ISLAM-CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE

17 THE STATEOF THE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES INTHEMIDDLE EAST Popoli - 01/1994 The existence of Christians in Arab coun- tries with a Muslim majority is becoming increasingly difficult, between the process of forced Islamization and emigration to the West. It is necessary to draw the at- tention of the West to these two themes: the presence and Christian and Muslim coexistence from the point of view of the Christian minority in Islamic countries; the Islamic presence in Europe from the point of view of a Middle Eastern Christian. The two issues at first sight may seem complementary, in fact, at the second point, we will address the situation of Mu- slim immigrants in Italy, a country of Chri- stian orientation, while in the first point the reality of Christians in the Middle East with a Muslim majority will be presented. In dealing with these topics it is funda- mental to keep in mind two conflicting ele- ments which are not complementary: the first is that the Muslim presence in Italy is very recent, in fact it dates back to a few decades; the second is that the presence of Christians in Middle Eastern countries dates back to the birth of Christianity, and besides being very ancient, it took place before the arrival of the Muslims. The natives of the Middle East are Christians; only around 638-641 Muslim immigrants arrived and settled thanks to the recep- tion of Christians. The assimilation of this historical dimen- sion allows us to understand some Middle Eastern situations that would otherwise be incomprehensible from a European point of view. Until one understands the importance of the historical dimension for the identity of Middle Eastern peoples, nothing will be understood about the Mid- dle East. Immediately after the second world war the population on the northern shore of the Mediterranean basin was about twice that of the southern basin, North Africa and the Middle East; today after 50 ye- ars, the proportion has become 1: 1. The graphic demo development accompanied by a growing gap in terms of development, exposes the richest and oldest population to a "peaceful" invasion by culturally di- stant peoples ; a professor at the Universi- ty of Cairo has quantified the gap spanning over the centuries. Arabs or Muslims? Our discourse on the affairs of the Arab Christian communities cannot but start from the examination of a first question of fundamental importance: what do we want to identify when using the Arabic term? This premise is made necessary above all by the fact that in the West the- re is a tendency to use the Arabic and Muslim terms indifferently, thus presup- posing a coincidence between the mea- nings of the two expressions. Things are not like this. The Arabic word refers, in a conventional way, to a geographical and cultural area rather than to a specific reli- gious confession or to a specific ethnicity. In fact, the Arab population is defined as the one present in a well-defined territo- rial area, consisting of three fenced are- as: North Africa, the Middle East and the region of the Arabian peninsula (including the Arabian Gulf). which coincides with the political organization called the Arab

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