The future of Christians in the Middle East and the creation of a society in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews can peacefully coexist lies in an internal struggle between the peaceful Muslim majority and a minority of fundamentalists.
A successful change will require the emergence of leaders in the Muslim world who have the religious importance to promote a different reading of the Koran and the life of Mohammed. So says Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit, who is one of the Church’s leading experts on Islam.
Fr. Samir, who teaches Islamic studies and the History of Arab culture at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, is the founder of the Centre de Recherche Arabes Chrétiennes and president of the International Association for Christian Arabic Studies. The Jesuit priest sat down with CNA recently to discuss several interconnected issues regarding the Muslim world.
Samir touched on the difficulties experienced by Christians in the Middle East, hopes for the future, the foundations of Islam, and the struggle between fundamentalists and most Muslims.
Christians in the Middle East
Fr. Samir said the reality for Christian communities in the Middle East is “very, very difficult.”
“To be honest there is a very pessimistic vision in most all countries of the Middle East. Christians are feeling its more difficult everyday to remain in the countries where we are. I’m thinking first of Iraq, where a lot of Christians are fleeing, going out of Iraq because they feel they have no place.”
Fr. Samir said that all indications are of an emerging Iraq, which will be divided between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Muslims, “and the Christians have no place because there are small communities spread everywhere.”
Iraqi Christians, he noted, are now fleeing to Jordan, Syria, and – to a lesser extent – Lebanon. At the same time, he added, most of them are going to other Middle Eastern countries simply as a first step towards the United States or other countries.
The same, he said, holds true in Israel. The Jesuit pointed to the recent plea by Patriarch Michael Sabbah of the Latin Archdiocese of Jerusalem, asking Christians to remain in the Holy Land. It’s extremely difficult for Christians to remain, he said, because they are “in between…the Islamic fundamentalist movements and the Jewish fundamentalist movements.”
Fr. Samir lamented that the emigration problem is the same in Lebanon, where following the war in July and August, scores of Christians fled, many of them choosing not to return. “The whole situation of the Middle East makes the position of Christians very delicate, very difficult. How to help them stay in there is difficult, to oblige them, to tell them it’s a moral obligation to remain, because every person is thinking of his own family,” he said.
“If we think as a group,” Fr. Samir continued, “it’s a catastrophe because we are going towards - in 50 years [or so] - towards a reduction of the Christianity in the whole area as we have seen in Turkey…or Iran.”
The priest noted that his