Once home to flourishing and influential Christian communities, today only a few thousand believers live in Yemen. Most only meet each other in secret. But a new SAT-7 series, We Are the Arabs, uncovers the surprising ancient Christian heritage of this land. It does so with a purpose: to draw valuable lessons for today on how Arab Christians, living as a minority, can dialogue with more dominant religious voices in their countries.
“Through showing the rich dynamics early Muslims had with Christians, we hope to reflect on our current situation and encourage an open and respectful dialogue,” explains producer Ashraf Elsamey. “A dialogue that overcomes the recent presumptions and enmity between people of different religions.
“We believe we can establish a common ground as viewers learn about the history of our region and develop an appreciation of the contributions of religious minorities in building it.”
Learning from history
Elsamey explains how each of the series 13 episodes is divided between examining the history of Yemeni Christianity from its beginnings to the 10th century, and approaching current difficulties.
Yemen’s borders have changed over the centuries, and its people sometimes migrated to establish societies elsewhere. For this reason, the series learns from some of these communities too, such as the Christian kingdom in al-Hira in what is now Iraq. At one time this was a major force in north-east Arabia. Christians there are thought to have constituted a third of the city’s population, which hosted monasteries and many churches.
Dialogue with Islam’s founder
In the 7th century Muhammad, the founder of Islam, invited Christians for dialogue from Najran – today situated in Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border. Both unsuccessfully sought to convince the other about their faith, but did so with mutual respect.
With contributions from many academics and experts, We Are the Arabs considers what can be learnt today about these interactions. Beginning with al-Hira, it explores concepts of a Christian kingdom and draws lessons from the biblical records of Old Testament prophets, King David and the promised Messiah. It asks, how do faith and politics interact? Another episode looks at the place of Yemen’s neighbour, Ethiopia, in the Bible. Then it reviews the close relations Christians in Yemen and Ethiopia had in the early Christian era.
Strengths and weaknesses
Christianity in the region had both strengths and weaknesses. Elsamey believes today’s MENA Church can learn from them. He points out that they raise questions over how effectively the Church related to local traditions and cultures. Why did translation of the Church’s teaching into Arabic (which pre-dated Islam in the region) not begin before the arrival of Islam? Why did Christianity spread more extensively in countries like Syria and Egypt than in Yemen? What can Arab Christians learn from the influence of the Yemeni poet Uday bin Zaid Al-Abadi, who was widely celebrated beyond the Christian community?
Each episode also unpacks a Christian concept that has links with the historical lessons. It aims to explain topics like the Kingdom of God, salvation, the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ in terms that both Christians and non-Christians might understand.
Although today’s Church in Yemen may be small and persecuted, Elsamey believes its strong history has much to teach the Arab world. He hopes that learning from its past will show viewers of all faiths that Christians have deep historical roots here that even predate the dominant faith. As they live side by side, the series offers to show how past successes and failures can teach current generations the value of dialogue and tolerance.