Whatever Happened to the Churches of Revelation?

admin/ March 10, 2014/ History of Christianity, Middle East, Turkey/ 0 comments

Slide1

Ed West writes in his book, Silence of Our Friends, in September 2013, there was a BBC broadcast news from a battle in the predominantly Christian village of Ma’Loula, in the hills north of Damascus. The rebels had planted a black jihadi flag close to the statute of the Virgin Mary overlooking the surrounding desert. Into the camera a local Christian shopkeeper proclaims to the camera’s far flung audience “Tell the EU and the Americans that we sent you St. Paul 2,000 years ago to take you from the darkness, and you sent us terrorists to kill us.

Nothing in the Middle East is simple. Many of the pro-government troops could be seen on camera kissing their crucifixes, illustrating for the British television audience that there was yet another dimension to the Syrian war.

Kim Lawton, managing editor and correspondent for PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, spoke to our class about the peculiar situation of Christians in the Holy Land and how their numbers are diminishing and how they have survived as religious minorities. They are, as some of the Christians she met told her, “the Living Stones”.  They are Christians which trace their religious lineage back to Christ. Organizations such as the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation exist to extend aid to this increasingly persecuted minority. Ed West’s book traces the increasing savagery of the last 10 years, but such bloodshed and persecution is not new.

Slide2

Philip Jenkins, the Edwin Erie Sparks Professor of the Humanities in History and Religious Studies at Penn State University makes the case that the question should not be: why did Christianity die in the Middle East? We should consider instead: Why does it still continue to survive?

Despite Arab Muslim conquests of the 7th Century which made Christians in Muslim-dominated territories 2nd class citizens with few legal rights, it was not until 1300 AD that they began to suffer through a series of tragic pogroms and ethnic cleansing directed at them. A Jewish lawyer coined the term “genocide” when reflecting what happened to the Armenian Christians.

Writes Jenkins “The aftereffects of the Mongol invasions certainly played their part, by terrifying Muslims and others with the prospect of a direct threat to their social and religious power. Climatic factors were also critical, as the world entered a period of rapid cooling, precipitating bad harvests and shrinking trade routes: a frightened and impoverished world looks for scapegoats.”

Thus “Muslim regimes and mobs now delivered near-fatal blows to weakened Christian churches.”

The number of Christians in Asia fell, between 1200 and 1500, from 21 million to 3.4 million. During the same years, the proportion of the world’s total Christian population living in Africa and Asia combined fell from 34 percent to just 6 percent, and the remnant that survived virtually disappeared in the massacres of Armenians, Assyrians, Syrians and other ancient Christian communities during the 19th and 20th centuries. – “Recovering a Forgotten Chapter a Book review by J. Peter Pham of Jenkins’ works.

I have been challenged. Ed West writes that Iraqi Christians were singled out because it was assumed that they automatically would be enemies of the state during the American invasion of Iraq; working together with fellow Western co-religionists. The US has ignored their existence and they play no part in the American strategy. I certainly had no idea they were there. A professor friend of mine posted an article about growing religious persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East and both of us were astonished to find that there were actual communities to be persecuted.

Like so many American Christians, we read the book of Revelation and parse it to determine if we can tell when the end times will come. We look at the prophecies given to the seven churches and compare our own congregations to the words of encouragement and condemnation. How will we fare in the final judgement? We debate about the meaning of the symbols. Does it mean the European Union is the beast? Does it mean that we’ll all be marked like grocery story products with codes that anyone can scan to reveal which category we’ve been placed in? We never look at the churches that are still IN TURKEY. I just assumed that they were gone. I’ve not heard sermons about them, lessons taught, etc. Yet these Christian traditions trace themselves back to the time before the Revelation.

Instead, THIS is my interpretation of the Middle East as described by Thomas Friedman in his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and graphed by “the big pharaoh”.

Slide6

A complicated Gordian knot of relationships drawing on three sources of friction: nationalism (the imposition of borders on territories which had none); tribalism (and the complicated kinshap obligations and honors which shaped it apart from any other law which might be imposed by national organizations) and the authoritarian tradition. Like most countries — these territories admire anyone who can get things done. Like the Italians under Mussolini — they just want the trains to run on time and they can live with whatever it takes to accomplish that.

Friedman writes that Assad was an accomplished strongman who could literally raze a rebellious city to the ground, leave it in ashes and massacre its people — yet still win elections because his surviving population knew that he did what he (and they) thought he had to do.

The questions that this class will look at are:

1. Who are the Christians of Turkey?

2. Where are the Christians of Turkey and how did they get there?

3. What is their history?

4. What do they believe and why?

5. How do they yet manage to survive?

In this class we will concentrate on the Christians in Turkey (with occasional forays into the surrounding Middle East) because Turkey was the ancient heartland of Christianity after they left Jerusalem.

In some ways they are the “lost brotherhood”. As a culture there have been so many myths about trying to find the lost tribes of Israel. But have we looked to see what happened to our Christian brothers. It has struck me that in some ways it’s like the returning Jews from the Babylonian captivity rediscovering the law they’d forgotten about. This is an attempt to understand the worlds that they existed in and that they now exist in.

We hope that you will join us.

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