Christians are historical actors in the Middle East

If they often make the news for tragic reasons, the Christians of the Middle East are unknown. Sweeping received ideas, the historian Bernard Heyberger sheds light on these communities.

Caught in the tensions of the Middle East, they are fuses for conflicts that do not directly concern them. By their religious affiliation, and after centuries of french protectorate, Eastern Christians appear in France as relatives unsung whose misfortunes repeatedly arouse emotion and compassion. A glance in the rearview mirror shows yet of minorities, admittedly sometimes mistreated, but still active in life, intellectual, spiritual, artistic, social and political region. Also, before going back in the past, we asked one of their best experts to help us better understand their different communities. Historian, Bernard Heyberger did appear in 2017 The Christians of the East in the famous collection what do I know?


Who you call ‘Eastern Christians “?

In fact, I don’t like this title. There is in this expression a projection, an imaginary of the East, and the best prerequisite for the approach of these communities is to put a little distance and break this imaginary to better appreciate the reality. Most of the French who are interested in Eastern Christians are Catholics who believe so operate a back to basics; as if they could find a ‘pure’ Christianity in the Middle East, through those who have always been there and are custodians of the Christianity of the origins. That speech, Orientals themselves have partly incorporated and are used to those coming to meet them, is little sustainable. The current inhabitants of the Middle East do not live in the first centuries of our era. Most recently, the monk who welcomed me to the monastery of Saint Anthony of the desert was constantly interrupted by – its four – cell phones ringtones.

How do you explain the permanence of this myth of origins?

At the beginning of the XXe century, landscapes were intact, means of transportation and clothing, unchanged. By crossing the Bedouin of Transjordan, travellers are believed to be transported back to the time of Christ. When they visited the Christian tribes, the Dominicans of Jerusalem thought there learn something from the Bible that they came to study on the spot (creation of Biblical Jerusalem school, ED). Today, pretend to trace the way of life of Christ in the Middle East statement of the fantasy. This is due to the story that has the France, François Ier, with those that some french Catholics continue to call the “Christians of the East“, i.e. the Eastern Catholics. Some invent even a common history which would be born with – Charlemagne; others cite the letter from St. Louis to the maronites, which is a fake invented at the XIXe century – probably written by Lamartine, then translated into Arabic. On the other hand, it is true that the massacres in Damascus and the Mount Lebanon from 1860 caused a strong mobilization in France for the maronites and Greek-Catholics, and not only on the part of Catholics: I have traced the call of an Alsatian Rabbi encouraging its community to contribute to these Christians. Adolphe Crémieux (Jewish Senator from thee Republic III, Editor’s note) himself has mobilized opinion. Because if the maronite appears then as the good pious peasant as the XIXe century liked to imagine, there is also the idea that the France must take its place in the region and do not leave it to the Russians or the British. Let us not forget that a war almost burst between the France and England on this subject a few years ago.

Solidarity would so hide a colonial interest, less geopolitical.

Certainly, but not in the current sense colonialism. Unlike the Algerians, Armenians and maronites say to the French: ‘come to colonize us. You can count on us: we are the soldiers of the French presence in the East. “ It is said while the maronites brought assistance to-Bonaparte, at Acre. What is wrong. It’s hard to say today, but these are the Shia of Lebanon in the South who rescued him. The XIXe century rewritten so the relations of France with the Middle East, through his nostalgia for the Crusades and valuing glorious episodes at the expense of all the serving. Because of the weight of the press and of opinion, ideas are spreading so quickly. It is as well as the history of woes, in part invented, the Bishop of Maaloula, Grégoire Ata and its community, told by Alexandre Dumas, who had met him in Paris, was a great success. At the same time, the Œuvre of the East is founded. It is a Catholic institution for Catholics, but nonetheless in line with the policy of Napoleon III. Because, and this is another originality of the XIXe century, the State think the civilizing mission of the France pass by Catholics. This explains that from 1880 and the prohibition of congregations by the IIIe Republic, the Middle East will become a refuge for religious and will experience an incredible density of French Catholic schools.

Elsewhere in the world, is therefore not of “Eastern Christians”?

No. At their fantasy of a proximity between Anglicanism and byzantine orthodoxy, the English speak of “Orthodox Christians”, just like the Russians. They say an orthodoxy, encompassing communities around Damascus in Moscow together “Christian – Orthodox”. In fact, for many French, Eastern Christians are Catholics of Syria, in the sense of greater Syria, which is the Greek Catholic and Maronite, first and then all the Catholic communities: Catholic Syriacs, Armenians Catholics and the Catholic, very minority Copts among the Copts and not well known in France, the majority being English since English settlement. There was a francophone Christian nucleus in Egypt, but he was less composed of Copts of Egypt Syrian-Lebanese and Latin, and Nasser made them leave.

Book the end of Eastern Christians Catholics is inaccurate.

Didn’t hear that Catholic and Francophone in the term ‘Christians of the East’ is simplistic. All Christians are not Catholic in the Middle East. It must also keep a sort of compassion to the limit of the condescension that applies too often the expression “Christians of the East.” Do not forget that the Christians of the Middle East are also actors in the history of their region and not just victims, simply citing their role in the Nahda, the modernization of Arab society. Also, understand them, to wonder what means be Coptic? Maronite? Melkite? What doesn’t also have the same meaning, who lives in the country or made part of the diaspora. Because all the citizens of the countries of the Middle East are assigned to a religious by the constitution of their country identity, as there always is in these States an organization in millet, i.e. in communities. Civil status is managed by churches, any individual is registered at birth in a community. Then, the – solidarity and education systems are faith-based.

Even today?

