Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet Myrna Nazzour, recipient of the only known apparition of the Virgin Mary in which the Virgin spoke Arabic – and spoke it in order to convey her desire for unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches (and particularly for unification of the date of Easter). It is perhaps not surprising that this message of unity should come from the Middle East, where division between Christians renders them even more vulnerable to Muslim persecution. But could there be more to the connection between Arab Christianity and Christian unity?
Before they were Arabified and Islamicized, Middle Eastern countries were home to many Jewish Christians. Some scholars believe that the apostolic Jewish church dissolved mostly into the Church of Antioch.
My husband is Catholic and I am Orthodox, so we go to two churches: Orthodox (OCA jurisdiction) and Melkite Catholic. The latter church is a large and thriving community, heavily Arab at the core but with a significant number of both real converts and Catholic “converts” from the Roman rite.
Being a member of this community is complicated and interesting for me. I am Israeli and a big believer, as I’ve written before, that Israel should exist and defend itself (I continue to find it strange that that is a controversial position). A significant proportion of the parishioners at our church are Palestinian and Lebanese, either first or second generation. It seems that Middle Eastern Christians, Melkites in particular, tend to identify strongly as Arabs and citizens of their countries of origin. So discussions about the “old country” tend to make me a little tense.
On the other hand, I feel at home here. Arab music, language, mannerisms, hospitality, etc. all powerfully remind me of Israel. Besides, this church is pretty much the only place where I get to speak Hebrew – because some of the Israeli Arabs who worship there graciously make a point of speaking it with me.
It seems that Zionist Jewish Christians stand in a complex relationship to Middle Eastern Arab Christians, in which an ancient common heritage runs up awkwardly against a modern power dynamic and competing victimization narratives.
Returning to Myrna, this makes me wonder whether sorting out that relationship in the lives of individual believers can ultimately be a way for the two groups to participate in the reunion of the Church around its origin in the Holy Land. I hope to come back to this topic with better-formed thoughts at some point – and hopefully to hear from you.