Home > Archives > 12 - 2006 > The Anglican Primate and the clash of civilizations
from issue no. 12 - 2006

The article of Rowan Williams that appeared in the English newspaper The Times

The Anglican Primate and the clash of civilizations

by Rowan Williams

On 23 December The Times of London published an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Primate of the Anglican Communion, very critical toward the armed intervention in Iraq and, more in general, toward the warlike policies pursued in these years by the American administration and by the English government. Williams had just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, that took place between 20 and 23 December to be exact, along with the Archbishop of Westminister, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Primate of the Armenian Communion in Great Britain, Nathan Hovhannisian and the Reverend David Coffey, Moderator of the Free Churches. The pilgrims went to Jerusalem, where they met the representatives of the 13 Churches and Christian communites of the city, guests of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus. Finally, they went to Bethlehem, to the grotto of the Nativity, where they took part in an ecumenic celebration . Following we publish ample excerpts from the article that appeared in The Times.

The church of Saint George in Baghdad destroyed by a car bomb in November 2004

The church of Saint George in Baghdad destroyed by a car bomb in November 2004

In the hectic days just before the Iraq War, one prediction often made and systematically ignored was the warning that Western military action – at that point in time and in that way would put Christian populations in the whole Middle East at risk. They would be seen as supporters of the crusading West. At the very least, some were asking, shouldn’t we have a strategy about how to handle this?
Well, we didn’t have one. And the results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region. Iraq’s own Christian population is dropping by thousands every couple of months and some of its most effective leaders have been forced to emigrate. In Istanbul, the Orthodox population is a tiny remnant, and their Patriarch is told by some of the Turkish press that it’s time he left. In Egypt, where Christian-Muslim relations have been – and still are – intimate and good, extremist attacks on Christians have become notably more frequent.
As well as finding asylum itself difficult to get, it’s not unknown for Arab Christian families fleeing to the UK to find that their children are told in school that ‘they must be Muslims really’ and so are hived off with Muslim children for special activities. And that simply illustrates that we in the UK, from government downwards, are seriously badly-informed about Middle Eastern Christians.
Yet for centuries they have played a crucial role in practically all of those nations we now regard as uniformly Muslim – even Iran. They have been a reminder for both the Arab world and the West that ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are not the same – and that Muslim nations have a history of coping hospitably with Christians on their doorstep. As Christian populations migrate, it all fuels the myth in East and West – that Islam can’t live with other faiths and that the East-West collision is an irreconcilable clash of faiths and cultures.
The Archbishop of Canterbury 
Rowan Williams and, on his left, the
Cardinal di Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in Bethlehem  21 December 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and, on his left, the Cardinal di Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in Bethlehem 21 December 2006

Yet Christian populations can genuinely be part of the solution. In Lebanon, Christian communities offered the most promising schemes for lasting peace during last summer’s conflict and peace plans developed by the Maronite church are widely acknowledged as bringing the most realistic contribution to the search for peace between warring Lebanese factions.
Of course Christian communities don’t have a blameless history in the region. But in the present climate they have something special to say. To the Westerner, they say, ‘Remember that Christianity didn’t start in England or even Rome; it’s a Middle Eastern faith.’ To the Muslim world, they say, ‘Remember that Islam would not have spread as it did without the way being prepared (as the Quran itself says) by the other local religions – by Christians and Jews in the region. Remember that there are ways of being authentically Arab, non-Western, that don’t have to be Islamic.’
These communities will only survive if fellow-Christians in the West decide to pay a bit of attention. This doesn’t mean using clumsy political or military pressure to ‘protect’ them, in ways that just reinforce the idea that they’re Western allies and so must be unreliable. That’s happened too often in the past. It means being willing to protest when they are ill-treated; to make contact with them directly, to set up links between local churches here and in the Middle East; to remember when we visit the region that they exist and they need friends. [...]
Speaking up for and befriending the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East is good for them and for Muslims too; it’s a reminder of the healthier and saner relationship between the faiths, which existed in many parts of the Middle East for long tracts of its complicated history.
The British Prime Minister Tony Blair with the soldiers of the Shaibah base, in Bassora, in Iraq, 22 December 2005

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair with the soldiers of the Shaibah base, in Bassora, in Iraq, 22 December 2005

It comes home most poignantly in the Holy Land itself. I have spent the last two days with fellow Christian leaders in Bethlehem, its Christian population down to barely a quarter. There are some signs of disturbing anti-Christian feeling among parts of the Muslim population, despite the consistent traditions of coexistence. But their plight is made still more intolerable by the tragic conditions created by the “security fence” which almost chokes the shrinking town – the dramatic poverty, soaring unemployment and sheer practical hardship of travelling to school, work or hospital. The sense of desperate isolation is felt by Christians more acutely than most.
Once heavily represented among the professional and educated classes, many feel they have no choice but to leave. One Christian Palestinian friend said to me, ‘I never imagined that people like us would find ourselves hungry, unemployed, facing daily violence.’ Some of the people who would be most helpful in making Palestinian society stronger and more democratic feel they have no future in the Holy Land: to the zealots on one side they are potential terrorists, to the zealots on the other they may be seen as infidels. And unfortunately it’s the zealots who make the running.
The first Christian believers were Middle Easterners. It’s a very sobering thought that we might live to see the last native Christian believers in the region.
This Christmas, pray for the little town of Bethlehem, and spare a thought for those who have been put so much at risk by our shortsightedness and ignorance; and ask what you might do locally to raise the profile of these brave and ancient churches.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português