Ed. The School – 12-1996

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  1. Short history

The diaspora of Christians from the East, begun in the first centuries of Christianity, continued until the eighth century. In the early days, it was not an escape, as will happen later, but it was linked to the missionary mandate of the Church. Evangelization spread from Syria to the western shores of the Mediterranean and to the Far East. The main center of missionary propagation was Antioch, to whose community reference was made for the preparation of the religious who were preparing to leave. Even the apostle Paul stayed there for a while. During the Muslim domination the migratory flows of Christians took place within the borders of the empire. In the years of the Ottoman Empire (1516-1918) until the expedition of Napoleon to Egypt in 1798 communications between the Eastern and Western worlds were reduced and emigration outside the territories subjected to the Sublime Porte were negligible. After the Napoleonic occupation in 1801, Mehemet Alì came to power in Egypt in 1805, which proposed to bring the country to modernity, favoring its cultural and economic awakening. The new political climate attracts many Middle Eastern Christians to Egypt, coming from countries that are not very tolerant of minorities. Entire Syro-Lebanese villages are emptied. In the space of a few years, Christians will invite their priests to join them, thus trying to rebuild the community. During another diaspora to the West and South America, the emigrants gave rise to several settlements created based on the country of origin. In the new offices in the West and in the New World, the distinctions between Orthodox and Catholics weaken.

The emigration of Muslim communities whose members have decided for economic or political reasons to move elsewhere should not be forgotten. It is estimated that the Muslim diaspora accounted for 20% of the total emigration from the Middle East. In more recent times, in the 1960s, there was a new, massive emigration of Christians from Egypt to Europe and North America. It was the consequence of the advent to power of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who tried to establish a pan-Arab state, limiting the freedom of minorities and strengthening the central power of the state. The Jews went to the State of Israel, created in 1948, Christians of European origin in their respective countries of origin: Italy, France, Greece, Malta and Great Britain. The descendants of the first Syrian-Lebanese immigrants made their way to Lebanon and America. The diaspora did not even spare the Copts who, though reluctant to leave their country, founded communities in Europe, North America and Australia. Emigration to the Gulf countries was not permanent. Christians in Arab countries today are steadily decreasing and suffering from the uncertainty of the future. Young people find employment difficult and the housing crisis does not encourage them to form a new family. Those who have left their homeland are by far the most numerous and usually return only as tourists.

  1. Christian presence

The risk of cultural annihilation is, it is not hypothetical, since the Christian communities in the Middle East are strongly discriminated against and forced to endure in silence the condition of citizens without equal rights. d There is no alternative except in emigration, in the hope of finding better living conditions for oneself and the family. In this way, one’s historical and cultural roots are severed.

  1. Emigrated to the West

Life is not easy for those who emigrate. In addition to discrimination and difficulties related to racial prejudice, the Middle Eastern Christian finds himself uncomfortable in Roman Catholic communities since until a few years ago the clergy were prejudiced and suspicious of Eastern liturgies. The spiritual protection of the Easter Christian escaped the control of the Eastern patriarchs. The Orthodox Patriach on the other hand, have had the opportunity to follow their faithful in the diaspora. Until Vatican II the appointment of the Eastern Catholic bishop was made directly by the pope. Only after the Council it was agreed that the choice should take place on the basis of a list of three names proposed by the Patriarch of Antioch. With a few exceptions, the Vatican’s line is now to respect the ecclesial identity of each and to encourage peoples to understand and appreciate the traditions of other Christian Catholic communities despite the diversity of rituals. Years later, since Vatican II, sensitivity and openness towards Eastern Catholic rites has increased considerably. The Pope also stressed the need for a greater knowledge of the spiritual heritage of the Eastern Churches. Pope John Paul II said that “the Church must learn to breathe with its two lung, ,the eastern and  the western one “. Today in the world millions of Eastern Christians live in a Latin-western ecclesial reality of European origin, with inevitable consequences on religious and family life, especially as regard to marriage, due to a great increase in marriages with Roman Catholics consequently, the emigrant tends to integrate psychologically into local communities to overcome the sense of alienation but also to establish a network of relationships that can help him from an economic point of view. While on the one hand integration is positive, on the other it leads to the gradual loss of one’s cultural, historical and religious identity. This has pushed the Eastern clergy to a greater presence and a closer collaboration with the the Christians of the diaspora to collaborate in the construction of the Kingdom of God. The purpose is to avoid marginalization of the Christian expatriate in the West marginalization while  preserving  its own ecclesial identity. Civilization is the sum of different cultures and traditions whereby each individual particular identity flourishes and develops. Each community cultivates internal cohesion, but at the same time it opens up to others in a process of inculturation that is at the basis of enrichment and survival.

