12 June 2019

‘The Future of Religious Minorities
in the Middle East’: a book review

The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East

John Eibner (ed), Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018, pp 276. ISBN 978-14985-6196-9

A new report commissioned by the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, shows that the persecution of Christians is pervasive in parts of the Middle East, sometimes amounting to genocide, and has prompted an exodus in the past two decades. Millions of Christians have been uprooted from their homes throughout the Middle East, and many have been killed, kidnapped, imprisoned and discriminated against. The report also highlights discrimination across south-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia – often driven by state authoritarianism.

The interim report is based on work by Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro, makes for sobering reading. It says ‘the inconvenient truth’ is ‘the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians.’

The Christian population in the Middle East and North Africa stood at 20% a century ago. In recent years, this proportion has fallen to less than 4%, or roughly 15 million people. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage, according to the report. The Arab-Israeli conflict has caused the majority of Palestinian Christians to leave their homeland, so that the population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2%.

For people reflecting on reports such as this, it is all the more disturbing that the persecuted and persecutor all share religious belief-systems that not only share so much in common but all three major monotheistic religions originated in the fertile crescent of the Middle East.

What is the future for religious minorities in the Middle East?

Do they have a future?

These are questions that have been asked in Constantinople and throughout the Middle East since the seventh century. But perhaps, as Taner Akçam of Clark University points out, modern ‘ethnic cleansing’ can be traced to the genocide of Armenians in 1915, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the forced ‘population exchanges’ between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s.

These questions are asked yet again in a fresh way in a new book edited by John Eibner, a Swiss-American historian who is runs the Middle East programmes of the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity International (CSI). He has brought together essays by 20 scholars, journalists, human rights activists and political practitioners who spoke in Switzerland and the US on the topic. Now they have been published together in book form.

The contributors are from diverse political, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Each draws a deep wellspring of scholarship and experience as they seek to understand the threat to religious minorities and social pluralism. The one Irish contributor is the journalist Patrick Cockburn; the one Anglican is Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.

The future of religious minorities in the Middle East is an issue for more than Christians and Muslims. Jewish communities have all but vanished apart from within Israel. Groups such as the Alawites, the Yezidis, Druze, Kakais and Mandaeans, like Christians, struggle for survival.

In recent years, the West has focused on the threats posed by jihadist terrorism. But the delicate fabric of inter-communal relations in the Middle East has been unravelling for the past century, at the expense of religious and ethnic minorities.

As early as 2011, CSI was warning of a genocide against religious minorities and called for action. The warning followed similarly dramatic appeals by then president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, and the former president of Lebanon, Amine Gemayel, one of the contributors to this collection. At the time, the warning was scarcely heeded. Yet, since then, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) carried out a systemic genocide, targeting Christians, Yazidis, and Shi'ite Muslims

During a recent visit to Tangier, when I visited churches and synagogues in the Moroccan port city, I tried to convince myself that there is still hope in the Middle East and North Africa. In these papers, some of the contributors still express hope for the future, but others view the situation more pessimistically. As John Eibner writes, there are few ‘silver linings around the dark clouds … the future is grim indeed.’

Patrick Comerford

This book review is published in the current edition of ‘Search: A Church of Ireland Journal’ (Vol 42.2, Summer 2019), pp 151-152.

This biographical note is included on p 155:

Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge of Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin (Diocese of Limerick & Killaloe), Precentor of Limerick and Killaloe cathedrals, and a former Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.

One of the oldest, and
one of the newest
churches in Málaga

The Church Sacred Heart is in a small corner near the Carmen Thyssen Museum in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I moved between Málaga and Córdoba last week, I visited two churches in Málaga – one that is one of the newest churches in the city, and one that is among the oldest churches in Málaga.

The Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón or Church Sacred Heart is tucked into a small corner of San Ignacio de Loyola Square, just behind the Carmen Thyssen Museum in the Old Town of Málaga.

This Neo-Gothic church was built for the Jesuits in 1920, and was designed by the architect Fernando Guerrero Strachán.

Between them, two members of the Strachan family were responsible for some of the most emblematic buildings in Malaga built at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

Fernando Guerrero Strachan (1879-1930) was the nephew of another prominent architect Eduardo Strachan Viana-Cardenas. He was known as ‘the Gaudí of Málaga’ and was a pioneering architect. He left Málaga a wonderful legacy of beautiful buildings, with a long list of 72 catalogued buildings.

His works include Málaga City Hall, the Calle Larios, Hotel Miramar, the Banco Hispanoamericano building on the Alameda Principal and the Neo-Baroque Ayuntamiento Building. He was also the Mayor of Málaga between 1928 and 1930.

His son, Fernando Guerrero Strachan Rosado (1907-1941), was the architect behind the City Hall, the original Rosaleda stadium and the restoration work on the Gibralfaro Castle and the Alcazaba Fortress.

Between them, the father and son designed countless other stunning façades either created from scratch or refurbished for their clients.

An ornate rose window sits above the arches of the main doors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The elder Strachan’s design for the Jesuit Church of the Sacred Heart was inspired by the cathedrals in Ávila and Burgos in northern Spain. This elegant church was built in the neo-Gothic style.

The eye-catching façade in soft biscuit stone, topped with two spires and covered in Gothic-style tracery. An ornate rose window sits above the arches of the main doors. This cream and yellow façade is a long way from the dark stone used previously for churches.

Inside, the interior of the church is just as impressive as the exterior, is refreshingly bright and airy. It is built on a basilica plan, divided in three naves and covered by a rib vault. The crossing on an octagonal plan has a star-shaped vault. The choir is at the end of the central nave, which is higher and wider than the side aisles.

Oranges growing in the courtyard of the Sacred Heart Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Neo-Gothic High Altar is the work of the the artist Adrian Risueño. A sculpture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the work of the artist Antonio Maumon and dates from 1940.

Paintings on either side of the High Altar depict the Jesuits Saint Ignatius de Loyola and Saint Francisco de Borja.
The narrow stained-glass windows are by the renowned French firm of Mauméjean in Pau, and feature scenes from the lives of the saints.

The tower of Santiago Church on Calle Granada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

On the other hand, the Santiago Church or Church of Saint James the Apostle on Calle Granada is the oldest church in Málaga. The church was founded in 1490, it became a parish in 1505 and was built in 1509 on the site of a former mosque.

The central entrance in the Mudéjar style is all that remains of the original façade, but the building retains Islamic, gothic and baroque elements. The square tower in the same style was conceived as a separate minaret and was attached to the church in the 16th century.

The central entrance in the Mudéjar style is all that remains of the original façade of Santiago Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Inside, the church has three naves and valuable works by Alonso Cano and Niño de Guevara, as well as significant items that include a 16th century chalice with a star-shaped foot and a six-sided body. The main altarpiece dates from the 18th century, and came from the church of a Dominican convent.

A sign outside reminds passers-by that the artist Pablo Picasso was baptised in this church on 10 November 1881.

Symbols of Saint James and the Camino to Santiago at the door of the Santiago Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)