What Christian Artifacts of the Middle East Can Show Us About Tolerance

Posted on Nov 22, 2017

  Nov 20, 2017

PARIS — Behind the famous dilating windows Jean Nouvel designed for its Seine-side home, the Institut du Monde Arabe has presented a string of recent shows that have deepened and diversified France’s understanding of Islam. From “The Thousand and One Nights” (2012) to “Hajj: The Pilgrimage to Mecca” (2014) and the epic “Ocean Explorers” (2016), exhibitions here have disclosed the breadth of Islamic culture and history, and their intimate, centuries-long links with the West.

But Islam is not the only religion in the Arab world, and this autumn the institute, which celebrates its 30th birthday this month, has turned its attention to another faith. “Eastern Christians: 2,000 Years of History,” a vital, thorough, and sometimes astonishingly gorgeous exhibition, explores the birth and transmission of Christianity from Jesus’ death to the present day.

A Syrian glass bottle from the 13th century, decorated with scenes from monastic life.CreditCollection de la Furusiyya Art Foundation, Vaduz

“Eastern Christians” has been billed as the largest exhibition anywhere devoted to the religion in the Middle East, and among its paintings, manuscripts, tapestries, mosaics, ivories and liturgical vestments are several critical loans from Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan. It has opened at a grave time for Christians in the Middle East, who have faced appalling violence and even enslavement at the hands of the Islamic State. And it steps into a roiling debate in France, where right-wing politicians, especially, have deplored the plight of Christians in the Middle East — though not always with humanitarian motives.

“Eastern Christians” features paintings, manuscripts, tapestries, mosaics, ivories and liturgical vestments.CreditAlice Sidoli et Thierry/IMA

“Eastern Christians” was inaugurated by President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the show alongside his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Aoun, who is a Maronite Christian. It’s received acres of media coverage, not just from Christian publications like the newspaper La Croix, but on numerous mainstream radio and television programs. On one news channel Jack Lang, the former culture minister who is the director-general of the Institut du Monde Arabe, called Christianity an “essential component of the Arab world,” and warned of an “emergency” for eastern Christians, who constituted 20 percent of the region a century ago, but make up no more than 4 percent now, according to the Pew Research Center. Their continuing migration, and persecution, threatens the diversity and the vibrancy of the Arab world itself.

The exhibition opens with a fragment of red silk, dating to around A.D. 800 and lent from the Vatican, whose floral rosettes enclose the enthroned Mary, sitting stiffly as the archangel Gabriel delivers some big news. The weaving comes from Syria, and, like the Jordanian mosaic and Lebanese bas-relief it hangs alongside, it deploys Hellenistic motifs in the service of a new religion, born in Jerusalem and quickly evangelized.

Faded frescoes and fragile handwritten Bibles evoke the lives of early Christians, who faced consistent oppression and prayed largely in private. But in the early fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and his Edict of Milan established freedom of religion across the realm. Under his imperium, churches sprouted across the Middle East, and ornate censers, candelabras, mosaics and goblets with gold crosses testify to the new prestige and security Christians enjoyed.

The Attarouthi Treasure-Chalice from Syria (A.D. 500-600).CreditThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.

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.

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

“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.

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 serviceand 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.

Correction: 

A picture caption in an earlier version of this article had an incorrect date for the Attarouthi Treasure-Chalice from Syria. It is from A.D. 500-600, not 500-600 B.C.