Interview with Jesuit Father Samir Khalil
By Robert Cheaib
VATICAN CITY, 21 OCT. 2010 (ZENIT)
The role of the civic state in stressing values such as citizenship is key in keeping a place for Christians in the Middle East, says Jesuit Father Samir Khalil.
Christians in the Middle East are not victims of a systematic persecution, but they are subjected to a discrimination that is slowly extinguishing their presence in that region.
The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which is under way through Sunday, has a crucial responsibility in proposing a remedy to this phenomenon that the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Archbishop Louis Sako, called "the hemorrhage of Middle Eastern Christians."
In this interview with ZENIT, Father Khalil, an expert in Islam and the history of the Middle East, gives an historical-religious picture of the present situation in that region, analyzing the most urgent challenges and suggesting some solutions.
Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.
ZENIT: Although it is not the only argument treated by the Synodal Fathers, we note, however, the great importance given to the geopolitical aspect of the Christian presence in the Middle East and in particular their relationship with Islam. Is this perhaps the most important and truly decisive aspect of their existence and permanence in the Middle East?
Father Khalil: There is no doubt that being a minority that does not exceed 10% of the population of the Middle East — whereas the vast majority is of the Muslim religion — our existence depends on the consent of this majority, above all because Islam is conceived as state and religion.
And as for more than 30 years now the majority of the Middle Eastern states have adopted an Islamist approach to the state reality, where religion decides all the particulars of daily social and political life.
It goes without saying that in these conditions our situation depends on the good will of Muslims and of the Islamic system. It's not surprising therefore, that the issue has been given much importance, as you rightly noted.
ZENIT: You are of Egyptian origin, but you live in Lebanon, and being an expert of Islam you are often in direct contact with Muslims. How would you describe your relationship with them?
Father Khalil: I make immediately a distinction between Muslims on an individual level and Islamic systems, simply because with Muslims taken individually it is possible to establish a very beautiful dialogue and an intercultural and religious encounter.
Allow me to recount an anecdote to confirm what I say: Yesterday evening I was contacted on Skype by a Sunni Muslim of northern Lebanon, whom I met by chance on a plane a month ago.
Our conversation was centered on the Trinity and prayer. During the conversation he said to me: "Doctor, I would like to introduce you to my wife." In the East, this gesture means that you are now part of the family.
Therefore, taken individually the Muslim — paradoxically — is much closer to us Eastern Christians than a European citizen. There is a religious sense that is shared and unites us.
But if we must speak of Islamism the discourse changes radically because it is a political project with a religious background.
As Eastern Christians, we would like to be treated simply as citizens with a constitution that transcends all religions. But in the greater part of cases in our countries the constitution is based essentially — if not totally — on Islamic law. And this is our problem. Apart from a few cases such as Lebanon, even the states that are constitutionally secular, as is the case of Tunisia, Syria and Turkey, they are culturally Islamic countries and favor citizens of Muslim religion.
ZENIT: The Islamic revival is a very complex phenomenon that has different origins: the currents of "ressourcement" such as Wahhabism; the antagonistic reading of the West presented in the mid 20th century by personalities such as Sayyid Qutb, founder of the Muslim Brothers; the different cultural prejudices which erroneously make the West and Christianity coincide; the recent American wars considered as crusades against Islam; Western partiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in your opinion, what is the pivot of this exponential development of political Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism?
Father Khalil: On one hand there is an Islamist wave, born at the beginning of the 70s.
Beginning in 1973, an economic phenomenon occurred following the war between Israel and the Arab countries, which saw the price of crude oil quadruple in a few months. Thus the oil countries found themselves unexpectedly with a mountain of petro-dollars.
Saudi Arabia, not knowing what to do with this immense fortune, used it to a great extent to build mosques and Islamic schools. Saudi Arabia financed the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and their plan was clear: to Islamize Egyptian society because it wasn't sufficiently Muslim. Then it carried out the same operation in all the countries of the Middle East.
Thus at the beginning of the 80s, the Muslim Brothers became so numerous as to be considered a danger in Syria, and the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, subjugated them with force.
Indonesia, a couple of decades ago, was considered the paradise of religious liberty in a Muslim country; so many priests were converts from Islam. Now this is an impossible phenomenon.
The same in Nigeria: In the last decade the number of provinces that have implemented Islamic law has risen from four to 12. Europe, with about 5% of Muslims, already feels invaded and threatened.
Thus German chancellor Angela Merkel launched the alarm a few days ago announcing the failure of the model of integration, because it is precisely they who do not wish to integrate. And why don't they integrate? Because they have a religious project, whereas the states where they live have religious-national projects.
ZENIT: In the face of this rather complex and critical situation, what has the Synod of Bishops done and what does it intend to do?
Father Khalil: We Christians of the East live in the midst of this rampant phenomenon, where Islam gains a footing day after day, to such a point that in the Arab League the first question is always this: How to address Islamism.
And the synod is giving particular attention to the relationship with Islam. Those seated in the synod are asking why people are leaving their lands, the cradle of Christianity.
