Friday, 9 October 2015

Armenians and Other Christians at the end of the Ottoman Empire and 100 years later

Thursday 8th October 2015

Len Harrow presented an overview of the history of the subjugation and persecution of Armenians and Syriac speaking Christian groups on the boundaries between Persia and Ottoman Turkey. The genocidal 'cleansing' of Armenians from Turkey after the first World War played out against the background of the power struggles between Russia, France and the UK. Between 500,000 and 1.3 million Armenians perished in that period. The Kurds were also part of the militias terrorising local Christian populations in the period where the Kurds were vying for statehood with Turkey and the surrounding powers.A Syrian civil war and the dislocation of central government in northern Iraq also caused the displacement of whole communities in this region one hundred years earlier. It was instructive to learn that the mass displacement of populations including Christians in this region has a long history that underlies the tensions in the Middle East today and has contributed to the contemporary mass movement of refugees towards Europe.

A lively discussion drew on personal stories of Christian families today who had lived in Mosul and  had been driven out eventually. They were now living on charitable handouts in Northern Iraq, now an aspirational Kurdistan.  Referred to as Internally Displaced Persons rather than refugees they live in a political black hole without the protection of international recognition as refugees which they clearly are. The Kurds are generous with their protection of Christian minorities. There may be a touch of self interest as an embryionic nation states seeks the skills that it might need. It may be more political expediancy in the hope for international recognition by the United Nations as a nation state given its hospitality to persecuted political minorities.  The selective protection afforded the Chrsitian community in relation to the Kurdish security forces may yet cause further tension between Christians and Muslims but this is a safe port in a storm for the time being. There may be a suspicion that this generosity is only paper thin and could be reversed at a drop of a hat but the Christian community is thankful.

Further threads to our discussion related to the nature of Islam as an orthodox faith tradition compared with Christianity and Judaism. Is it a misnomer to talk of 'theology' in Islam which is more accurately a 'jurisprudence'. Theology is about the nature of God and religious belief but Jurisprudence is about the theory of law; in the case of Islam, God's Law as laid down explicitly in the Koran and intepreted and customarily expanded in the Hadith.  Christianity is about the person of Jesus and implications of the birth, life and death of Jesus for interpretations of God's Love in the daily lives of its adherents. Judaism sits between a jurisprudence and a theology. Judaism, Christianity and Islam track antecedents from Abraham, the mythical father of our faiths and the Judaism of the prophets and of Jesus who is variously interpreted as a prophet, a son of God or the Son of God.

Islam with its jurisprudence locked into the Koran tolerates Judaism and Christianity as 'people of the Book' but is clear that Christianity, at least, is an aberration and a lesser instrument in obedience to God's Law...Islam is the revelation of the final prophet. Christians and Jews must be helped to understand the lesser significance of their faith by the imposition of dhimmi status and payment of the jizya tax in any community holding fast to God's law.

In this context, what is the value of dialogue. What is the outcome of dialogue when parties are not held equal in the conversation. There can be no place for dialogue with followers of that actually the case in practice.? Often it might feel like that but not always so. When Christians and Muslims enter dialogue together, isnt it the case that both would hope that the other will eventually see sense and convert but more realistically there is hope that both parties will have an accurate understanding of each other's position and find respect for each other at a new level which might allow them to live peacefully together.

Orthodox views of Islam or any other faith tradition blank out the reality of the experience of most adherents of a more nuanced interpretation of their faith. Whether they are true followers of a particular faith or merely weak charlatans may be a matter of interpretation and a usurping of God's ultimate judgement. However, the fact is that there is an experience of the numinous among some Muslims, an experience of reality of God's presence, a personal encounter. The Sufi tradition for example is one such rich human story. Personal experiences of dialogue are not felt fruitless on every occasion and sometimes help each party deepen their own faith....I can think of a personal example where Muslims in Ramallah who send their children to Friends School, Ramallah (a Quaker School) describe their experience as making their children 'better Muslims'.

A rich and varied discussion among a committed and informed group of people...what a blessing.