Why does Islam survive where Christianity fails

Christians in the Orient"Plurality is lost"

Dirk Ansorge is professor of dogmatics at the Jesuit University Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt and a member of the working group "Christians in the Middle East" of the German Bishops' Conference.

Andreas Main: Anyone who deals with the Christian churches in the Middle East has to be clear about one thing: There are many political landmines - so many that one can really only lose. Everywhere attempts are made to instrumentalize Christians in the Middle East. Certain circles advocate Christians in the Middle East mainly because they can play the anti-Islamic card. In today's black and white thinking, this leads to a backlash. It is then assumed that anyone who campaigns for Christians in the Middle East is Islamophobic - that is the favorite word of those circles. We try to break this way of thinking without being able to completely break away from it. We do that with Dirk Ansorge.

He is a Catholic theologian and professor of dogmatics at the St. Georgen University of Philosophy and Theology. Two of his focal points: Christian theology in dialogue with Judaism and Islam, as well as Christian churches in the Near and Middle East. He is involved in the working group "Christians in the Middle East" of the German Bishops' Conference and he is taking part in a conference that is currently taking place in Bautzen - "Forgotten Siblings, the Churches of the Orient". Dirk Ansorge, nice that you came to us on Deutschlandfunk before this conference. Good Morning.

Dirk Ansorge: Good morning Mr. Main.

Main: Mr. Ansorge, why "Forgotten Siblings"? How does one explain this phenomenon that Christians in the Middle East seem to fall through all the grids?

Ansorge: In Western societies, Christians are often not that present in the public consciousness. The Near and Middle East in particular is regarded as an Islamically dominated region. And that there are also large minorities of Christians there is not so well known in the West.

We had the example when we thought a few years ago of the Armenian pogroms that for many in the West, in Europe, it was completely new that the Armenians are Christians. This leads to the fact that one often reckons with Jews in Israel, with Muslims in the surrounding states, but not with Christians.

"In the Immediate Succession of the Very First Christians"

Main: What can be done to prevent these forgotten siblings from becoming part of the family again?

Ansorge: Well, in a certain way they have already entered the consciousness of the West a little through the stream of refugees that we now have. Among the refugees there are not only Muslims, there are also Christians. This has often led to difficulties and tensions, which were then discussed in public. The churches do a lot to speak up for Christian brothers and sisters. The German Bishops' Conference has repeatedly published brochures in recent years that speak of Christians in Iraq, Egypt, but also on the Arabian Peninsula. I think that increasingly the very existence of Christians is really stepping into the consciousness of the West.

Main: Maybe you just have to say very simply: Christians have been in the region longer than Muslims.

Ansorge: Absolutely. You actually count yourself among the original Christians. They can be traced back to the apostolic mission that started in Jerusalem. And the question of whether, for example, the forefathers or the great-grandfathers were proselytized at some point is completely absurd. They see themselves as those who are in the immediate succession of the very first Christians.

"Plurality always means the recognition of the other"

Main: The Christians in the Middle East that they have been forgotten may have something to do with a weakness that is also their strength. The churches there are so diverse that it is really hard to overlook them. There is nothing that is not there. A confusing variety. Where do you see the chances of this diversity?

Ansorge:Diversity is basically what we have come to appreciate here in the West over many centuries, namely plurality. And we are seeing today that the efforts to bring about uniformity, especially in the Islamic world - just think of the Islamic State - that this also leads to political and social violence. And plurality always also means recognizing the other.

And the first is certainly tolerance. I have to accept the other person as he is, even if I don't like him. But the second would be simply to learn to appreciate diversity as an enrichment. And in this respect, of course, the diversity of the Christian churches in the Orient, if it is perceived as enriching, can ultimately have a peace-promoting effect.

In view of the circumstances, Christians are forced to come to an understanding

Main: But it also has its downsides and it is not only perceived as an advantage. In your opinion, what are the disadvantages of diversity? Where is that going in concrete terms?

Ansorge: There are certainly tensions between the different churches - tensions that have theological foundations. In some statements of Christology one is not quite at one here. There are different customs, rites, liturgies. There are also different languages. Above all, there are different national and ethnic traditions. And here in the past there was often a coexistence of the churches and their representatives.

Under the pressure of the current situation, one is of course forced to come to terms with one another more and more, even as Christians. And there I see good prospects for the future.