In the Arab world there isn't persecution against Christians, but there is discrimination. Christians are not treated in the same way as Muslims. Muslims are the normal citizens, recipients of the laws. Others, constitutionally, are citizens, but concretely the laws — in as much as they stem from the Muslim system — leave Christians in a disadvantaged condition.
Moreover, liberty of conscience is non-existent; there is only tolerance that consists in putting up with Christians staying in Muslim land but with so many limits. It's not possible, however, to leave Islam for another religion. All these situations have been in recent days the focus of attention of the synodal fathers.
ZENIT: The diagnosis you have given touches on different causes of suffering for Christians of the East, but the question is: Is there a way out, or are the proposals and resolutions only a utopia and will they remain only a reserved prognosis?
Father Khalil: There is only one way out, and that is to point to certain shared concepts, such as that of "citizenship" or of "Arab membership," both mainly recognized by Muslims.
Movements that promoted these values at the beginning of the 20th century had so much success because they carried with them a breath of novelty that invited coming out of the tribal view; but lately this view has been set aside and replaced by the concept of the Umma, the Islamic nation.
During Nasser's presidency, up to the mid 70s, the concept was the Umma al-Arabiyya [the Arab nation], but from the mid 70s and after the concept prevailed of the Umma al-Islamiyya [the Islamic nation], which does not leave room for non-Muslims.
The solution is to try to propose to Muslims and Christians a modern concept of state, not only at the political level, but also at the cultural level.
ZENIT: The proposal is concrete but somewhat unrealizable in the cultural scene of the East. How can the feasible be made factual?
Father Khalil: Precisely here the proposal of the synod for the Middle East comes in: It is not about devising a Christian project, and much less so a project of Christians or for Christians, because in this way we reflect our being a minority seeking to be protected.
We are not seeking protection for ourselves, but what we say reflects the word also of so many Muslims who recognize, as we do, that the Arab nation is not well because it suffers from a breakdown in the exercise of democracy, in the distribution of riches and in the establishment of social justice and of a state of law, in the reform of the health system.
Islam is very sensitive to these dimensions. Liberty of conscience and of expression is desired by so many, and this not because people want to distance themselves from Islam, but because they want to live Islam in a more personal way.
In the Islamic world there is a sense of modernity and liberty that does not dare to manifest itself. A Christian can write criticizing his patriarch or bishop, whereas it is difficult for a Muslim to do so. Not because someone in particular prohibits him, but because the culture itself impedes him. The imam are the ulema [the learned] and their learning is not disputed.
And I confirm that with the above-mentioned proposals it is not about rendering Muslims less Muslims or Christians less Christians but of saying that faith is a personal issue even if it has its social dimension, and each one must live his faith as he is inspired by God.
Interview with Jesuit Father Samir Khalil
By Robert Cheaib
VATICAN CITY, 22 OCT. 2010 (ZENIT)
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East is a dilemma, but there is also a positive side if the people keep their faith strong, says Jesuit Father Samir Khalil.
ZENIT spoke with Father Khalil, an expert in Islam and the history of the Middle East, about several issues being discussed in the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which is underway through Sunday in Rome.
Part 1 of this interview was published Thursday.
ZENIT: The proposal of "positive secularism" cannot be successful in the Islamic ambit because secularism — 'elmaniyya in Arabic — sounds like a distancing from and an abandonment of God in favor of worldliness. Do you think the other concept proposed, namely, the "civic state" will be more fortunate, or will the East choose the Islamist proposal whose slogan is "al-islam huwa l-hall," [Islam is the solution/answer], disappointed as it is by the religious, moral and identity failure of the West?
Father Khalil: The West, to tell the truth, has gone too far, to the point of dissolving the roots of its own identity. Let's recall the Pope's address at Regensburg on 2006 where the criticism was essentially of Western culture that has gone beyond the Enlightenment to identify culture with materialism.
Your question refers to the force of fundamental Islam. The reasoning of the fundamentalists is the following: The West has a plan of civilization, but its model is a model of corruption: sexual perversion and libertinage, adultery, the dissolution of the family, abortion. It's an unacceptable plan for Islam which sees it as corrupt and far from God.
The modernity preached by the West is now a synonym of atheism and immorality. For them, Christianity, identified in turn with the West, is finished. Similarly, Marxism and Socialism have failed in the eyes of all.
The solution is Islam, and the proof is that when in the past we implemented Islam to the letter, we conquered the whole of the Mediterranean. This was Ghaddafi's reasoning when he visited Italy recently: "In 2050 Europe will be Muslim in the majority." His forecast will happen if the attitude of Christians doesn't change.
ZENIT: So many Eastern Christians are tired of exhortations to remain in their land, above all because these exhortations come from those who live comfortably in their rich and free West. The eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the first persecution of Christians, which scattered the community (with the exception of the Apostles). This negative event was revealed subsequently as a kairos that allowed Christians to spread the Gospel everywhere. Don't you think that the present situation, which is causing the exodus and flight of Christians, can be a sign of the times?
Father Khalil: So many people in the Middle East say to me: "To stay here is ever more difficult. If it's true now for us, we don't know how it will be for our children."
