Many are old, some are fat, but the bishops and patriarchs of the Middle East are flexing their muscles in Rome at the regional Synod over the next two weeks. Pope Benedict has gathered religious leaders to find ways to stem the exodus of Christians who now number just 15 million in the Middle East against 215 million Muslims.
Even though Christian churches in the region have had a far greater voice than their numbers warrant – and in places like Lebanon still retain considerable power – the timing of this council is unfortunate. Not only do more peace talks between Israel and Palestine look like failing, but there is a perceived lack of success against the Taliban, an apparent muddle left in Iraq, political ramifications against Iran’s determination to possess a nuclear bomb, new oil contract considerations and the continuation of the American Evangelical support for Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
This all fuels the anti-Christian bias of Islamic fundamentalists who see what they call the Judaeo-Christian West meddling with the Islamic East as a threat. But western influence is just one of the reasons. Another is the lack of unity among the Christians themselves. Christians are referred to as if they are a monolithic whole, but rivalries and divisions make each denomination separate. Another overlooked factor which adds to emigration for Arab Christians is the ease with which they can set themselves up in new countries. Huge numbers are already well-established in the West.
Since the invasion of Iraq at least 200,000 beleaguered Christians have emigrated to Jordan, Syria and the West and joined the hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians who, in the past 60 years, have fled to the West. There are now just under one and a half million Arabs in America alone. Three-quarters of them are Christians. In Britain there are around half a million Arabs. We won’t know the number of Christians among them until the census next March when, for the first time, they have been given a separate category.
In the 22 states that belong to the Arab League, thousands of Christians are restless to follow the lead of the Palestinian Edward Said to America or the Egyptian heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yaccoub to England.
Continued emigration has left Jerusalem with one of the highest churches per capita rate in the world. Estimates are around one church for every 177 Christians in the city; in 1948 the ratio was over 500. But they are neither ghost churches nor on the road to being a Christian Disneyworld.
The lack of unity among the Christian denominations is another distinct problem. Apart from Lebanon, no country has a multi-denominational Christian council with any power attached to it. The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem is not a truly representative body. It has little more authority than a club. Its members, the 10 Recognised Religious Communities – the Latin Catholics, the Melkites (Greek Catholics), the Maronites, the Syrian Catholics, the Armenian Catholics, the Anglicans, the Chaldeans, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox – plus the Lutherans and the Church of Scotland, meet each month in Jerusalem. They issue joint press statements on political events, but lack collective power. None have yet relinquished their independence, authority – or cash flow.
At the Synod the bishops should look at the example of the Middle East Council of Churches, a lobby group on behalf of the churches, who live with and alongside their neighbours, especially Islam, rather than creating a “supra-church” profile.