13 December 2018
An Arab couple are married at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Montreal. Migrants and refugees often struggle to maintain their customs, their faith and their culture in a new land.
(photo: Cody Christopulos)
Last week, I looked at how we live in a world of migrants — and how CNEWA seeks to serve that world. But what happens to migrants after they settle in a new place? This is a question and challenge facing all of us.
We at CNEWA describe our mission as “accompanying the Eastern Churches.” Since our beginning over 90 years ago, CNEWA has accompanied the Eastern Churches through some of their most difficult times — through displacement, exile and outright genocide. More recently, since the turn of the millennium, Christians have been under incredible pressure in the Middle East; threats from ISIS, from civil war, from violence and terror of all kinds in the region have forced many to take flight.
As a result, the Christian population in the Middle East has plummeted. Christians of the Middle East form a considerable part of the movement of peoples we wrote about last week. Tens of thousands of Christians are refugees or displaced persons, forced to emigrate from their homes.
We are—or we like to think we are—familiar with the problems these people face. They are fleeing for their lives; their cities, homes, business, schools and very lives have been destroyed. They are struggling to survive. But even after their survival has been assured, even after they have arrived in countries where they are safe, refugees face new and daunting problems.
To begin with, there are problems of how they can practice their faith. Christians refugees from the Middle East often belong to one of the Eastern Churches—the so-called sui juris churches, which are fully Catholic and in communion with Latin Rite Catholics. Like their Orthodox counterparts, these Eastern Catholics are often quite different from their fellow Catholics of the Latin Rite. They have traditions which go back to the time of the Apostles. Their liturgical and sacramental practices are often the things which make these churches most visibly different from Latin Rite Catholics. They traditionally use ancient languages such as Syriac and Coptic. They very often have married clergy, which is now permitted outside their historical territories. Many of these churches have a Patriarch or Major Archbishop. They have a unique spirituality and theology which has sustained them for 2,000 years. But suddenly they find themselves in Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent in the United States. Sometimes they are even surrounded by fellow Christians who view their Eastern form of Christianity with confusion and even suspicion.
How do these Christians maintain their traditions, rooted in the culture, theology and languages of the Middle East, in the West of the 21st century?
To me there seems to be two extremes which must be avoided.
The first extreme to avoid is complete assimilation to the new culture. The traditions, foreign as they are to the new cultures, may seem to become quaint and eccentric and ultimately become irrelevant. Often lacking infrastructures for their own churches in a new homeland, these Christians become absorbed into the majority Latin Rite or Protestant churches and, after a few generations, disappear. An important part of their history, thus, is lost.
The second extreme to avoid is the formation of ghettos. ”Little Assyrias,” “Little Chaldaeas,” etc. can spring up where these Christians separate themselves from the surrounding culture and live as if they were still in the Middle East, still speaking their ancient languages and maintaining their customs. While this may work for a while, the younger generations will ultimately resist speaking the language of the immigrant community, separate themselves by adapting to the dominant culture and leave behind shrinking populations of people who are ultimately alienated from their homelands and not integrated into their new country.
We need to remember that despite appearances, Christianity is not exclusively a western European phenomenon. The categories of the Greek and Roman world have played a huge part in the development of Western Christianity. But the operative word here is part. Christianity is far broader, richer and more diverse than Western Christianity alone. A thriving Eastern Christianity is important for the health of all Christians.
As more Eastern Christians settle in the West, and as the horror stories from the Middle East recede into memory, it is easy to forget these people. They are in new countries. They are out of danger; they have new homes, new lives. They are OK—or so it might seem. But we shouldn’t overlook them.
If their physical existence seems secure, in fact, these Christians are facing new challenges that threaten their spiritual existence.
How can they live their faith, so deeply rooted in the East, in a new world? How can they be part of and contribute to their new home countries and at the same time be faithful and authentic to their ancient heritage?
These are questions without easy answers — and merit our time, our study and our prayers.
Tags: Refugees Migrants Eastern Catholics