Eastern Christians: five years ago, few in French society knew of their existence. But following the emergence of ISIS, that has changed. Many articles and programmes have since highlighted the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Now an exhibition, Chrétiens d’Orient. Deux mille ans d’histoire (“Eastern Christians: 2,000 years of history”), is raising that awareness still further. It is housed at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in the heart of Paris.

The Institut du Monde Arabe is a very important cultural institution, created in 1980 by 18 Arab countries with France. Its director is Jack Lang, culture minister under François Mitterrand in the 1980s. Presenting the exhibition, he said: “Youssef Chahine, Edward Saïd, Albert Cossery, Sister Marie Keyrouz, Andrée Chedid, Khalil Gibran… all are Arabs. All are Christians. Listing those names, all famous, all invoked as so many standard-bearers of Arab cultural excellence, would suffice to take the measure of the essential role played in the past – and still being played today – by its Christian component.”

The exhibition has been an incredible success, attracting some 100,000 visitors in three months. The first section focuses on the “birth and development of Christianity in the East”. Six masterpieces of Eastern Christianity – a Syriac Bible, an Egyptian icon, a Jordanian mosaic and works from Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon – illustrate the story of Christians of the Levant in the first centuries AD. The early periods of evangelisation and persecution are described well.

The second and the third parts of the exhibition cover “the Eastern Churches after the Muslim Conquest” and “15th-20th century Eastern Churches between Orient and Occident” respectively. A reflection on the place of images in Christianity is illustrated by works such a Virgin and Child fresco from 13th-century Lebanon and an 11th-century Evangeliary, or Book of the Gospels, from Turkey, belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.

Several of the 300 works on display come directly from the libraries and monasteries of the Eastern patriarchates and are exhibited for the first time, thanks to a partnership with L’Oeuvre d’Orient. This French Catholic institution, created in 1856, helped the Institut du Monde Arabe to locate these works and negotiate their temporary transfer.

The exhibition’s fourth and final part, “20th-21st centuries: being Christian in the Arab world today”, focuses on the tenacity of Eastern Christians. It employs more creativity and, of course, fewer historical works than the preceding sections. It finishes with striking contemporary pictures showing the everyday life of today’s Middle East Christians.

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