Saturday, September 10, 2016

This too is no fairy tale

Once upon a time the entire Middle East, as well as both northern and southern shores the Mediterranean Sea and all of its islands were predominantly Christian lands, or at least lands with large and vital Christian communities. This includes the peninsula now known as Sa’udi Arabia, where the prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam arose. These regions, before the advent of Christianity, were, except for the Jews, inhabited of polytheistic peoples worshipping a pantheon of various deities. It took six centuries for Christianity to establish itself in these lands, the first three by voluntary conversion inspired by the blood of the martyrs, the latter three sometimes by imperial decree combined with the enticement of social and material advancement. It took less than two centuries for Islam to overrun these same territories and peoples, arguably by military expansion and forced conversions of the population, either by threat of death or by enticement to social advancement as in later Christian times. The eighth wonder of the ancient world, that any Christians should remain in the Middle East and North Africa, is still with us.

Though I began with a formula used in English to open a fairy tale, ‘once upon a time,’ this is no fairy tale but the reality of history ancient and modern. I am a Greek Orthodox Christian but a member of an Arab Orthodox community in America, composed of families whose roots are in the Arab Christian communities of the Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and other places. Our community belongs to the Patriarchate of Antioch, whose head sits no longer in Antioch (a city which no longer exists) but in Damascus, Syria. It is composed of ‘cradle Orthodox’ from Arabic speaking lands, along with a large minority of American (mostly ex-Protestant) converts, and a sprinkling of other European and African Orthodox. We are the evidence and contemporary witness of the Christianity native to those lands now under the rule of Islam, churches belonging to three of the four ancient patriarchates, Antioch (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), and Jerusalem (Palestine). Though we are Arabic speaking and worship in English and Arabic, this language is the heritage of the conquerors of our ancestors, who originally spoke Aramaic, Coptic, and other ancient tongues.

The current crisis in ‘the lands of Islam’ is not so much the occupation of Palestine by ‘first world’ Jewish Zionists, nor the appearance of aggressive Islamic fundamentalism, no, not even the boasted restoration of the Caliphate. The current crisis is the desperate state of the Christian communities of the region, all of which have roots in antiquity, all of which are lineal descendants of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. These are the people whom I earlier called ‘the eighth wonder of the ancient world.’ They are those who did not, and who do not, submit to Islam, despite threats of death and enticements of worldly gain. They have submitted to the language of Islam, Arabic, but not to its ideology. They can claim the bismillah as their own, even though that formula was stolen by Muhammad from his Christian relatives and neighbors, and they can call on God as ‘Allah’ without confusing their faith with the beliefs of their oppressors—for yes, though they were, or are, in various times and places on ‘friendly terms’ with Islam, they were usually demoted to inferior status, called dhimmi, and denied many of the rights of their Muslim neighbors. Their status in the lands of Christianity’s origin is that of an endangered species.

An endangered species, yet they are human, not animals. Unlike endangered animal and plant species, the world does not give them any protection in order to let them replenish themselves and escape extinction. No, on the contrary, the world—I am now speaking of the ‘first world,’ that which was formed by Christianity though it now denies it—does everything to push them over the cliff. The governments of the West bend over backwards to support regimes that when they fight each other use their Christians as cannon fodder. Or else, as they did in the Kosovo crisis, look the other way while the Christian heritage of an ancient land is materially eradicated, and its Christian inhabitants declared to be aliens in their own homeland. Not only do the governments of the West ‘mind their own business’ while Christians are being rooted out in the Middle East, but missionaries from the West, calling themselves evangelical, seek to undermine the Church with their divisive and competitive ‘evangelism,’ not recognizing that the people they consider ‘unsaved’ are the very ones who gave them the Bible and who still sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. God, help us!

Once upon a time there was a nation called America. It started out as a small community of Christians of various denominations who worked together toward a common goal of living the good life, ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ Though its beginnings were humble, and it did not deliver these promises to all its inhabitants at first, it gradually came to the point where at least the opportunity for ‘living the good life’ was secured for most, if not all, its inhabitants. This is because in freedom, human wills can follow their own course, and not everyone’s will is unclouded and bright. At both the high and the low ends of society, severe social ills existed, and secret human rights violations occurred at all levels. Yet, the land was still blessed with promise, and peoples from the world over still looked to it as a beacon of hope, many of them immigrating there to share its blessings. Through its inventiveness the nation earned great prestige and power, and in times of great need and danger came to the relief of its neighbors. But it often tripped over true justice in applying help to them, and finally, forgetting that the source of its blessings was Christ, no longer could tell friend from foe.

This too is no fairy tale, but it could portend the unexpected finale of a great nation that is now teetering on the brink of an abyss. All good graces have been granted to us—I am now speaking to my brethren in Christ who inhabit these western lands—and all opportunities are open, if we only return, if we only turn our faith to work, if we only unprivatize our Christianity, and make this country ‘Christian’ not in name only but, at the risk of offending those of other faiths, in spirit and in truth. This has nothing to do with triumphalism, this is not making the Christian faith supreme over other religions, but giving all religious faiths their due respect as co-worshipers of the Divine Nature, denying to none what we ourselves would enjoy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations and signed by many states, does not even go far enough. No, Christ goes even beyond that declaration. He always did and He always will, because He stands, even if hidden, amidst every people and every faith that seeks the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Let us listen to Him, as He continues to preach among us, ‘You have heard it was written that… but I tell you…’

Yes, brethren, let us make it real, let us in spirit and truth, say ‘In God we trust.’

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