When thinking of places associated with Christianity, people’s first thought is probably St. Peter’s Basilica, or some other stunning church in Europe. Today, the lore and imagery associated with Christianity come from western sources. This is not surprising considering that the main vessel through which Christianity became the world’s dominant organized religion was European colonialism. As a result, it is only natural that most people would see Christianity as a product of the West.
Nevertheless, although the western powers have been instrumental in the expansion of Christianity, the Church as an institution is fundamentally Middle Eastern. Today, as the Middle East deals with fresh violence and conflict, the birthplace of Jesus Christ is losing its Christian character at a remarkable pace. It was in the Middle East that the foundation of Christianity was established. As Christians flee the region or are persecuted by sectarian forces, Christianity’s roots, its anchor to the past, are becoming ever weaker.
Christians have played an important role in the development of the modern Middle East. Their influence in the Levantine countries, Iraq, and Egypt is undeniable. They have been, and continue to be, scholars, politicians, philosophers, innovators, artists, and freedom fighters. But for all of their efforts, the region is homogenizing. For a plethora of reasons, minority groups like Christians are losing their influence.
Jesus walked through Palestine; St. Paul had his conversion on the road to Damascus; the early church established critical strongholds in major cities like Alexandria. What will Christianity look like if these connections to the faith’s earliest days are lost? How can the future of the religion be strengthened without a foothold in the past? Christianity as a whole will suffer without the churches of the Middle East, without the rituals, traditions, and liturgical languages that were passed down from the first Christians to their progeny in the region.
The complete westernization of Christianity will not only cut Christians off from their liturgical and spiritual past, it will also serve to increase the rancor surrounding the current “clash of civilizations” international paradigm. Many sinister actors on the world stage have sought to manipulate the primal human fear of the “other” for political gain. A means by which this fear mongering has been accomplished is through the characterization of certain people as alien, as a threat to culture and society. In the West, the concept of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) has been transformed into a single term: Judeo-Christian.
By excising Islam from the western faith family, the culture of fear has been amplified. Images of terrorists, savages, foreign invaders, and other sensational depictions have successfully pushed many westerners to believe that the clash of civilizations is an existential struggle for civilization’s survival, for the soul of the “superior” western culture. A healthy population of indigenous Christians in the Middle East, of people who have lived peacefully with Muslims, Jews, and many other religions for centuries, can serve as a countermeasure, an antidote, to the idea that the entire world is involved in a clash of civilizations. As I stated earlier, the increasing homogenization of the Middle East threatens Christians and so many other regional minorities. That is why, in the wake of the numerous uprisings in the Arab World, it is absolutely essential that secularism becomes the very basis of future social and political structures in Arab states.
The Middle East is a place of untold diversity. Christians are but one patch in a colorful quilt of religions, sects, and ethnic groups. That proverbial quilt, nevertheless, is threatened. Insidious forces with wider geopolitical goals are willing to sacrifice the Middle East’s ethnic and religious heterogeneity for increased power and influence. Only a renewed belief in secularism can preserve Middle Eastern diversity and guarantee protections for minority groups like Christians. Diversity is precious; it is beautiful. Part of the wonder of the Middle East is the fact that it is a region where countless cultures and religions were born. The Middle East must remain beautiful; therefore it must remain diverse.