Critic’s Notebook: What Christian Artifacts of the Middle East Can Show Us About Tolerance

The fourth and fifth centuries saw Christians quarrel over theological matters and divide into numerous sects. And as its title implies (“Eastern Christians,” not “Eastern Christianity”), this is an exhibition about multiple cultures, speaking numerous languages, practicing a variety of faiths sometimes at odds with one another. Manuscripts in Greek, Arabic, Coptic or Syriac are presented in a magnificent circular gallery equipped with speakers that play hymns from across the region. An Arabic canticle to the Virgin Mary gives way to a woman singing a plangent hymn in Armenian; an ululating chant of repentance comes from the Syriac Orthodox Church.


The Attarouthi Treasure-Chalice from Syria (500-600 B.C.). Credit The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In the seventh century, the banner of Islam charged across the east of the former Roman Empire, and a religion of images gave way to a religion averse to icons. The show treats the Crusades rather briefly, and principally through its cultural aftereffects; we see an Old Testament in Arabic as intricate as the finest Qurans, and a 13th-century Syrian vase whose scenes of Christian monks nestle inside Islamic decoration. More attention is paid to the early modern era, which saw a Christian bourgeoisie arise in Baghdad, Damascus and other Arab metropolises between the 16th and 18th centuries.

“Eastern Christians” thus confirms that, contrary to the clash-of-civilization palaver spouted by both the Islamic State and the European far right, Christians lived peacefully as a minority in the Middle East for nearly 1,000 years. The accelerated violence of the 20th century has political roots, above all in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the nationalist movements that arose in its wake. This exhibition relies on contemporary artists to illustrate these modern problems. Dor Guez, an Israeli artist of Jewish and Christian heritage, presents an archive of images of his grandmother’s expulsion from Jaffa in 1948. The photographer Katharine Cooper depicts the ruined churches of Aleppo, Syria, in stark black-and-white prints, sapped of hope.


Roger Anis’s “Blessed Marriage,” taken in Cairo, addresses contemporary Christians in the Middle East. Credit Roger Anis

The fate of Christians in the Middle East has become a heated political topic in France — which, despite the country’s official secularism, has lately wrestled with the place of both Christianity and Islam in public life. In 2014, amid horrible violence in Syria and Iraq, a number of right-wing politicians began adding the Arabic letter nun” to their Twitter account handles, in solidarity with Christians under threat from the Islamic State. They were not the only ones; the symbol appeared on the accounts of hard-right activists, like the leader of Génération Identitaire, an extremist movement calling for a “reconquest” of Europe from a supposed Muslim takeover.

This year’s presidential election also saw the defeated candidates of the French right and far right invoke eastern Christians, often in the same breath as they disparaged Muslims at home. François Fillon, the former prime minister and Republican candidate, attended a Coptic Easter service and expressed his “affection” for eastern Christians — just hours after deploring that in a secular country “we no longer say the words identity, France, nation, homeland, roots, culture.” The far-right leader Marine Le Pen, during last year’s election, went further, raising the prospect of French intervention. She insisted on “France’s absolutely essential role in protecting eastern Christians,” which she went on to call a “historic role.”

Mr. Macron’s address at the Institut du Monde Arabe implicitly rebuked the political use Ms. Le Pen has made of the plight of Christians in the Middle East. “Anywhere where minorities are defending their faith, the French stand by their side,” the president said, “because we believe in pluralism.” That pluralism has marked the Arab world since before the birth of Islam, as this essential exhibition reaffirms.

Taking that pluralism seriously means contesting the new crusades of these eastern Christians’ false friends in the West — and rejecting sectarian caricatures in favor of universal equality and human freedom. I don’t believe “Eastern Christians” can impart much to the Le Pens of the world, who are as dishonest and as deaf to reason as the jihadists they claim to oppose. It does, though, have a message for the rest of us: Take the past as seriously as the present, and never let extremists set the terms of debate.

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