World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th – 24th 2010


CHRISTIANS IN THE MIDDLE EAST - 2/3: Political and social negotiations of spaces (318) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: THU 22, 11.30 am-1.30 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Stirling (Scotland)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Dr. Michael Marten

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The history and contemporary contexts of Christian communities in the Middle East over the last 200 years are emblematic of the balance between continuity and change faced by many within the region and throughout the world. Balancing tradition and modernity – in relation to liturgical practice, social and political engagement, missionary involvement, internal coherence, co-operation/conflict with other traditions and so on – are all topics of specific concern for these communities. We want to use our panels to explore the diversity of Christian communities in the Middle East, both historically and presently, through investigating the different responses to/engagements with change that these different communities represent.

In the same way that the concept of ‘the Middle East’ itself transcends strict definitions. We have created 3 panels from the submissions we have received, of which this is the second. The other two are entitled ‘Christian life in wider contexts’ (1) and ‘Middle Eastern Christians in a globalised world’ (3).

Chair: Dr. Michael Marten (University of Stirling)

Paper presenter: Sebastian Elsässer (FU Berlin & Doctorant associe, Cedej, Cairo), “Coptic political strategies and discourses in the age of globalization”
In my contribution, I would like to explore ‘Coptic political strategies and discourses in the age of globalization’. The most significant aspects of globalization in relation to the condition of the Coptic minority are the weakening of the authoritarian nation state, Coptic migration to the West, the ‘information revolution‚’ and its impact on conventional media spheres in Egypt, and finally, the growing influence of global political discourses - be it human rights and democracy, the clash of civilisations between Islam and Christianity/the West, or global religious fundamentalisms.
These developments have first and foremost increased the variety of Coptic discourses about the Self and the Muslim-Egyptian Other. In fact, since the advent of modernity, the Copts have been accumulating divergent and conflicting stories about their history and their relation with the Muslim majority. Both theoretical extremes concerning the perception of this relation in history and present‚ constant persecution and resistance on the one hand, shared culture and harmonious coexistence on the other hand‚ are widely adopted, but most ‘stories’ fall somewhere in between. In the era of globalization, however, accounts that stress cultural difference and detachment and portray relations with the Muslim majority in a negative and pessimistic manner have gained ground especially in the new media, as has anti-Islamic religious fundamentalism. The irony of the globalization of the Coptic question is that, while grievances are voiced as freely and insistently as never before, the political constraints faced by initiatives tackling the minority problem are stronger than ever, as the political sphere in Egypt is paralyzed by the power strategies of the authoritarian regime and attempts at rallying outside pressure in favor of Coptic demands have proven ineffectual or even counterproductive.

Paper presenter: Dr. K. Luisa Gandolfo (Durham University), “Representations of Conflict: Images of Resistance and Religious Identity in Palestinian Art”
For centuries the written word has provided an effective conduit through which experiences, opinions, and accounts of events can be traced. Often overlooked, art has nevertheless assumed a pivotal role in the chronicling of socio-political change, perhaps none more so than in times of conflict. The juxtaposition of art, religion and conflict in the region emerged from the complex web of co-dependence: while identity politics in the area evolved in response to the Mandate, the colonial presence nonetheless influenced early twentieth century art, while modern painting was galvanized by the heightened European influence that coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
The evolution of Palestinian art from 1948 to the present day has been marked by endurance, determination, and a faithful adherence to the preservation of the Palestinian identity through cultural memory. Palestinian nationalism is unique then, insofar as the desire is reinforced by the realization that the landscape is not merely lost, but inhabited by another people. That Palestinian art can be divided between the rural and the oppressed emphasizes the two sentiments inherent in the Palestinian struggle: the desire to remember and preserve the memory of Palestine as the land of luscious hills and orchards, and the present resonant with pain, anguish, and captivity, both of the land, and of the people. Thus, the artworks become conduits for the grievances, aspirations, dreams and emotions of the refugees, rendering them communal and shared on a trans-generational level. The role of religion – drawn from Christianity and Islam alike – in the struggle proves particularly pertinent as images of faith infuse poetry, painting and embroidery, incorporating and alternative aspect of Palestinian identity that both inspires and sustains the nationalist struggle.
Accordingly, this paper will focus on the Palestinian art scene from 1948 onwards, tracing the evolution of Palestinian art and symbols of war, resistance, and religious identity – with a particular focus on Christian identity – in the works of artists such as Sliman Mansour, Isma’il Shammout, and Naji Al-Ali. The article also assesses the representation of the social schisms within society and how the ‘other’ is portrayed through new media, including photography and installations.

