Disappearing Middle Eastern Christians, Disappointing Bishops
“Catholic Church: Christ nullified God’s promises to the Jews,” reads the headline on the Israel Today website. That is not quite true: At the just-concluded Synod of Middle East Bishops, a cleric from the tiny group of Melkite Greeks, Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, made such a statement on behalf of the Melkites, not the Catholic Church.
The head of the same church, the Syrian-based Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, also attacked priestly celibacy before the Synod. He wasn’t speaking for Rome, either. Clerical marriage hasn’t helped the Melkites; they claim just 1.3 million members worldwide, fewer than the Korean Methodist Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea. Their actual numbers are much smaller.
The concerns of Greek Christians will fade before long, for in two or three generations there will be no Greek Christians in the Middle East, nor indeed Christians of any sort in the Middle East. Nor, for that matter, will there be many Greeks; with a fertility rate of only 1.37 children per female, one of the world’s lowest, Greece by mid-century will have a population two-thirds of which exceeds the age of sixty, and very little population at all by the end of the century. In a hundred years, modern Greek will be a dying language.
Israeli Jews, by contrast, have the highest fertility of any first-world population, and not only because of the fecund ultra-Orthodox; fertility among secular Israelis is far above replacement. By 2100, eighteen centuries after Constantine founded the Greek empire, more people will speak Hebrew than Greek.
Jews might well ignore the sepulchral voice of a dying ethnic church, except for one fact: The Melkite cleric in question, Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, headed the commission that drafted the Synod’s final statement. Speaking personally and not for the Synod he said, “The theme of the promised land cannot be used as a basis to justify the return of the Jews to Israel and the expatriation of the Palestinians. . . . For Christians one can no longer talk of the land promised to the Jewish people,” because the “promise” was “abolished by the presence of Christ . . . there is no longer a favored people, a chosen people; all men and women of every country have become the chosen people.”
Middle Eastern Christians are hostage to a hostile Muslim majority, and to Iran in particular. Lebanese Maronites, the largest surviving community, were a majority by design when France established the present Lebanese state after World War I as a Catholic enclave. Infertility and immigration have reduced Maronite numbers to perhaps 30 percent, although political sensitivities have forbid census-taking for a generation. If Iran’s proxy army, the Hezbollah, wished to, it could slaughter the Christians on any given morning. That is why the most prominent Lebanese Christian leader, Michel Aoun, is allied to Hezbollah, against the Saudi- and American-backed Sunni opposition.
It is hardly news that Middle Eastern Christians (except for the growing community of Hebrew-speaking Christians) hate Israel. They blame the Israeli-Arab conflict for the deterioration of their position. Arab Christians, moreover, played a prominent role in Arab nationalist movements; they are Arabs first, that is, and Christians second.
The ambitions of Arab Christians grew after the Turks killed or expelled close to four million Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians between 1915 and 1923; these groups once comprised a fifth of the population of Anatolian Turkey and dominated the Christian presence in the Middle East, as I wrote last year in an essay entitled “The Closing of the Christian Womb in the Middle East.”
It seems incongruous that the leader of a tiny ethnic group that lectures Rome on the merits of priestly marriage would draft the final statement of a Vatican Synod on the Middle East. The trouble is that among the twelve million Christians left in the Middle East, it is hard to find a leader who does not reflect the rage and desperation of a community on its way to extinction.
Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor John Paul II, has said that the Election of Israel cannot be changed; his October 25 homily at the close of the Synod would have been a good time to reiterate this position. The pope did not take the opportunity to do so. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, wisely argued that the Election of Israel should be incorporated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; it remains a papal opinion rather than a Magisterial ruling, and may be repudiated by a different pope in the future.
The Church’s anguish at the catastrophic decline of Christianity in the region of its birth and first expansion is palpable. The problem, as I explained in the “Christian womb” essay, is that Middle Eastern Christians won’t have children and won’t stand their ground. Nothing that Israel might possibly do will change this; the best Israel can do, as I wrote in a recent “On the Square” article, “Israeli Christians: Uncomfortable Minority, Mutual Opportunity,” is to foster the only expanding Middle Eastern Christian community, namely Hebrew-speaking Israeli Christians.
In August 2009, a senior official at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State received me in a small conference room on the third floor of the Secretariat building, near the papal apartments. “The Holy Father,” he explained, “feels a strong pastoral responsibility toward Christian communities in the Middle East.” Benedict XVI, he added, hopes that Christians in the Middle East will provide the “leaven” for a cultural revival among some of the world’s most backward societies. Given Jewish experience, I replied, the Church would do better to get its people out while there still was time.
As we talked, we passed through the gallery that Raphael had decorated in the “grotesque” style adapted from Nero’s palace, then just excavated, and stood on the terrace overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. The subject changed; my host mentioned that new documents showed the deep concern of Pope Pius XII over the murder of European Jews, and hoped that I, as a Jewish journalist, would write about them.
I demurred. Pius XII was a good man, not a bad one, in my view then and now; under the terrible circumstances of the Second World War, he did what he could to save Jews while avoiding an open confrontation with the Nazi regime. An open denunciation of the Nazis probably would have led to his martyrdom and a Nazi-driven schism. He had every reason to expect the Nazi regime to last for a long time and wanted the Church to continue ministering to the spiritual needs of Catholics.
