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Christianity in the Middle East

Date: 12 December 2011

Bishop Christopher, speaking in the House of Lords on Friday 9 December 2011


"My Lords, as we advance towards Christmas it should be a statement of the obvious that Christians, from the young rabbi who is recognised as Jesus the Christ by his followers, have been in what we call the Middle East for two millennia. Yet curiously, as has already been noted in the debate, the general western perception is that the Middle East is Islamic and the West is Christian. Both perceptions are demonstrably false. That has been articulated in a number of speeches, most notably by the most reverend Primate.


"We have all been attending to the continuing election process in Egypt in the last few days. The Muslim Brotherhood appears to be the dominant emergent party but there has been strong support for a more sectarian party. I am sure that all noble Lords wish all Egyptians well for a better participatory, democratic future; but we also understand the real unease of the Christian communities in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt. Yet in Egypt they are not a tiny minority. It is difficult to get accurate figures, but estimates of Egypt’s Christian population vary between 6 million and 12 million people. The largest group, as has already been noted, is the Coptic Orthodox Church under their Father in God, Pope Shenouda. In the past I attended his powerful sermons in St Mark’s Cathedral, Alexandria, and in Cairo. I saw the work of the Coptic Church in Egypt with the poorest of the poor in the township of the Zabaleen—the shanty town of the street cleaners of old Cairo. There were not only new churches, but alongside them clinics and schools.


"The Coptic Church is ancient. It goes back to the tradition of St Mark himself, centuries before Islam. It is rather older than the Church of England and certainly older than my diocese of Guildford. I am happy to say that until recently we hosted a Coptic congregation in one of the churches in my diocese. They now have their own church. It is also very good to spy here today not a stranger in the Gallery but a friend in Bishop Angaelos, who has responsibility for the Coptic communities in Britain.


"There have been difficult times in the recent past and present, which have been well articulated. In an article in a recent edition of the Egyptian Gazette, a visiting lecturer at the great Muslim Al-Azhar University in Cairo, already mentioned in the debate, cited a letter from the Prophet Muhammad to the monks of the monastery of St Katherine on Mount Sinai. The letter exhorts Muslims to protect Christians. When there were tensions in the past, the Coptic Pope Shenouda was put under house arrest because it was necessary to take steps against some Muslim groups and there was a sort of political even-handedness. I tell this story for the comfort of the most reverend Primate. Pope Shenouda was exiled to his peaceful monastery—already alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Patten—in the Alexandrine desert. When the most reverend Primate is next in trouble with some sections of the British public and media, perhaps he might ask for such a peaceful place of exile.


"In Syria and in Iraq the Christian churches are much smaller, but they, too, have been there since the beginnings of Christianity. The name Syrian Orthodox— the Suriani—speaks for itself. The patriarchs of Antioch take their title from the city where Christians were first so-called. Today there is deep uncertainty. Syrian Christians are meeting today in Geneva with the World Council of Churches to talk about their future. They are led by their patriarch, whom I remember as a young Syrian Orthodox bishop for whom I once organised a visit to the Church of England. He was rather impressed by Christ Church, Oxford. From the eastern Christian Syrian tradition—the Church of the East or Nestorian Church—there spread missions that reached the Malabar coast of India and the city of Nanking in China via the spice trade routes. Yet we have almost forgotten these ancient Christian churches, and many of their faithful are now in diaspora in Sweden, the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, and of course here in Britain.


"There was a time in living memory when, in most places of the region we are debating, the relationship between Christian and Muslim neighbours was good. They even shared in the veneration of sacred spaces and shared forms of pilgrimage. One can read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain for that fascinating story. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, referred to Caliph Umar. I must check my dates with her: I have him entering Jerusalem in 638 other than 637. The caliph was shown the great Church of Constantine by the patriarch Sophronios, but declined to pray in the church—despite being invited to, and provided with a carpet, by the patriarch. Why? Because, he explained, the Muslims would have taken over the church after his death because the caliph had prayed there. He protected that church.


"But today there are fears. As we have heard, Christian groups are subject to surveillance and harassment, churches are torched or bombed and the faithful are killed. Perhaps the relatively new, and more assertive if not aggressive, Muslim tradition of Wahabiism may be in part responsible, but so also must the political identification of Christianity with the West and western political and economic influence in the Middle East. Many Muslims now see in Christians a political instrument of the West.


"Let me give a little example of that from the early 20th century. I have already referred to the Nestorian Church, the ancient Church of the East, which is sometimes called the Assyrian Church. At the time of the First World War, the Assyrian clans supported the British against the Ottomans, and we encouraged this. Their clans then served in the Royal Air Force in Iraq and Iran in the 1920s and 1930s, so they inevitably became associated with British influence. That has become a very mixed blessing. More dangerous for all Christians since has been the association of Christianity with the more recent western interventions, as has been alluded to by the most reverend Primate and the noble Lord, Lord Wright. I urge a sensitive and informed understanding of all Christians in the Middle East, not least those who have been there since, in Christian terms, New Testament times, and who do not wish to go and who are loyal citizens of their nations.


"Let me end with a quote from the Egyptian newspaper article to which I have already referred:


“For fourteen hundred years, people of faith have lived together in peace not only respecting one another but also sharing one another’s joys and sorrows. Inshallah, God Willing, this will be the case for another fourteen hundred years”.


"That is an aspiration and a prayer, which will require not only changed perceptions but actions, both here and there."

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