Paper presenter: Roberto Mazza (Western Illinois University), “Tradition and Modernity: the Custody of the Holy Land”
The Custody of the Holy Land is one of the most ancient Christian institutions in the Middle East. Founded in the 13th century, for a long time it represented Christianity and Europe in the region; however since the 19th century the Custody was challenged first by modernity and the Ottoman reforms; then by the First World War which brought a change in the political regime and some social dramatic changes; finally by the emergence of the Arab-Zionist conflict in Palestine. This paper aims to discuss how the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem faced these challenges focusing on the engagement of this institution with the local Christian communities. It will be shown that tradition led the Custody amidst the dramatic changes that took place in the 19th century until the 1930s; however this balance was broken in favour of a stronger political engagement in reaction to Zionist activities but also due to an active part played by Arab clergy and laity within the hierarchy of the Custody. One of the major historical responsibilities of the Custody was to take care of the holy places; throughout the centuries conflicts in many forms erupted between the various Christian denominations in relation to the control and management of these holy places. The same trend persisted after the end of the First World War, but clearly a new stage was set. In the revolt of 1936, for instance, we found the Custody actively supporting the strikes as many employees of the Franciscan workshops were in fact Arabs. Besides discussing the evolution of this particular institution, I aim also to challenge the traditional approach to this institution which deals with mainly religious and political issues (control of the holy places to name one) rather than its association with the local socio-political dynamics.

Paper presenter: Dr. Fiona McCallum (University of St Andrews), “The Merits of Individual and Communal Representation: Christian Political Involvement in Contemporary Syria”
Under the Baathist regime in Syria, the secular nationalist approach towards integration has been pursued in order to prioritise loyalty to the nation state over any other attachments such as religious, ethnic or regional. The reliance on Syrian Arab nationalism can incorporate many of the Christians in Syria who make up around 8% of the population. However, Christians can be split into different communities according to their denomination which in some cases, may overlap with an ethnic identity e.g. Armenian, Syriac. Unlike the Kurds, the state has allocated a communal space to these Christians by stressing their distinct religious character while not acknowledging a separate ethnic identity. In general, the Christians have sought to participate through the accepted political system whether through the ruling Baath Party, associated leftist groups in the Progressive National Front or as tolerated independent candidates in the parliament. Christians can also be found in the ministries, government bureaucracies, education and the private business sector. Individual Christians have also been prominent in the Syrian opposition, calling for the end of emergency law, political reforms and the protection of human rights. Thus, at one level, Christians in Syria participate as individuals with the same rights and duties as other citizens as accorded by the Baath state and constitution. Yet, there is a parallel system of representation at the communal level which focuses on the church hierarchies. This can be seen as a variation of the traditional millet system which was institutionalised during the Ottoman period. This paper will explore the different methods of representation available to Christians in contemporary Syria and identify the factors which allow religious leaders to maintain political influence while operating in a self-declared secular political system.

Paper presenter: Dr. Una McGahern (University of Durham), “Palestinian Christians in the IDF – Challenging Assumptions”
Exempted from compulsory military service on the basis of their politicised Arab ethnicity, Palestinian Muslims and Christians in Israel are excluded from a range of social benefits and advantages which are otherwise restricted to military recruits. Despite the lack of reliable statistics on minority recruits in the IDF, it is frequently suggested that Palestinian Christians demonstrate a higher rate of voluntary conscription to the military than Palestinian Muslims. This suggestion has, in turn, been used to support claims of Christian differentiation from the Palestinian Arab minority and their integration with mainstream Israeli Jewish society. This paper discusses these claims and makes two main counter-claims: (1) that Palestinian Christian presence in the IDF is, according to available figures, statistically insignificant, and (2) their presence in what remains an essentially Jewish enclave is largely motivated by factors other than those which are usually mentioned and is, instead, connected with the role of the state in managing intra-communal relations within the Palestinian Arab minority.