"Exodus of dramatic proportions"

Main: Despite these efforts to communicate and approach one another, one thing is certain, Christians are fleeing the Near and Middle East. In your opinion, what extent has this exodus reached in the meantime?

Ansorge: Dramatic proportions. You just have to say that. There has always been a great exodus of Christians from the region, even before the armed conflict began. That was simply because, due to the historical context, Christians often had better chances of finding a professional or family perspective in Western countries.

Main:Also were better educated.

Ansorge: They were better educated in the mission schools that we have in the region since the 19th century. And now, under the pressure of circumstances, Christians often have relatives in Latin America, in North America, in Europe. And that of course motivates you to revive these old contacts.

This has meanwhile led to a real exodus of Christians from the region, which is threatening, which is life-threatening. Many see the end of Eastern Christianity almost imminent. That would of course be a damage that - yes - would have dramatic proportions.

"Many Christians are sitting on packed suitcases"

Main: Is it more of a wave movement - or are the numbers increasing continuously? How does it look?

Ansorge:Christians fit in with the movement of refugees as a whole. That depends on the political framework. The European Community has made the immigration of refugees very difficult, not least because of the Turkey Agreement.

Christians are just as affected by this as other refugees. You just have to see what the situation is like. But the fact is that many Christians are really sitting on their suitcases waiting for an opportunity to possibly immigrate to their relatives in America or Europe.

"Persecution of Christians in the Rule of the Islamic State"

Main: We have now spoken of "escape", of "packed suitcases". If I've listened correctly, we haven't even used the word "persecution of Christians". Is that a term to use in this context?

Ansorge: Yes and no. Persecution of Christians is certainly given in the rulership of the Islamic State. There are very dramatic reports of what happened there. A persecution that not only affects Christians, but also the Yazidis are a well-known example of the religious-ethnic cleansing that we really have to talk about.

In the other states of the region, Christians have lived in a rather precarious status for centuries. This has to do with the Islamic attitude towards Christians. The keyword is "Dhimmi". Dhimmis are, so to speak, protected persons who were exempt from military service in return for a poll tax, but who were denied certain professions. In this respect, I would not bring up the persecution of Christians for the region as a whole, but certainly for the area of ​​the Islamic State.

"Structural Violence"

Main: Where does persecution begin and where does it end for you?

Ansorge: Persecution occurs where there is really direct violence, not just structural violence. Structural violence for me would be that it is difficult for Christians to exercise certain professions. But where Christians are actually driven from their homes, where they are forced to renounce their faith if they do not want to face execution, there is clearly persecution of Christians for me.

Main: To get an impression of what is available there in the region - now let's just do a test. List five churches in the region without making any promises.

He also belongs to the working group "Christians in the Middle East" of the German Bishops' Conference: Dogmatics Professor Dirk Ansorge (Adolph Photography)

Ansorge: These are the Syrian churches, namely the "Syrian Church of the East". There is the "Syrian Church of the West". There are the "Copts". There are the "Armenians". There are the "Greek Orthodox". There are also Protestant churches that have to be named, and of course various Catholic churches - the so-called "Latins". But almost all the oriental churches that I mentioned at the beginning also have uniate branches. These are branches of these churches, which at one point or another at very different times have entered into a connection with Rome and recognize the Pope as head. And that applies in particular to the not yet mentioned "Maronites" in Lebanon.

Main: Whereby you have now taken the short form of the official title for this little test so as not to get confused.

Ansorge:Indeed I did. The titles are often a little longer, but little known in the West.

"Do not push Christians in the Orient into a special position!"

Main:In conversation on Deutschlandfunk: the dogmatist Dirk Ansorge. You have just said that the churches are strongly committed, the churches here in Germany are strongly committed to helping brothers and sisters in the Near and Middle East. Your Viennese colleague Heiner Tück, also a professor of dogmatics, recently published an essay in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in which he indirectly accused German church leaders - regardless of whether they are Protestant or Catholic - for not giving enough support to Eastern Christians. In your opinion, where could more be done at this point?

Ansorge:I just think that there is a need to raise awareness in the West of the wealth of the oriental churches. We not only have the handouts from the German Bishops' Conference mentioned at the beginning. We now have large congregations of Coptic Christians, Syrian Christians, and Armenian Christians in Germany itself. Here, the congregations in the vicinity of these centers are simply called upon to get in touch with these congregations.

