First holder of the UNESCO Chair of "Memory, Culture and Interculturality" and honorary professor at the Catholic University of Lyon, Joseph Yacoub talks to Aleteia about the future of Christianity in Iraq and Syria.
As the situation gets bogged down in violence and instability in Syria and Iraq, the Middle East is gradually losing its Christian communities. Joseph Yacoub, first holder of the UNESCO Chair of “Memory, Culture and Interculturality” and an Honorary Professor at the Catholic University of Lyon, has just published a book entitled Christians in the East in the face of Arab nationalism and Islamism. He explained to Aleteia what is at stake for preserving cultural diversity and peaceful coexistence in Syria and Iraq.
Aleteia: Since 1984, you have been writing about Eastern Christians, especially those from Iraq and Syria. In 2003, you had already written the book Threats on Christians in Iraq… Did you imagine such a situation fifteen years later?
Joseph Yacoub: In 2003, my book came out less than a month before the US invasion of Iraq. I said at that time that if the United States unleashed a war against Iraq, we could predict threats to Christians in that country. When one examines things closely, the past— both distant and immediate— was the forbearer of the present. Several wars followed one another: Iran-Iraq from 1980 to 1988, then the First Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. Both had very unfortunate consequences for the Christian communities.
We can say that the year 1992-1993 was a turning point for the country. The embargo imposed on Iraq has been ruthless, especially for children. It made no distinction of religion and the entire Iraqi people suffered. Put to the test by great difficulties, the regime used the tears of religion to establish its power. This period marks the beginning of the progressive Islamization of the state and society with an instrumentalization of Islam by political power. An atmosphere of violence has settled in the country. Within civil society, the signs of desecularization multiplied. The economic blockade and the atmosphere of violence have led to a rise in political instability in the country and caused great concern among the Iraqi Christian population — concerns for their future and that of their children. They had no horizon, no reason to stay in their country. “This country no longer exists; it is no longer our country,” they said.
Will Christians in Iraq disappear?
In 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq was estimated at one million. Today, an estimated 60% of them have chosen exile. In light of these figures, what has happened, and the general atmosphere, there is a risk that they will disappear. We must not turn away from them. The country is bogged down in instability and violence and the political power is unable to defend the general interest and the common good: there is therefore a real risk that the number of Christians will gradually decrease until they disappear completely. In Iraq as in Syria, it is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world that is dying.
Is the exodus a fatality for the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria?
The exodus affects all communities. History is constantly fluctuating; things are changing, so it is difficult to talk about a fatality. Given the facts, can this exodus be remedied? For now, reality suggests the opposite. The more the situation gets bogged down, the less it is possible for these communities to consider other issues.
What are the consequences of the disappearance of the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria, considered the cradle of Christianity?
The disappearance of the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria would be an unprecedented tragedy, especially in two countries that saw the birth of Christianity. Mesopotamia is not mere ancient history, nor the remains of a bygone past or a dusty memory. It is part of the present, as culture and civilization in the memory of many Eastern Christian communities. Eastern Christians, deeply indigenous peoples, heir to an indigenous and apostolic Christianity that speaks Aramaic, are endowed with their own liturgies dating back to the first centuries. On the banks of these three biblical rivers, the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Khabour, between Iraq and Syria, those peoples have written pages that remain forever alive in the memory of the East.
Remember that these countries are inscribed from the first centuries in the center of Christianity: is this not the land of Peter and Thomas? Did not St. Paul have his conversion on the road to Damascus? It is in Antioch, then the capital of Syria, that the name of Christians first appeared in the year 37. A country of the first liturgies, Syria sent several bishops to the Council of Nicaea in 325. Because Christianity is consubstantially linked to these lands, its disappearance would be a tragedy.
How does Eastern Christianity fit (or not) into Arab nationalism?
At the level of national identity, Arab nationalism, as secularizing it may have been, tried to erase all kinds of ethnic and cultural diversity, and was marked by the absence of democracy. Its aim was to impose the image of one supposedly unified nation from the Gulf to the Atlantic. But this is a myth and its political failure has contributed to the rise of Islamist currents that it has not been able to stem. There is a distinction between Arabity and nationalism as an ideology. Arab nationalists have voluntarily removed from their history all that preceded the appearance of Islam in the 7th century and have given priority to the Arab-Muslim period. Sati al-Husri, a Syrian theorist of Arab nationalism, thus presents a truncated vision of history that erases everything that came before the 7th century. According to him, Arabity is the starting point of the national renaissance.
The history of these countries is, however, a critique of Arab nationalism. In their continuity and in their unity, each civilization comes from what preceded it and is enriched by what was before: Aramaic and Arabic are two sister languages! The contributions are reciprocal and it is unfortunate to note that the ideologues of Arab nationalism did not integrate Eastern Christianity and pre-7th century civilizational events in their analyses and in their political project.
How can the cultural diversity embodied by Eastern Christians be maintained in these countries?
There are many obstacles to overcome. It is a question of recognizing the Eastern Christian being in his existence and his essence in the same way and on an equal footing with the Arab-Muslim being. This would confer on Eastern Christianity legitimacy and historical depth. In parallel, it would also appease Eastern Christians who could then say: “This country is my country.” Once again, it is not the Western missionaries who came to convert us; Christians have been here for 2000 years, and they are Eastern. It is a characteristic that distinguishes us from Western Christianity. Eastern Christianity, like Islam — the Arab-Muslim culture — are two fundamental religious and cultural components of these countries. Recognizing and integrating Eastern Christians on an equal footing with Arab-Muslims — by inclusion in the constitutions of these countries, for example — would be a big step toward solving the problem. The synthesis of Eastern Christianity and Islam could produce a deeply rooted Eastern being attached to his country, regardless of his religion.
More personally, what is your view of the situation in Syria?
Like the prophet Jeremiah who lamented, I mourn the country where I spent my childhood. This mosaic remains in my memory and continues to be a source of richness, but I keep asking myself: “How did we end up here?” Syria has suffered from chronic instability and got stuck in an Arab nationalism that it believed was victorious, to the detriment of its minorities. It did not manage its diversity because it did not know how to look its history in the face: as that of a land of high culture and multiple civilizations.