and Muslim. Catholic clinics, Catholic colleges, Catholic orphanages, Catholic schools, Catholic soup kitchens and Catholic homes for the aged, the infirmed and the handicapped pepper the landscape, contributing invaluable services to a population weary of discord, economic stagnation and violence.

What will the region be like without its Christians?

Throughout the Arab world, historians, sociologists, politicians and clergy — Christian and Muslim alike — maintain the role of Christians is an important one throughout the Middle East:

“The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises, fills the void and gains the upper hand,” said Muhammad Sammak, a political adviser to Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim grand mufti. For Christians to disappear from the Middle East, he said, it would be like “pulling out the threads of a cloth,” so that the whole social fabric risks unraveling and dying.

But for many Arab Muslims — especially those who find it politically expedient — Christians of the Middle East are identified with Westerners. Despite their apostolic roots, Christians are perceived as no more integrated with the community than the expatriates who live in the various capital cities.

Arab journalist Daoud Kattab profiled the work of the Iraqi Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena among the impoverished living in Zerqa, Jordan. He writes, “While the Dominicans enjoy a warm rapport with the local population, they note that children often mistake them for Westerners and greet them in English. The sisters,” he continues, “quickly reply in perfect Arabic that they, too, are Arabs.”

A mistake such as this would not be particularly problematic if the Arab and Western worlds understood one another. But as we all know, the lives of the Middle East’s Christians are always adversely affected after the West comes crashing in.

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