A system designed partly to protect the region’s Christians has become a straitjacket inviting persecution and preventing greater equality and participation in Middle East societies.
Since the time of the Ottoman Empire (1300-1922), the relationship of Christians in the Middle East with the politics and society of their countries has followed a similar trajectory.
The Ottoman “millet system” was a pragmatic method of managing diverse ethno-religious minorities in a large empire. It gave Christian ethnic communities, like the Armenians, Greeks, Copts and Syriac Orthodox people within its borders the right to run their own affairs and apply their own laws in civil matters like marriage.
In this way, the Ottoman authorities could manage an entire community by making agreements with a formal church body. Thus, the church leadership did not only represent the more spiritually committed, but the entire community and was seen as the sole authority to represent the concerns, needs and requests of that community.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, many countries kept these traditional legal and political provisions in place. Governments continued to mandate the traditional churches with handling civil matters and related to them as the communal spokespersons and leaders.
In fact, for authoritarian leaders, it was a perfect arrangement. It allowed them to accommodate minorities (whether Christian, Muslim or other) while also ensuring their submission and it was straightforward to deal with the easily identified hierarchies that represented them. We saw this in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon and Iraq.
This arrangement also suited the historic churches: it offered government funds and political and social influence. There were benefits for the ordinary Christian too. The system gave a level of protection and exemptions from certain Islamic laws and practices. For example, in Iran, Christians could have alcohol and women were not required to wear headscarves within their own premises.
Yet, it also had a serious negative outcome: it resulted in the isolation, exclusion and marginalisation of Christians across the region. It limited their voices, their rights, and engagement with wider society. It also created unhealthy relationships between the political powers and church leadership, at times leading to serious pressure to comply with authoritarian rulers. At times it resulted in clergy who were more interested in power and wealth than the welfare of their communities.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings that began in 2010 and in the light of subsequent events, the cracks in these centuries-old arrangements have once again become visible. Churches and their leadership were put in a difficult position when expected to support the ruling regimes. It made them and ordinary Christians targets of radical opponents.
If the history of Christianity in the Middle East over the last 100 years has taught us anything, it is that the comfortable structures that have been in place are now operating to the detriment of a flourishing Christian Church. As the region undergoes changes comparable only to those in the aftermaths of WWI and WWII, the Church faces a major challenge. Christians of the Middle East have to reflect on how they should adapt to the new conditions. The priorities are not only to ensure the safety and flourishing of their communities and to counter the trends of emigration, but also to be salt to savour societies at the crossroads.
Active and involved
For this, the region’s believers have to focus consciously on ensuring that they are present as active citizens across all sectors of their societies. They need to be represented in politics, culture, and society as Christian citizens of their countries. Achieving this will also involve challenging the ingrained discrimination that prevents Christians from finding public sector jobs in many of the region’s countries.
While communal identities like those of the millet system will always exist, if they are the only structures through which Christians engage with society, they will lose out more than ever as new power structures are configured based on raw power and numerical superiority.
Moving away from inherited systems will require a lot of maturity and humility from church leaders across the region. They too must accept that for the sake of their own communities and congregations they must negotiate a new place for themselves and not allow powerful politicians to put them into difficult positions.
Without a vision of equal citizenship for Christians, the legacy of the millet system in today’s world is only an hour clock whose trickling sands signal the diminishing future of Christianity in the region.
The author is a Middle East Christian and commentator on social and religious affairs.
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