That’s right. For example, when I go to Beirut, I usually stay near the Orthodox hospital, which itself is located close to the French-speaking Catholic hospital. In some countries, we also see that Christian institutions persist even when there is more faithful; for example in Palestine, where Christians have practically disappeared, there are still many hospitals and schools Christian. Conversely, if we look at a map of Christian institutions in 1911 for the ottoman sultan, we see that the schools and Christian hospitals in the Empire do not coincide with the location of communities, because some Christian 100% villages are not included.

Attempt to identify these communities and to trace their history statement so the puzzle.

In fact, it can seem quite simple once one decides to leave institutions, to assign people and follow them through the centuries. We can thus tell the story cut into chapters, type: maronites from the origins to the present day, the Copts from the origins to our days, and so on with the Greeks and all communities. I disagree against this method. Of course, these people are all pretty much in the same situations of minority after the Muslim conquest. But a large part of their history is also explained by their own interactions. By studying, for example, the practice of Eastern Christian youth, I searched if ramadan had an influence on them, in vain. But I discovered texts of the middle ages where, among Christians, each claim that others commit a sin because they do not follow the same rules of fasting and of abstinence as them.

The rivalry between the churches would therefore not expected Islam.

Certainly, and they continued after the conquest. Issues such as that of the young are less theological than identity, but they allow communities to distinguish themselves through the practices. Traditionally, when it comes to the origins of these communities, they are theological disputes, but they also separated on other points. The heresies and schisms problem at the beginning of the IVe century, when Constantin decides that Christianity is the religion of the Empire. We then installed bishops and fixed a dogma unified for all the churches. Christians are then divided between those who adhere to the religion of the Emperor and those who refuse it.

And this is how differences will eventually become fractures.

The Christians of Persia, who are on the side of the enemy, in fact refuse to align. They will form the first dissenting Church, the Church of Ctesiphon, composed of Nestorians, or assyro-Chaldeans. After the early councils from Nicaea to Chalcedon, where it comes to dogma and imposing, the theological quarrel doubles as a political quarrel. So far, the two major Christian capitals were Antioch and Alexandria. But as we set dogma to Chalcedon, it was decided that Constantinople past Alexandria. As a result, the Church of Egypt, which is very powerful, is problem, which creates the other major division of the origins. is the place where you can find all related posts.

Islam he accentuated the fragmentation of Christians?

Muslim power maintains divisions, or rather, sometimes promotes such community and sometimes another. More than a perverse game, it comes more often to referee disputes. You can find formulas such as “all Christians form a milla (community)”, which means “their quarrels do not concern us.” Thus, in Ottoman times, taxes owed by Christians is a distribution tax, each community to carry out a part of the amount required. However, in Aleppo, for example, milla was composed of Greek, Syriac, maronites, Armenians and some Nestorians. What has given rise to endless disputes, and sometimes pushed Christians unable to pay their taxes to go to Islam in the world today in order to no longer be subject.

Christians–and Jews–were victims of the Islamic conquest.

A reminder, prior to be conquered by the Arabs, these lands have been by the Persians who will occupy them for 20 years. Then, it would seem that in the first century of the Hegira, Arabs do to be little concerned to Islamise. The image of the hordes of Bedouin ending Roman civilization is therefore invented. The recent work of historians have shown that the Byzantine cities already languished ine century V. The various ecological and social transformations at work will prepare the ground for the conquest to thee century VII. Then, the Islamization of the Middle East will be gradual: the name of Mohammed appeared for the first time around 700, 80 years after the conquest. And the first inscriptions have been found in Arabic are Christian. The disappearance of the images on coins date only 720. It is that between the IX and VIIIe e centuries that islam is formalized, with the writing of the life of the Prophet and the first collections of hadith. The same history of the conquest, official, builds up then. Images are not allowed, the Caliphs take the title of Commander of the faithful and impose Arabic as the official language. Anti-Christian phrases of the Quran are then engraved on the Dome of the rock in Jerusalem. Islam crystallizes and becomes more visible, but this requires more covering the landscape of tombs of Muslim saints and mosques by the conversions.

So, the historical reality is less dark than we sometimes think.

Conquered is always victim and from majority to minority status, Christians have been penalized. But their cohabitation with Muslims is not just about this. At the Court of the Abbasids, to the IIIe century of the Hegira, the Nestorians have a privileged position and never had as many bishoprics and metropolitans. For what is the status of minorities, Sharia is less a code of law as a collection of prescriptions that never apply to the letter. As for the Pact of Umar, who only dates from the XIe century – a list of discriminatory requirements for Christians and the Jews – we can say that never these rules themselves are applied simultaneously. Crises have not failed, however, and is a feature of Islamic of yesterday like today societies, each time that a ruler is facing problems of legitimacy and a popular uprising – led by the ulema who preach a return to islam and Sharia-, he confiscates a church or closes the flow of wine. But this is regulated is always, in one way or another. Thus, in Aleppo, are texts of the XVIIIe century imposing discriminatory rules for the bathroom, etc. But it was an “outrage,” which Christians were getting lifted for cash.

Currently, it is keeping them in the region that is in question.

It is a fact. But the threats weighing on them are intended as anyone in the Middle East, opposed to Islamic fundamentalism. That’s why defend the maintenance of Christians in this region that is their’s defend pluralism in the Middle East. However, do not confuse solidarity with Christians with a rejection of Muslims. Station to the political manipulation, particularly on the part of the extreme right, misfortunes of those minorities to better fuel Islamophobia. It is ignore their historical role and put them in danger. It’s also, despise by reducing passive victims whose fate depend on outside intervention.

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