The vocation of Eastern Christians: issues and challenges of their relationship with Islam

Published on December 9, 2014 Updated on December 10, 2014

How can peaceful coexistence, with regards to the future of Eastern Christians in their role as witnesses of the Good News, can be established and maintained? Let’s take a look back at the international seminar which took place this year at the UCLy.

A spirit of search for truth and fraternity. This was the atmosphere that prevailed from the 26th to the 29th March at the Lyon Catholic University during the international seminar organised by the Faculty of Theology on the future of Eastern Christians. It gathered more than two hundred participants and about thirty speakers mainly from the Middle East. The opening conference was headed by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Secretary of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, Bishop Cyril Vasil and His Beatitude Louis-Raphael I Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church. Bishops, but also and above all academics or leading on-field figures, came all the way from Egypt, the Holy Land, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Irak to talk about the situation of Eastern Christians and engage in debates on the strategies to implement in times of crisis. No victimisation or denial In line with the Christian vocation, the purpose consisted in putting an end to two lethal phenomena: victimisation which leads to confinement, and denial which numbs individual conscience and conceals reality. Following a vocation implies returning to the self in the present context, in connection with the other which is part of it. For Eastern Christians, “the other” is the Muslim with whom a history, even a certain number of cultural, sometimes religious values is shared. The seminar was structured around this train of thought and was composed of plenary conferences in the morning, workshops in the afternoon and round tables to conclude each day. A geopolitical introduction seemed necessary. For the past thirty years, the increasing radicalisation of political and jihadist Islam indeed has had a major impact on Eastern Christians. Depending on the countries and their constitution, Christians attempted to flee an intolerable situation. This leads us to reflect upon two interrelated issues: 1) being a Christian in times of crisis, and 2) dealing with the diaspora, considered by some as an extension rather than a form of dispersion. In both cases, talking about Eastern Christians today however requires us to broaden our perspectives. Eastern Christians in the West are part of this reality. With their experience, sometimes their suffering, what role should they play with regards to their native region? Between the East and the West, how can solidarity on a political, economic and spiritual scale be established through them? Given their history, and cultural and religious sensitivity, what role should they therefore play in a western context where the issue of Islam is becoming more and more salient? What type of relationship and dialogue should be established with Muslims? With this in mind, the relationship to Islam results in a double question. On the one hand, the diversity of Eastern Churches: is this the result of a harmful historical divide or does it signal the ability of casting a new look on ritual, cultural or religious differences? The second question concerns the presence around Muslims: what type of relationship can be established in today’s world? Is dialogue still possible? This situation unveils the urgency of a complex issue. Its complexity derives from the interaction of several leading figures at different levels (geopolitical, economic, demographic and ecclesial), while its urgency is linked to the numerical reality which has become critical. Acting in an urgent and complex context requires detachment so as not to let emotions, sometimes imagination, take over and lead to visceral, negative and irrational reactions. Failure to act and underestimating the importance and seriousness of the situation can however be interpreted as a form of resignation and a failure to meet one’s obligations. In such context, supporting Eastern Christians is a duty, at least a moral one, which is incumbent upon all of us. It is also naturally incumbent upon Western or Eastern Christians living in the West as well as nations, particularly western ones, which support democracy and human rights. It is however also a duty which Jews and Muslims, particularly of this region, must share in their role as witnesses to religious faith. A minority that must be preserved Indeed, the credibility of people of faith is revealed through the time they dedicate to those who do not share their conviction and who are, subsequently, in a situation of minority. The sustainability of Eastern Christians thus becomes fundamental for Eastern Christians living in the West, for Western Christians, and finally for the countries where these Christians live. “If Christians disappear”, Pascal Gollnisch, managing director of the “Œuvre d’Orient”, explains, “it would mean that transition to democracy failed to take place in the countries in which they lived. Peace in the Middle East cannot be insured if minorities disappear.” This seminar is part of the current work lead by the Theology Faculty on the relationship between Christianity and Islam. As part of this work, the Faculty coordinates several projects, including a University Degree intended for leading social figures entitled “Religion, religious freedom and secularism” in partnership with the Jean Moulin Lyon 3 University, the Rhone prefecture and the French Institute of Muslim Culture. A university research platform on Islam in Europe and Lebanon (plural) for the Federation of Catholic Universities in Europe and Lebanon, constitutes another project lead by the Faculty. It finally wishes to introduce, in the coming years, a Master’s degree on the relationship between Islam and Christianity in partnership with the Saint-Joseph University of Beirut and several European universities. Michel Younès Associate professor of the faculty of Theology, head of CECR.