  1. Diaspora

It is extremely difficult for immigrants, given the new context in which they live, to pass on their cultural heritage to their children. In this way the richness of the Eastern Christian tradition runs the risk of dispersing. For example, the second generation of immigrants almost completely abandons the Arabic language, with the immediate consequence of encountering difficulties in communicating with relatives left in their homeland and making a possible return to the Middle East more difficult. Television, especially for children, is a formidable factor of cultural homologation, but it creates an extra discrepancy, because the messages it proposes belong to a culturally foreign reality. Habits, customs, oriental customs are destined to disappear if the family decides to live in isolation or is forced to do so. Here therefore is the need for a broader context that offers the possibility of encounter and allows one to live the same faith: the Church. It is the same work, in essence, that the Scalabrinian missionaries have followed the Italian emigrants, building the community around the religious structure. This was a way to strengthen cultural bonds, not to forget the language and traditions of the homeland. It must be kept in mind that national communities in foreign lands can reproduce the tensions and misunderstandings of the country of origin. This is what happens to three Palestinians and Lebanese, or to Lebanese and Syrians. The scarcity of clergy, structures and economic resources, in addition to the restrictions imposed by canon law, certainly do not help the Eastern faithful to maintain ties with their Church of origin. It is estimated that only 10-15% of Eastern Christians attend churches where it is officiated according to the rite of the Church to which they belong. The new generation of seminarians born and trained in the West, despite having studied the Eastern liturgy, cannot adopt in the West all the customs of their Churches. For example, those who get married cannot be subsequently ordained a priest, as is the case in the Eastern Catholic Churches. The new code of canon law provides patriarchal authority only on the territory of the seat itself, and not on the faithful of the diaspora. The emigration of Middle Eastern Christians feeds the chances of extinction of the Eastern Churches.

  1. Mission of the Eastern Church in the diaspora

At this point we must ask ourselves what mission the Eastern Churches have today in this diaspora situation. First of all it must be emphasized that the Church of Eastern tradition must be aware of the fact that it belongs to a triple culture: Byzantine, Arab and Catholic. The Church is by its nature universal, precisely Catholic, and places itself at the service of the faithful, of all Christians and of humankind in general. This universal vocation can manifest itself in different ways:


  • keeping alive the liturgical tradition and the religious and spiritual heritage of the first Christian communities, making this wealth known in the West;
  • bringing Middle Eastern and Western Christians closer to the Eastern liturgy by translating the cultural heritage of the Church of origin into the language of the host country;
  • forming new seminarians for each Eastern rite (in the USA, for example, the Melkite clergy increased with the entry into the seminars of young people from the Roman Church);
  • becoming, due to its nature as a “bridge” between cultures, a milestone in interreligious dialogue between East and West.
  • Vatican II exalted the multiplicity of religious and liturgical traditions and did not hesitate to

to take on some liturgical gestures and customs of Eastern provenance that connote the universality of the Church. Let us remember the communion under the species of bread and wine, the adoption of the local language in the liturgy, the synodal opening. Following the guidelines laid down by the Council, the Eastern Churches, in agreement with the Orthodox Churches, should be committed to spreading and protecting the apostolic tradition. In the first four centuries of the spread of Christianity, Antioch was the beacon of the Christian faith in the world, even more than Rome and Constantinople. The liturgies of San Basilio and San Giovanni Crisostomo, which reached us through the Patriarchate of Constantinople, are of Antiochene origin. The rediscovery of the faith of our origins is a responsibility that we must assume towards our fathers and future generations.


  1. East and West towards the Third Millennium

The preparation for the celebration of the third millennium is the most propitious moment to exploit the great cultural riches present. Modern technologies that have erased barriers between nations and increased connections between peoples should be used to eliminate cultural barriers. It is a change that must be achieved together between the North and the South of the world, between East and West. But there must be no space for those who want to manipulate reality. Europeans, by their own admission, know only superficially about Middle Eastern culture. Almost everyone ignores the difficulties that a young person from these countries is facing in the impact with Western culture and mentality. The challenge that awaits Eastern Christians today is this: to bridge the gap that separates the Islamic world from the Western one, starting from the rediscovery of the Christian values ​​of the East. The return to the sources of faith is indeed a way of renewal. We need to know how to insert immutable truths into the evolving context of the world in which we live, with an enlightened mind. This double track between past and future is an element capable of providing society with a great cultural dynamism.


Giuseppe Samir Eid


Free web translation from the original in Italian

The published articles intend to provide the tools for a social inclusion of the migratory flow, shed light on human rights and the condition of life of Christians in the Islamic world from which the author comes. Knowledge of the other, of cultural and religious differences are primary ingredients to create peace in the hearts of men everywhere, a prerequisite for a peaceful coexistence and convinced citizenship in the territory.


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