Middle Eastern Christians bound for a future in diaspora?

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While a better quality of life often awaits members of the diaspora, there are challenges to preserving religious and cultural identity.
Malo Tresca
In 1948, the village of Iqrit was declared a military zone by the Israeli state and the inhabitants, all Catholics, were relocated. In 1951, a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court authorized their return. However, the army ignored the decision and completely destroyed the village, with the exception of the church and cemetery. Photographer Constance Decorde has been bearing witness to the struggle of a whole community since 2014. / Constance Decorde/Hanslucas

They leave to seek refuge for six months, ten years or their whole lives abroad in the United States, Europe or even Australia. They have sometimes left with the hope of returning to their countries as soon as the situation allows.

Emigration of Christians from the Middle East already has a long history and it has increased in recent years with the resurgence of conflicts in the region. Their departure en masse raises new questions: Does the future of their communities lie in the diaspora, where the possibility of retaining their faith and culture is perhaps greater? Do they still hope to return one day to their ancestral lands?

Rough figures seem to indicate the former. Christian Cannuyer, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Lille and director of Solidarité Orient (Eastern Solidarity) in Belgium, states that:

“The realistic view of the situation is that today, apart from the Coptic Church, there are more members of all the Eastern Churches – Chaldean, Maronite and Melkite – living overseas than in their home countries.”

Bernard Heyberger, a historian specializing in Middle Eastern Christians and director of studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS – School for the Advanced Studies of Social Sciences) adds that whether they leave voluntarily or are forced to go into exile, Christians often imagine:

“…that they will leave for a limited time period, then they start to build lives for themselves and form their identities in another country. Then they only return to their home countries as visitors or tourists”.

Definitive establishment overseas is not without its own risks, however.

“Once Eastern Christian communities move to the West, dying out is perhaps the most real danger they face,” Christian Cannuyer adds.

“Cultural integration starts to happen from the second or third generation, especially when there are mixed marriages. They lose their identity and their links with the mother church.”

The future of Christians from the Middle East lies in the difficult relationship that exiles maintain with their original communities.

“The diaspora disintegrates if it is cut off from its Church, which of course has to stay in the original country. And the Church also depends on its overseas members to survive. This connection is crucial; neither can subsist without the other,” says Pascal Gollnisch, general director of the religious group Œuvre d’Orient.

Institutionally speaking, the spreading of communities overseas is undeniably more complex for Catholic Churches that their Orthodox counterparts. Christian Cannuyer explains:

“Within the Catholic community, the Roman Catholic Church’s regulation of patriarchal power is quite authoritarian. The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, passed in 1990, strongly restricts patriarchs’ power of jurisdiction outside their territories. They are not, for example, permitted to create exarchies – autonomous jurisdictions governed by bishops.”

In practice, the link is mostly maintained through the solidarity between those living abroad and their close friends and family who remain.

“When they have covered the basics like finding a job and a place to live, they are very committed to sending material help,” Gollnisch says. “But it is quite unstructured and doesn’t always go beyond the family unit.”

In order to establish and stabilize their communities, clergy and eastern cultural associations in the new countries have to do all they can to preserve the specificity of their Churches. They organize regular trips back to their home country, activities around the history of the Eastern Church and hold celebrations according to their rites and liturgy.

They have to be aware of keeping their languages alive and position themselves as guardians of a certain pride in their traditions.

“When you are far from your historical lands and roots, the temptation to detach from your community can be very strong, as can the temptation to join the majority in the Latin Church,” says Bernard Heyberger.

A healthy balance needs to be struck to avoid the emergence of “ghetto communities” as well as the dilution of these Christian groups into secular western societies.

“The Latin dioceses where Eastern Christians live also share part of the responsibility. They have to understand the issues facing the survival of these communities, and they have to accept their development”, says Gollnisch.

Although engagement and support structures are active in France, they has only just been put on the agenda of other European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.