Middle East Christians: Searching for a ‘Christian Country’

The Middle East’s Christian communities frequently make headlines as they emigrate rapidly from from ancient homelands to Europe and the Americas. The Centre for the Study of World Christianity and the Christian-Muslim Studies Network co-sponsored a discussion that explored the fate of those whose emigration led them to the United Kingdom.

Dr Fiona McCallum, a lecturer in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, presented findings from the Humanities in the European Research Area project, ‘Defining and Identifying Middle Eastern Christian Communities in Europe’. Dr Fiona McCallum in New College

Dr McCallum’s work found an audience of particular interest at the Centre for World Christianity at New College, where two PhD students have launched research in the fledgling field of Arab Christianity.

The first student to express interest in the ancient Christian communities is Elizabeth Marteijn, who is spending the second year of her PhD studies in the West Bank. Working in a Palestinian village where Christianity is part of the landscape, Ms Marteijn is developing a methodology that integrates anthropology and theology. Her contribution to this field will continue to develop the focus on Arab Christianity at New College, where she also received her master’s degree.

Lucy Schouten, a first-year PhD student, also completed her masters degree at New College. Her current research lies in Jordan, where she explores the Christian response to refugee crisis both practically and theologically. Her research, like Dr McCallum’s, melds the burgeoning field of migration studies with her study of contemporary Christianity.

The dynamic for Christian-Muslim relations among the Middle East’s native Christian communities can be particularly complex. The Christian immigrants arrive in the United Kingdom anxious to participate in the cultural milieu of a ‘Christian country’ — and frustrated to find themselves mistaken for the Muslim Egyptians or Iraqis they left behind.

‘They’re having to constantly explain who they are, that there are Christians in the Middle East, and it usually ends with [their British neighbours saying], “But I’m sure you’ll still fast at Ramadan”’, Dr McCallum explained.

Another source of frustration, said Dr McCallum, accompanies the realization that the United Kingdom is less of a ‘Christian country’ than many had supposed. This frustration becomes disillusionment when the immigrants discover that they have become too British for Egypt or Iraq, but British society may marginalize them because of ethnic, rather than religious, boundaries.

These struggles raise questions not only about the nature of belonging and shifting identities post-migration, but also about the definition of religion itself, particularly when migrating from a Middle Eastern to a Western context.

This discussion also produced questions about the efficacy of a worldwide Christian identity, in light of Dr McCallum’s findings. Dr McCallum and her colleagues found advocacy organizations that operated along strict denominational lines, and unified efforts to aid Christians worldwide or even ‘Middle Eastern Christianity’ were rare. These lines, some speculated, may have hardened in response to the stresses of migration.

At the same time, those working toward financial or political advocacy for co-religionists back home believed that whatever poverty, oppression, or violence might be faced by Iraqis or Egyptians generally, a Christian identity would render it more severe.

‘There is an understanding that if Christians in the diaspora don’t help these groups, then who is going to help them’, Dr McCallum said.

For Middle Eastern Christians, as for anyone on the move in a globalized world, the question is one of identity – and home. ‘Is home the Middle East? Is home the UK?’ Dr McCallum explains, ‘Your answer to that is going to determine what you think is important.’

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