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Is There Room for Christians in the Middle East?

09 Oct 2012 Michael J.L. La Civita, K.C.H.S.

Eminence, excellencies, members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.

A friend suggested I should follow the example of Linda Richman from Saturday Night Live, and just come up with some interesting topics for you all to discuss among yourselves. Israel, Palestine. Discuss. But I’m not sure if the lieutenant or the Hyatt would appreciate the bedlam that would follow, so here it goes.

Life in the Mediterranean world moves slowly. Whether the weather or the wine, Rome remains largely intact, and its memory is eternal. In the Balkans, century-old animosities are played out daily. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Arab world measures the sands of time in millennia — despite the oil and its money.

But today, radical changes have engulfed the Arab world. Mobs have toppled tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; civil war rages in Syria; and subversive revolutionaries in Jordan and Saudi Arabia plot to end the rule of kings. What may have been true yesterday may no longer be true today; life is no longer stable or secure, even for the majority of those who stay put in their homes and shops, far from the demonstrations — the various roles of which are usually played by young men.

As knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, the Middle East holds a special place in our hearts. It also forms a part of our human and Christian patrimony. The eastern Mediterranean claims the earth’s oldest civilizations. There converged the development of agriculture and commerce, law and government, the arts and the alphabet, creating the world’s first complex human societies.

The Gospel of Jesus first took root here, and for six centuries it flourished among its peoples as it adapted to the region’s prevailing cultures. Christianity dominated much of the eastern Mediterranean until the followers of an Arab merchant and shepherd, Muhammad, stormed through in the year 634. Fired by the belief that Muhammad had received from the Archangel Gabriel the word of God to restore belief in One God, they conquered Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor and Egypt, then Christian provinces lands of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the span of one century, they created a vast Muslim realm that stretched from China to Spain.

The Islamization of the Middle East took centuries — forced conversions were discouraged — but gradually Christians became a minority. Ascendant Islamic societies respected Christians as “People of the Book,” and the authorities valued their influence, but the followers of Jesus were incontestably relegated to second class status.

The Crusades irrevocably altered this intricate society; Muslims associated the faith of the invaders with the faith of local Christians, whose relationships with the Crusaders of the Latin West were complex and uneasy.

In the modern period, the Christians of the Middle East increasingly looked to Christian Europe for patronage and support, adopting Western habits, languages and customs. The Arab Renaissance of the 19th century, for example, was led largely by Arab Christians influenced by the nationalists of post-Napoleonic Europe.

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