At the British blog Ekklesia, Harry Hagopian has an interesting essay on recent leadership changes in Christian communions in the Middle East. In the past year, he writes, new patriarchs have been selected by Maronite Catholics, the Coptic Orthodox, the Antiochian Greek Orthodox, and, this week, the Armenian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. These changes have more than just spiritual significance. In the Middle East, Christian leaders traditionally have important civil responsibilities as well: they are seen as representatives of their co-religionists in the wider society. This dual role–spiritual and secular–is a remnant of the Ottoman millet system, which conferred civil responsibilities on Christian religious leaders. Here’s Hagopian:
It often seems bizarre for many Western minds that Armenians place such hullabaloo on the election of their church hierarchs. I agree that it goes against the grain somewhat, and more so from our own Western perspective where God and Caesar are kept deliberately – and at times constitutionally – apart. Perhaps we interpret the prophetic fire of our faith differently.
However, the Middle East and North Africa region also enjoys a rich but somewhat different culture whereby each community still looks generally at its religious leaders for guidance and support – no more so than in those difficult moments facing the whole region where mounting violence and discrimination or economic hardships are together challenging the quest for dignity and citizenry.
So even though this ‘coming round’ a church leader is gradually diminishing in this part of the world too, I believe that it is still part of the intuitive and cultural genes of its inhabitants and one of the prisms that many Christians, Muslims and Jews use in their daily interplay with each other and with their neighbours – consciously or perhaps even unconsciously.
It’s important to keep the dual role of spiritual leaders in mind when trying to understand intercommunal relations in the Middle East.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.