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Shifting Identities

Shifting Identities. Changes in the Social, Political and Religious Structures in the Middle East

Edited by Mitri Raheb

Bethlehem: Diyar Publisher, 2016

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Reviewed by Andrew Mayes the the newly-appointed Chaplain to St. Barnabas’ Church, Limassol with St. Lazarus’ Church, Pissouri and Spirituality Adviser to the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf

Bishop Samir Kafity used to introduce himself as ‘an Anglican / Episcopal, Arab, Palestinian Israeli (though not necessarily in that order!) testifying to the multiple layering of identity in the Middle East. Identity is complex enough at the best of times with its interplay of race/ethnicity, language, religion, history and location. But the word needs to be used carefully of today’s Middle East, nuanced and attentive to many changing factors within the complexity of a region marked by struggle and conflict in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

Hence the title of the present volume, which derives from a conference in Cyprus in 2015 sponsored by Diyar (Arabic for ‘homelands’), a Lutheran-based organization in Bethlehem. The conference focussed on changes in the Middle East and their impact on the Christian communities, their quest for citizenship and identity formation. The book’s reference to ‘shifting identities’ is a double one: there are valuable historical perspectives on changes in recent centuries, as well as incisive analyses of contemporary issues related to the self-understanding of the often-vulnerable Christian community.

This interdisciplinary volume brings together diverse contributions from fourteen scholars encompassing biblical scholars, social scientists, anthropologists and experts in religious, political and economic research.  Papers cover such topics as narratives / counter-narratives of the Christian presence in the contemporary Middle East; the shifting acculturation orientation of Palestinian Christian adolescents in Israel; Palestinian Christians and the IDF; an ecclesiological anthropology of Levantine Christian belonging; transcultural processes through American missionary work in Lebanon; and psychological profiles of the Arab people. The reader is taken on a thought-provoking journey of encounter, meeting the Christians of Iran, Syria and Armenians in the Middle East. The chapter on the desired status of Jerusalem in the eyes of local Palestinian Christians – essential reading in the light of recent US decisions on this subject – reports research showing overwhelming support for an international governing authority consisting of representatives of Israel, Palestine, the UN and of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

An opening paper by Mitri Raheb, a widely-published Palestinian theologian, reminds the reader that the very term ‘Middle East’ is a nineteenth century Eurocentric term that describes the location of Arab lands / the Holy Lands in relation, say, to London or Paris. It reminds me that western Christians need to approach those who live in this region, not from a haughty distance shaped by colonialist outlooks (an attitude still lingering in parts of the Anglican psyche) but as neighbours in the global village who are our sisters and brothers in the human family.

For me, the challenge of this book is that the Other becomes the Brother. Sylvie Avakian of the Near East School of Theology in Lebanon writes in prophetic vein: ‘A genuine turn to the Other breaks the prison walls of one’s pride so that it is possible to make a place for the Other, regardless of different religions or ethnicities. Such a turn, from both sides, will contribute greatly to the resurgence and the revival of Arab thought’ (p 238). In a creative rereading of Genesis 15, Nicolas Abu Mrad notices that Abraham emerges as the archetypal figure in transition –  and it is in the midst of transition in wilderness journeys, not in the settled life of a city, that he encounters God.

When I was Course Director at St George’s College Jerusalem, I often recommended to students the now classic work by Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. The present volume deserves wide readership too as we seek to understand one another more sensitively in today’s complex and everchanging world. It will be of special relevance to those who work in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Certainly, this is no book with easy answers but with plenty of questions to stimulate, challenge and ultimately inspire.

 

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