Whatever is perceived as a double-edged sword by the Christians in the Orient themselves, is a special commitment for the Christians exclusively, because that is ambivalent. If one now only committed oneself to Christians, then these Christians in the Orient itself, in their societies, would be forced into a special position which they themselves often do not want at all. And here, too, the range is very wide among the oriental Christians. Some who say we belong to this society, to this Arab, also Islamic society. Others tend to emphasize their Christian identity. You have to be very attentive and listen to what the oriental Christians themselves want.

"Awareness must also be raised in politics"

Main: And there we are almost in politics. If you look at how German politicians react to this phenomenon, most of them only think of Volker Kauder from the CDU, who is massively committed to protecting Christians. Is that the wrong impression or is politics failing?

Ansorge: I wouldn't talk about failure, but I do think that awareness-raising must take place here, which, by the way, is not only carried out by Christian and church organizations. In this context I would like to mention the "Society for Threatened Peoples", which has been referring to the situation of Christians in the region for many years. And precisely such an institution, which sees itself as a secular institution, then also has the chance to address MPs who may not want to be brought into any close contact with the churches too quickly. Here too - as in all areas of politics - there is a need to point out the circumstances. And there are many individuals, but also institutions, that do that.

"Patriarchal Commitment"

Main:How do you deal with the fact that - let me say - Christian rescuers like to be found in those milieus that tend to be authoritarian - from US President Trump to Russian President Putin, from AfD to Front National?

Ansorge:This is of course very problematic. I would simply call that patriarchal. If this is about any kind of commitment to Christians, then it can only be done by doing something together. And that means I have to speak to the Christians myself, I have to ask what they really want.

And then I see that there are very different positions among the Christians themselves, the Oriental Christians, among the church leaders. The ones who actually understand those who are fleeing, those who emigrate, who want to save their families. There are many bishops who say, "Stay! We must keep our presence."

And speaking in there from outside now, that would be more of a patriarchal gesture that I do not consider helpful.

Main: And on the left wing politically and ecclesiastically, is that deceptive or is there hardly anyone there who stands up for Christians in the Orient?

Ansorge:To be honest, I'm not really oriented there to be able to say anything. I do indeed take ...

Main:Obviously negative?

Ansorge: Nothing. Indeed, like you, I do not perceive any particular voices there, although of course I hope now that I am not wronging anyone by saying so.

Main:How can this camp thinking, into which I am now immersing again, can be - how can it be resolved?

Ansorge: Yes, simply by paying attention to the polyphony of the Christians and the churches themselves on site. It is a highly complex situation that has grown over many centuries. Knowing their history is a big challenge. And actually doing what helps people in the current situation requires intensive discussion. Master plans that come from Washington, Brussels or anywhere else are often of little help on site.

Texts from the early days of the Church

Main: The diversity of Christians there, for you as a dogmatist it probably also has an intellectual, theological level to deal with it, because the differences - you also mentioned it earlier - are, for example, also Christological in nature. How exciting do you find it this substantive examination of these different traditions that have emerged over 2,000 years?

Ansorge: This is extremely fascinating because in dogmatics we often have texts in front of us that come from the early days of the Church, where different theologians formulated their positions on Jesus Christ or on the Triune God. And now we really don't just have texts here, we have people who live from these texts, who shape their liturgy accordingly. These dogmatic statements appear again in the liturgy.

And talking to them brings this discussion back to life. And in this context I also see and would actually like to emphasize that in these discussions that we then have, on the one hand our own position is enriched and deepened, but on the other hand there is often a great rapprochement. The old - I'll call them - dogmatic clubs like Monophysitism and the like, which have actually been in place for a long time ...

Main: Nestorianism, Arianism.

Ansorge: All this.In the meantime, this has really been overcome. Above all, Vienna has played a major role in ecumenism and, in the preparation of official documents from the Vatican or even from the Coptic Pope, has led to formulas in which the old points of contention appear to be surmountable. It is then admitted that the languages ​​involved are different. And that is ... yes, that is really a living dogmatics, a living reflection on faith with people who live from these traditions.

Main: Finally - what should become of the "forgotten siblings"?

Ansorge: Should be siblings that you know, who live in the neighborhood, with whom you are acquainted, with whom you can tell, also about their story, their often painful story, but from whom you can also let yourself be enriched in your own faith .

Main: When siblings and "forgotten siblings" become family members ... I talked to the Catholic theologian Dirk Ansorge, Professor of Dogmatics at the Jesuit University Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt about the churches of the Orient. Mr. Ansorge, thank you for stopping by.

Ansorge: Thanks for the invitation.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.