Diyar Conference: Shifting Identities: “Changes in the Social, Political, and Religious Structures in the Arab World”

Diyar Conference: Shifting Identities: “Changes in the Social, Political, and Religious Structures in the Arab World”

“A Wholistic View of Shifting Identities”

The Christian Academic Forum for Citizenship in the Arab World (CAFCAW) conference entitled “Shifting Identities: Changes in the Social, Political, and Religious Structures in the Arab World” was held July 3-5 in Paphos, Cyprus. CAFCAW was created as a forum for gathering academics to discuss pressing issues of the region from various fields in a relevant topic. This year’s conference engaged young academics to discuss the topic of shifting identities in light of the current crisis occurring in the Middle East and. The dialogue was marked by an unusual objectivity despite the controversial and delicate contemporary issues and the fact that the participants came from various confessional and national backgrounds. Findings were presented by academics of a multitude of disciplines: psychology, political science, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and theology were among the fields present. The conference proceedings will be available from January 2016 in both print and Amazon Kindle e-Reader format. More information about this and future conferences can be found here.

The image of Abraham migrating through the wilderness between the two life-giving rivers of the Middle East has personal meaning for the Christians of the region who, buffeted between political forces and growing instability, find themselves at times searching for a meaningful future within the region and, at other times, crying with despair from the desert. Like the movement of sand in the desert, outside interest in their well-being ebbs and flows as opportunistic powers choose to favor or forget the Christian community. Regardless of nationality, the core identity of many Middle Eastern Christians is undergoing a period of transformation. Understanding the many facets of Christian identity in the Middle East was the task of sociologists, ethnologists, theologians, historians and anthropologists at the recent conference of the Christian Academic Forum for Citizenship in the Arab World (CAFCAW).

In early July, the organizers of CAFCAW gathered academics from 13 countries to present their findings on this topic from the perspectives of Christians in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and Lebanon as well as those Middle Eastern Christians newly rooted in diaspora communities around the world. While the content was rich with diversity, the theme of “Shifting Identities” tied together all of the papers. We heard from presenters who study ancient identities, passed down to the current generation, as well as those identities which are experiencing dramatic changes today due to the pressure that comes from being a minority in a hostile environment. Several shared the burgeoning wellspring of feminist intellectual thought as others explored the growing phenomenon of Middle Eastern Christian churches founded in northern Europe, a new expression of Arab Christian identity. All presentations offered an insight into the complex cultural, religious, social and political identities present in the Middle East from a wide variety of academic disciplines. The many layers of identity appear in different ways depending on church, age, nationality, or gender, but there was no doubt of the common sense of empowerment and pride for the Christian heritage of the Middle East.

For the Christians who remain in the Middle East, and it must be said here that those who leave wish they could stay, there can be a sense of wilderness, a sense of diminished security as they watch so many of their friends and family become refugees abroad. It is the task of the community to search deep within themselves and to the depths of their traditions to discern what they are called to do and who they are called to be at a time when their presence feels less relevant and less assured than in ages past. Mitri Raheb, a leader of CAFCAW, shared his opinion that the Christian community has lost its influence, a view that is easy neither to accept nor refute.

How can a community that loses families to emigration each month continue to impact society? Does a diminished presence rule out the possibility of shaping the next chapter of the history of the Middle East? There is hope among the community that, in spite of its diminished presence, it will continue to season the Middle East with its proven strengths in dialogue and peace-building as well as in its quest for justice and affirmation of a meaningful life for all people of the region.

All thought-provoking gatherings end with questions, and the CAFCAW conference was no exception. We left wondering, for example, how we could apply the methodical findings to truly engage and improve the societies to which we would return. As it turns out, the answer was there, all along, resting in an unassuming document in front of us.

At the beginning of the conference, each attendee received CAFCAW’s recently published Statement “From the Nile to the Euphrates The Call of Faith and Citizenship,” a slim document, diminutive in size but rich in content. This Call is the distillation of CAFCAW’s vision and findings through years of discernment about the reality of a Christian existence in the region. It acknowledges the deep concerns, to ignore them would be unhelpful, and at times cries out with genuine concern to the reader. But more powerful than the concern about a precarious future is the conviction that a pragmatic application of faith can challenge the status quo. The conclusion of the document was echoed and reinforced time and time again during the July CAFCAW conference in Cyprus. It is a statement of commitment “to [remain] and [persevere] with all those who share our concerns, through the process of awakening that our societies need,” as well as the awareness that “deliverance…will come only as a result of a difficult process of labor pains – as in childbirth – and through a continuing and cumulative cultivation of awareness leading to a radical reformation of systems and mindsets, over many generations.”[1]

This very statement – the conviction that the journey will be long but the outcome will be good – is the proof that Christians in the Middle East indeed are still relevant, still wholeheartedly dedicated to the call to be fruitful citizens in their societies, and, perhaps most importantly, are still called by God to “participate and make a positive contribution toward change – to believe, to work hard and to make things happen.”[2]

The academic proceedings of the conference “Shifting Identities: Changes in the Social, Political, and Religious Structures in the Arab World” will be available in January 2016 here, where more information about the conference is available. CAFCAW’s 2016 conference will be held 21-23 April 2016 in Cyprus and will gather young journalists and scholars from the Arab world & the diaspora.

[1] p 21. “From the Nile to the Euphrates The Call of Faith and Citizenship.” The Christian Academic Forum for Citizenship in the Arab World. 2014. Diyar Publisher, Bethlehem. Print.

[2] p. 6. Ibid.