Evidently he failed to appreciate the full horror of Nazi intentions until the storm was upon him, but that was true of most of the East European rabbinate as well. When the secular Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky toured Poland in the late 1930s begging Jews to get out while they still could, he found little support from religious leaders.
Walter Cardinal Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, put it very well last May when he said that the Catholic Church had weakened itself by “cutting itself off from its Jewish roots for centuries . . . a weakness that became evident in the altogether too feeble resistance against the persecution of the Jews.”
At the time, I wrote that Jews should accept this statement “in full satisfaction of their grievance against the wartime Vatican.” The “Jewish roots” of the Church, as Franz Rosenzweig argued, are the Jews themselves; without the living Jewish people, Jewish Scripture would be reduced to another Gnosis in short order. And to separate the Jewish people from the Promised Land is an absurdity. For two thousand years we prayed thrice daily for God to gather our exiles from the four corners of the world and return us to Zion.
Pius XII might have taken the heroic step of excommunicating Hitler, or ordering priests to refuse communion to German soldiers and their auxiliaries engaged in the murder of non-combatants. Instead, he chose to work behind the scenes to save lives. Ultimately, Pius XII chose not to sacrifice the Church’s ongoing care for its flock in a desperate gamble of this kind.
With hindsight, one might speculate that things would have turned out better for the Church if he had done so. Christianity is fading in all of Europe except Poland, and Poland’s startling rate of population decline does not bode well for the future. If the wartime Vatican had taken a moral stand against Nazism, the outcome might or might not have been different; the Church might have emerged from the war with the moral authority to stand against the secular tide that has swamped it. But there was no way for Pius XII to have known this in 1943.
That was 1943. In 2010, the Church should have learned better. I thought it had. When then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s interview book The Salt of the Earth appeared in 1996, I read it with wonder: the future pope wrote, “Perhaps we must take leave of the concept of a popular church.” He added that the Church might shrink to small, seemingly insignificant cells, which nonetheless work for the good:
We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world.
This statement provoked scandalized comment in the German media; I first learned of the book from a news article in Germany’s leading newsweekly, Der Spiegel, which considered this headline news.
A prince of the Church with the courage to abandon the shell of the institution and fight on principle, I thought, would have done better than Pius XII. Here is a German who learned the lesson that one should fight on issues of faith and trust the outcome to God. I hailed his election as Pope in my then-pseudonymous “Spengler” columns so enthusiastically that many readers mistook me for a Catholic.
When as Pope Benedict XVI he addressed irrationality in Islam at his September 2006 Regensburg address, and personally received the convert Magdi Allam into the Church in 2008, I saw in these actions hope for a rebirth of the decaying West. And I was gratified that other Jewish journalists, for example Azure magazine editor Assaf Sagiv, came to view Benedict as a friend and ally of the Jewish people.
And I still believe that Benedict XVI is our friend. It is hard to avoid the impression that he has tired after swimming so far against the tide. What remains of Middle Eastern Christian leadership is beholden to Iran. The Vatican foreign service comes from the same social strata as the bureaucrats of the European Commission, and shares their hostility to the inconvenient Jewish state. Among Western European political leaders, Israel’s best friend is the Lutheran pastor’s child Angela Merkel.
And that is why the Synod of Bishops on the Middle East is such a disappointment, including the Holy Father’s bland homily at the end of the Synod on October 25. The Jewish people face the prospect of a new Holocaust at the hands of Iran, which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens as brazenly as ever did Hitler. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, millions of Jews may burn, again. Iran’s proxies have ringed Israel with missiles on its northern and southern borders, the recompense Israel received for ending its occupation of Gaza and southern Lebanon.
And now the Middle Eastern bishops’ Synod demands that Israel end its “occupation” of the West Bank, which as a practical matter means that Iranian proxies would install missiles on hilltops a dozen miles from Tel Aviv.
Just as in World War II, Catholic communities are hostage to an evil power that proposes to wipe out the Jewish people. Just as in World War II, the first concern of the Church is to maintain its ministry under adverse conditions. Just as in World War II, some elements of the Church make common cause with this evil power to buy temporary security for their own communities.
The anguish of the Church, its unwillingness to let go a foothold in the Holy Land, and its pastoral concern for its beleaguered flock, all are understandable. Jews should temper their disappointment with understanding. But the facts on the ground are what they are. The Christians of the Middle East long since failed of their own infertility, and would decline even if they did not face persecution from Muslims. Giving a big voice to a little man like Archbishop Bustros will do nothing to help them. But silence in the face of evil increases the likelihood of war.
David Goldman’s The Closing of the Christian Womb.
His Israeli Christians: Uncomforable Minority, Mutual Opportunity.
His Cardinal Kasper: Church Was “Too Feeble” to Resist the Persecution of the Jews
His reflection on then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope, Ratzinger’s Mustard Seed.
His Jihad, the Lord’s Supper, and Eternal Life.
His report on Magdi Allam’s reception into the Catholic Church, The Mustard Seed in Global Strategy.
His Azure on Coming to Terms with Christianity”.
Benedict XVI’s Homily at the end of the Middle East Synod.