The remains of the Amir Tadros Coptic Church in Minya, southern Egypt. (VIRGINIE NGUYEN HOANG/AFP/Getty Images) – originally published here
By Martin Accad
The Church of the Middle East is on life support, and fingers regularly point at Islam as the cause of its demise. Some, like influential popular historian Philip Jenkins, have already begun to toll the funeral bells. How do you prepare future leaders for the Arab church in such circumstances? And are there lessons to be learned for the church beyond the Middle East? As a teacher of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and dialogue, here are the top three challenges that I am keenly aware of when teaching the discipline to Christians of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region:
First, Christians of the MENA region tend to come to seminary with considerably high levels of negative feelings and ideas about Islam and Muslims.
Secondly, Christianity as we know it and have known it for 2000 years in the MENA region may not even exist anymore by the time my children reach the age of my seminary students.
Thirdly, the Evangelical students that represent the large majority before me at seminary are staunch believers in evangelism and in the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.
These significant ‘challenges’ – and I do not say ‘problems’ – make up the primary context of the Arab Christian seminary student, and therefore they should drive much of theological education. If, as I suspect, these characteristics are increasingly common to Christians globally (though the second may come more slowly for the church outside the Middle East), then the three challenges may hold some lessons for the global church beyond the Arab classroom as well. There are good reasons that lie behind each of these top three challenges.
First of all, my students’ negative feelings and ideas are not unfounded. They are based on certain facts of history as well as on their personal, family, and communal memory. I may disagree with some of their reading of history and interpretation of experience, but I cannot deny the reality of their feelings and resulting inner struggle.
Second, the ongoing demise of Christianity in the MENA region is sufficient reason to pay very careful attention to my students’ negative feelings. We cannot lightly dismiss the fears that most MENA Christians live with on a daily basis. During the first half of the twentieth century, Christians (Armenian, Syriac, and Greek) reached near-extinction in Turkey, the former cradle of Christianity as we know it.
In the decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of Christians emigrated out of Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. These lands where Christianity was born became heirs both to centuries of Islamic imperial and western colonial dominance. And the postcolonial nation-states that emerged became hostage to dictatorial and suppressive regimes that victimized not only Christians but all voices of dissent, difference, and diversity.
At the turn of this century, it has become quite clear that entire Christian communities in Iraq and Syria will never recover from the targeted obliteration of which they are now victim. They suffer both from the unstoppable rise in religious fanaticism expressed in Islamic terms, and from the action of foreign governments that often have little regard for the historical realities of their countries.
With this background and context in mind, can I blame my Christian seminarians for holding on to stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, or for feeling negatively about their future prospects, as well as those of their children and community, in the region?
As for my students’ strong attachment to evangelism, it seems as much connected to the nature of religion as it is to fundamental Biblical tenets. Religions are by nature constructs of competing truth claims. Islam, from the Qur’ān onwards, has attempted to co-opt Christianity and Judaism by claiming alignment with the Judeo-Christian message. Yet its dogmatic affirmations about the Singleness of God and about Muhammad as the ‘seal of the prophets’ have stood high as a radical challenge to Christianity’s more nuanced understanding of God’s unity and to its core theological claims about Christ. The point is that religions compete, and most Muslims are as keen on gaining converts to Islam as are most Christians on gaining converts to Christianity.
It is also fair to say that this keenness is not born out of nothing, but out of a legitimate understanding that Christians and Muslims have of their Scriptures’ mandatory call to mission. Thus, mission is not a ‘problem’ that needs to be liquidated, but it certainly is a ‘challenge.’ The challenge cannot be brushed under the carpet, and in the pluralistic world we live in, we need an evolving theology of mission that continually informs our communities’ practice.
Much of my teaching of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and dialogue, then, has come to consist in the ‘management’ of these three major challenges. Furthermore, the reasonable amount of experience I have teaching Islam in the West tells me that these challenges are quite significant there as well.
When I teach Islam to Arab Christian students, I find it utterly important to help them reflect on their attitudes and feelings towards Islam and Muslims. Their feelings may prevent them from even engaging with Muslims, or conversely they may cause them to interact with them only aggressively or defensively. Their understanding of Islam may cause them to categorize all Muslims in a single box that generates in them feelings of fear, bitterness, or distrust. I consider it more important for a seminary education to address these sorts of feelings in students than simply to increase their knowledge about Islam – although the latter is certainly crucial too in the next stages. This conviction requires a realistic and pragmatic approach to feelings and emotions rather than a repressive or idealistic approach.
As for the real possibility that Christianity as we have known it historically in the MENA region could cease to exist, the solution is not to fan these fears and respond to them by developing strategies of war against Islam. But rather the transformation should start from within. My approach has been to increase students’ awareness about the diversity in Islam. When students realize that most of the Muslims they know from every-day life – the ‘real’ Muslims – are not bent on violence and on harming them, they begin realizing that the minority population in the MENA region are not the Christians, but rather the militant nihilists who use religion not only against them but also against their Muslim neighbors of all streams.
Finally, our Evangelical Christian attachment to evangelism and conversion needs to go through a radical paradigm shift. It is when we withdraw ourselves from the cosmic war of religions that we come that much closer to Christ’s Gospel. We need to realize that the Gospel is not about increasing the number of Christians in order to win a demographic war against Muslims. Jesus did not address the ills of his society by seeking to make people more religious – in his case more Jewish. He did it by teaching them how to be more loving, more self-sacrificial, more like the children of their Father in heaven – in short, more like him, less religious.
When we refocus our lens and reframe our perspective on the MENA region, we discover that as formal Christianity decreases, there is inversely a growing movement of Christ-followers entering the Kingdom of God with looser ties to the more formal religious institution. An increasing number in this subversive movement are not interested primarily in winning a war against a particular religion. Unwittingly, we may be witnessing a discreet revolution that will overturn the societies of the MENA region as we know them. So when some of us feel inclined to toll the funeral bells for the official representative historical church in the MENA region – whose reality on the ground is very sad indeed – we may want to pause and give some thought to the Body of Christ beyond the institutional walls.