We Choose Abundant Life is a document issued by Christian intellectuals and theologians who met together in Beirut on September 29, 2021 to launch their vision for Christians in the Middle East. A stark choice for these Christians is presented in this document, to choose the abundant life that is promised to God’s people in Deuteronomy 30:19b (“Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live”), which is both the choice and the challenge taken up by this group of Christian intellectuals, or the stark alternative which is to resign themselves to the gradual death of Christian communities in the Arab world. Certainly, this situation of sharply declining populations of Christian communities in the Middle East is undeniable. The document of intent, We Choose Abundant Life, promotes a progressive vision of the cultural diversity of Middle Eastern society over a narrow focus on Christians as a beleaguered minority in an Islamic world. Instead, the desire is to reinvent Arabism from the failed modernist project of forced Arabization, to become “a cultural space and an inclusive cultural concept.” This reinvented Arabism includes the diverse richness of identities amongst the Churches of the Middle East, from the Syriac and Armenian traditions to those of the Greek and Coptic churches.
“To find something that is lost is always a happy occasion!” So said Patriarch Sahak II Maşalyan of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, during his sermon at the first Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Malatya, Turkey, in over one hundred years. Reconstructed through joint efforts of the “Malatya Hayırsever Ermeniler Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği” (Malatya Armenian Culture and Solidarity Philanthropic Association, known as “HayDer”) and the Malatya Municipality, the reconsecration of the Սուրբ Երրորդութիւն/Surp Yerrortutiun (Holy Trinity) Church on Saturday, August 28, and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy the day after was a momentous, historic, and, indeed, happy occasion. Patriarch Sahak II deftly connected Christ’s famous parables from Luke 15 and the weekend’s “Feast of the Finding of the Holy Belt of Saint Mary” with the historic occasion. He emphasized the monumental event of restoring an Armenian Apostolic Church that had been abandoned during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and left to ruin not only being renovated by a Turkish municipality, but again hosting Armenian Christian liturgical life. Joy at recovering something lost and the promise of new life, the themes of the Lukan parables, were palpable in the videos and news from the weekend.
Malatya, an ancient central Anatolian city known historically as Melitene, had a notable Armenian presence since at least the time it served as a Roman provincial capital. While the church, known colloquially in Turkish as Taşhoran, was left to ruin after the 1915 Genocide, Malatya was one of the few urban centers that maintained an Armenian presence throughout the twentieth century. Today, Malatya is famous among Armenians as the birthplace of Hrant Dink, the journalist and intellectual who founded the influential paper Agos and was assassinated outside of its offices in 2007. Several of the articles about the reconsecration mention the proximity of the church to the neighborhood where Hrant Dink was born.
It’s been a brutal week for Palestinians in the city of peace.
As hardline Israeli groups prepared a provocative parade through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Israeli security forces turned their guns on peaceful Palestinian protesters and worshipers performing Ramadan prayers at the Aqsa mosque, injuring hundreds in yet another brutal crackdown. Videos circulating on social media in recent days have shown Israeli police officers throwing stun grenades and shooting rubber bullets at Palestinians inside the mosque, attacking Palestinian worshippers with tear gas bombs, and viciously beating a Palestinian man in the mosque compound. Disturbing footage showed a group of Jewish ultranationalists dancing in celebration to the sight of flames leaping above the Aqsa mosque compound. Violence quickly spiraled across the country, threatening a civil war in the streets of Israel’s mixed cities, notably Lod, Ramla, Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa, where Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians, have managed a delicate coexistence for decades. Farther south, Israeli strikes in Gaza have killed more than 100 Palestinians, including children, and wounding 1000 others, while destroying multistory buildings and displacing hundreds of residents.
Once again, Israel has turned its celebrations of Jerusalem Day, an Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City, into an occasion to repress Palestinians, and remind the world that it is in fact, as a Human Rights Watch report acknowledged last week, an apartheid state.
One afternoon last week, a wave of profound sadness came over me, prompted by a video I had viewed. A fairly new documentary on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), was released to me and fellow scholars as part of a webinar panel discussion on this holiest of Christian sites and the strong claims made to it by the six major Christian denominations.
While much of the footage I have seen before in other documentaries and many of the problems and challenges I was already familiar with, the film did its utmost to reinforce them, and did so even more intensely when placed against the backdrop of the current Coronavirus pandemic. I will explain.