Prologue to Lent: Remembering Middle East Christians

Two weeks ago, on February 2nd, Orthodox Christians entered into a liturgical cycle of five Sundays that theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diocletia has summed up as the “Prologue to Lent.”  For most Orthodox Christians, the Sundays of Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the Last Judgment, and Forgiveness, signal a time of preparation for us as we begin that journey of mystery, passion, prayer, and Tradition that we know as Great and Holy Lent.  The Church in all its wisdom has given us these five Prologue Sundays as a kind of roadmap, with very specific signposts—clear vision, humility, repentance, judgment, and forgiveness—guiding us towards Lent. 

As an Orthodox Christian, I’m constantly struck by the profound resonance of the Church’s teachings for making sense of our world.  As an academic, policymaker, and former diplomat, working daily on issues of religion, human rights, and security, I am well accustomed to looking for analytic signposts and to developing roadmaps, all towards the goal of respect for human dignity, universal human rights that include religious freedom, justice and reconciliation, and peace in our world. 

With the Prologue to Lent now underway, I've been especially mindful of the tragedy that is the daily reality of our fellow Orthodox Christians who are struggling for survival in the ancient lands of Christ's birth and teachings and in the lands where Christ's disciples preached the Good News. The struggles of today's Middle East Christians are a reminder to all of us, who are free, safe, and comfortable as Orthodox Christians in America, of the responsibility to live as fully as possible the messages of these Sundays of Prologue to Lent.

A brief review of some basics in geography and politics should help us to understand how Orthodox Christians in the Middle East take seriously the Prologue to a Lent.  According to the Pew Research Center, less than one percent of the world's 5.3 billion Christians now live in the lands of Christianity's origins.  Orthodox Christians form the majority in Christian communities that include non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Christians, as well as Roman Catholics and very small Protestant groups. All the region's Christians are living the same experience of persecution, discrimination, and the very-real possibility of annihilation.

In post-Saddam Hussein, post-US invasion/occupation Iraq, Sunni-Shia cycles of violence and a dysfunctional state have produced conditions leading to a drop in the Christian population, from 1.5 million to 300,000, in just the past decade.  As Reverend Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest from Great Britain who is also pastor in Baghdad's St. George Anglican Church, pointed out recently, "There are more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than in Iraq. Chicago, Detroit and Sweden. That’s where you’ll find Iraq’s Christians today.”

In Syria, the 10% Christian minority population has been devastated, collateral damage as the civil war between the country's Alewite and Shia Muslims has been widened to include foreign jihadis, as widely documented in a recent report of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation; the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo remain missing since being kidnapped by radicals in April 2013, and the Greek Orthodox nuns taken hostage from the Mar Takla (Aghia Thekla) convent in December 2013 remain hostages to their captors. 

In the Holy Land, Christians are a small minority vulnerable to the politics and violence of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Meanwhile, the tiny minority of about 1800 Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey reflects the end-stage of the varied phenomena--pogroms, property confiscations, targeted social discrimination, and appropriation of Christian religious sites--now playing out in neighboring countries in the region. Only months ago, Turkey's government reiterated it's refusal to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate's Halki Theological School, while also ratcheting up threats to reopen the Great Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia as a mosque.

What does this grim montage of Christians in the Middle East have to do with the Lenten Prologue?  Everything.  Despite the privations and fear that marks their lives, the region's Christians have stood firm in their desire to remain witnesses to Christ in their lands of origin, echoing Zachaeus' desire to see Christ. Today's persecuted Middle East Christians reject the Pharisee's arrogance and, instead, are emblematic of the words of the Lenten Triodion that "humility is the best path to exaltation."  Their efforts to remain in their homes, their homelands, speaks to their understanding of the Prodigal's return home, to the comfort of God's infinite love and mercy.    And these suffering Middle East Christians have not resorted to violence or retribution; in asking for help from the international community to support peacebuilding in the region, the stance of Middle East Christians is testiment to the Orthros prayers that instruct "despise not thy neighbor,...condemn not thy brother," because "fearful is the judgment at which all of us shall stand naked."  The Lenten Prologue message of true reconciliation through forgiveness was sounded unmistakably in the recent address of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the 17th Annual Eurasian Economic Summit in Istanbul, under the auspices of the United Nations Dialogue of Civilizations. His All Holiness emphasized "the obligation and responsibility to choose peace through dialogue,"...and he reminded us that the choice for "dialogue and peace calls for a radical reversal of what has become the normative way of survival in our world."

As we approach the third week in our own Lenten Prologue, I can't help but thinking that we Orthodox Christians in America should open our hearts and minds to the lessons that we can learn from our endangered co-religionists in the Middle East.  We cannot do otherwise than to pray unceasingly for their safety, doing whatever we able in order to assist in providing for their material comfort, and remembering always that peace is for every person of every faith in the region, since we truly believe that every human being is created in the image and likeliness of Christ.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe and on Muslims and Democratic Politics. 

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