"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Eastern Christianity and the Encounter with Islam

As I've noted before, Anthony O'Mahony is a prolific fellow, frequently teaming up with Emma Loosley as fellow editor. One of their most recent and outstanding volumes is

This is an excellent and highly welcome book that belongs in every course and on every bibliography about contemporary Christian-Muslim relations. General (especially undergraduate) readers will benefit from a text that is both scholarly and eminently accessible—not an easy balance to strike in this area. The authors are balanced, moreover, in their tone, avoiding polemics, but certainly (and thankfully) not shying away from noting again and again how often Christians have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of Muslims. Almost no politician or academic today has the courage to acknowledge this.

Almost all the contributors are British academics, but this book’s focus is truly global: there are only two articles on contemporary Britain, and a third on Western Europe. The others deal with Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, South Africa, West Africa, and the Sudan. One article, Andrew Unsworth’s “The Vatican, Islam, and Muslim-Christian Relations,” is a very interesting (if too brief) treatment that seems to have been written before Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address, which it does not treat.

Eastern Christians will be especially interested in the four articles focusing on Russia, Egypt, Syria, and Iran. Basil Cousins’ “The Orthodox Church, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations in Russia” is a decent general overview that gives brief historical detail before focusing on events in the last two decades. It is, however, very thinly sourced, and one is a little disconcerted to see an over-reliance upon a handful of dubious websites including Wikipedia! Cousins inexplicably overlooks a burgeoning scholarly literature in two key areas: the Russian Church in the post-Soviet period and several recent books by major publishers on Islam in Russia.

Fiona McCallum’s “Muslim-Christian Relations in Egypt: Challenges for the Twenty-First Century,” is excellent but limited in scope. Her focus is on events since 1970, which saw Sadat take power politically, followed very shortly (1971) by Patriarch Shenouda III assuming the Coptic papacy. These two would clash repeatedly, leading the former to exile the latter to a desert monastery over his opposition to the proposed introduction of shari’ah law and his frequent demands that the government do something about Muslim violence and Muslim interference with the construction or repair of Coptic churches.

After Sadat’s assassination, relations between the patriarch and the new president, Hosni Mubarak, improved somewhat. Mubarak has attempted a balancing act by offering, on the one hand, “a gradual process of Islamisation” (71) in the hopes this would placate the hyper-hostile Muslim Brotherhood and, on the other, by offering some benefits to the Copts (e.g., declaring Christmas a national holiday for all Egyptians). Further complicating matters are efforts from well-meaning Copts, especially in North America, to draw attention to ongoing Muslim violence in Egypt. The patriarch, whose delicate internal balancing act is apparently upset by such external critics, has said in public that these expatriates unhelpfully distort the true nature of the problems in Egypt. McCallum does not say if this is a genuinely held position of the pope, or if he has been forced—by events, the government, or other forces—to take such a position much as Orthodox hierarchs in Eastern Europe did during the Cold War when, pressured by the KGB, they used to attend ecumenical events in the West to argue with a straight face that there was religious freedom in the USSR.

The eleventh chapter, by Loosley, treats “Christianity and Islam in Syria: Island of Religious Tolerance?” She begins by rightly recognizing that “Syria remains remarkably mysterious” (162) to many in the West, and Christianity in Syria especially so. Since her article was published, however, we have other recent treatments that attempt something of a demystification: two articles in Eastern Christianity in the Modern Middle East (Routledge, 2010); and four articles in Christianity in the Middle East (Melisende, 2008); the latter volume will be noted on here in due course and reviewed in Logos next year. Additionally, we have the frequently delayed book by Norirko Sato on Syrian Christianity that, if it ever appears, may shed light here.

In the present article, Loosley notes that Muslim-Christians relations in Syria enjoy a level of tolerance perhaps higher than anywhere else in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the Christians (figures for which range from 8-15% of the total population) continue to decline because the bad economy causes them to have fewer children, and many of those children end up leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.

The final article of note is O’Mahony’s “Christianity, Shi’a Islam, and Muslim-Christian Encounters in Iran.” He focuses on three communities in particular: the Assyrians, the Chaldean Catholics, and the Armenians, each of whom continues to maintain significant numbers in Iran under highly restricted circumstances. (A tiny handful of Arab and Russian Orthodox parishes also eke out an existence.) He also notes that both Anglicans and Roman Catholics had a well-established presence in Iran but after the 1979 revolution both lost everything and some of their faithful were martyred.

In sum, this volume gives a good overview of some of the relations between Eastern Christians and Muslims, and once more we are in Loosley and O'Mahony's debt for pulling together an important and useful collection such as this. 

1 comment:

  1. Almost no politician or academic today has the courage to acknowledge this.

    Have you seen the subtitled video of the Austrian MP giving the Turkish Ambassador a dressing down? What is surprising is how much applause the MP seems to get.

    The problem is not that no politician or academic has the courage to acknowledge the facts about Islam vis a vis Christianity and other minority religions, it's that few mainstream politicians and academics have either the courage, knowledge or values to do so.


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