I answer with three points: In the first place, no one can oblige anyone to stay. Every family has the right to decide where and how it will live. It's not up to us because we are priests to tell them that they should stay.
However, I add a second point: If at the personal level, perhaps it is best for one to emigrate to Canada, Australia or France, it isn't so at the community and general level. If all did so, this region would soon find itself without Christians; in fact, in the land of the birth of Christianity there would no longer be any Christians. Hence we have a great vocation and responsibility.
The third point: If we all find ourselves in the land of diaspora, can we still maintain our Eastern identity? It is difficult to maintain the culture and tradition of origin more than two or three generations.
And this, again, is not a personal problem but a problem at the level of the universal Church: If an Eastern tradition disappears, this constitutes a great loss for the whole Church. John Paul II said that the Church has two lungs, the Eastern Church and the Western Church. If one of these realities was to be lacking, the Church would be reduced to only one lung and it would lack breath.
Hence, I say to Christians: Whether you emigrate or stay isn't the real question; the essential thing is to keep your faith. Propose the faith to your children; and if you see wherever you go that many Christians no longer have faith, transmit it to them.
What you say from the book of the Acts is that the mission was born from an unexpected difficult event, and that it was revealed as a chance for the faith itself. But this happened with one condition: They had the fire of the faith in their heart. If we, instead, start by having at heart the desire for money, our immigration will contribute nothing.
What is essential is that this fire of the Gospel remain in the heart. If one stays in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, one must maintain this fire to transmit it to the brethren of Islam. If one goes to America or other countries, one must transmit it to one's new fellow citizens.
ZENIT: Is it enough to give advice and pastoral guidelines to Christians of the East to make them stay in the East? Don't you think, rather, that it is necessary to support them economically, knowing that in Lebanon, for example, the Shi'ites were strongly supported economically by Iran and the Sunnis by the Gulf countries, and this fact allowed them to improve their social and political condition?
Father Khalil: I think our problem in the Middle East is not financial.
Let's take the case of Lebanon. In the country we have billionaires in every quarter of Beirut. There are so many works of charity in Lebanon launched by Christians. The aid that comes from abroad, to which you referred, comes as part of a political propaganda that the Church cannot do because it isn't a nation. And there is no Christian nation to do it.
Immigrants certainly can help, and we know that many immigrants contribute to the support of their relatives. This help can be improved, but this is not what solves the problem.
There is a need to project, to offer clear and secure projects, so that the money that is requested from Christian benefactors has a traceable route, and it is not stolen along its route to concrete works. And in this our clergy does not give a good example of affability given their not very evangelical attachment to appearance and riches.
Hence, the invitation to conversion resounds again, to purification of our lives to make it more consonant with the Gospel.
ZENIT: The synod was covered in the mainstream by only two Mideast television networks (both Lebanese). It is also lamentable that the Italian media gave it scarce coverage. To what is this fact due? To the prejudice that what the bishops will say will remain only ink on paper? To indifference to what the Church lives and says? To lack of interest in the Middle East?
Father Khalil: I wonder perhaps if the fact is simply due to the presence of few Arab journalists to follow the news in Rome. Or perhaps they have asked themselves: What can a bishop do to change the situation in Iraq, in Palestine or in Lebanon?
Catholics are a small minority in Egypt, therefore the Copts and Muslims are not interested. The only ones who can follow the synod whether out of interest or capacity are journalists of Lebanon.
As regards Western newspapers, I believe they start from a concept of consumerism. They do not make a product if they do not know if it will sell and will make them earn money.
The headlines unfortunately do not value the importance of the arguments and events in themselves but are conditioned by the audience. A scandal or sexual scoop sells much more than a synod that seeks its path slowly.
At times the fault is ours. People are not informed either on the events or on their meaning and importance.
I think that in this area Lebanon does so much: through Zenit, Tele Lumiere and LBC. This media contribution gives Lebanon its avant-garde post for all Christians in the Middle East.
ZENIT: To conclude, in your opinion what are the attitudes that make the investment of human and economic resources in this synod fruitful?
Father Khalil: I think that the principal attitude that the participants must assume is sincerity, and a critical sense to specify with frankness and clarity what goes, what doesn't go, and what can be improved.
In regard to the attitude that I desire for Christians of the East, I think they must have a priori a favorable outlook. At the bottom, so many positive resources are invested in the synod: There are thousands of hours of work and effort that commit a great number of persons intent on doing their best.
Because of this I would say that the corresponding attitude of Christians must be seriousness. It's a question of our future, not of the future of bishops, but of the future of several million Christians and not only of Catholics.
In his intervention Mohammad Sammak confirmed the role that Christians played in forming the identity of the Middle East, stating that without them our society would not be what is it. Christians have played a fundamental role in past and recent history, enriching Arab society culturally, sociologically, politically and spiritually.
If this role is not to be a memory of the past but a reality of the present, Christians — bishops and faithful — must foster communion — not only among themselves but also with others, with the Muslims. And they must also live the mission, not in the sense of dull proselytism, but they must live the essence of the Gospel which is a proclamation, beautiful news of which we, modestly, are the heralds.
[Translation by ZENIT]