‘I went to an Orthodox mass once, God it was so long and tedious.’
‘I’m not sure Christians in the Middle East really understand their beliefs: it’s just a bunch of ritual in dead languages.’
‘I didn’t even realise there were Catholics in Egypt.’
On and on runs the litany of ignorance which constitutes my daily encounter with many Australians when I tell them about my religious heritage. As an Arab-Christian and an Egyptian (‘Coptic’) Catholic, I’ve always been frustrated about just how little known my faith community is.
It’s this frustration which compelled me to participate in an SBS television program called Christians Like Us, which has been airing this April. Only one or two of the participants seemed to be familiar with our customs: few knew that in Arab Catholic and Orthodox churches, priests are sometimes able to marry and only one knew that Egyptian Catholics even existed in Australia.
As an Arab-Christian and an Egyptian (‘Coptic’) Catholic, I’ve always been frustrated about just how little known my faith community is.
I’ve always been aware of this lack of visibility, of just how little known the lived faith experience of Arab Christians are in this country. This feeling of exclusion and non-existence was realised on a recent episode of the ABC's flagship program, Q&A. A panel of 'Catholic representatives' included New South Wales Senator Jim Molan, Federal Labor Senator Kristina Keneally, Chair of the Truth, Justice and Healing council Francis Sullivan, plaintiff lawyer for sex abuse survivors, Dr. Viv Waller and American Rabbi, Schmuley Boteach. The lack of cultural diversity among this panel would lead you to believe that Christianity didn't begin in 1st Century Palestine, but in the moors and grasslands of Ireland or England. It ignored the reality of the lived experience of millions, which is not uniformly ‘in decline’ all over the world (Catholicism is on the rise in China and sub-Saharan Africa). The episode also distorted the reality of Catholicism and Christianity in the imagination of Australians who are not exposed to non-Anglo expressions of the faith.
A more comprehensive vision of Catholicism reflects the diversity and complexity of Catholic identity, and helps break up the damaging stereotype that most Catholic clergy are ‘white male paedophiles’. Indeed, Arab Christianity is one of the richest and most ancient expressions of the church; its traditions have remained largely unchanged since its conception in the Middle East over 2000 years ago.
What is Arab Christianity? Well, in short, it's Christianity itself. Jesus was a brown-skinned Hebrew from the Middle Eastern town of Nazareth. The disciples, themselves Middle Easterners, travelled the Middle East and East Africa after Christ’s ascension. Peter travelled to Turkey; Saint Mark to Egypt, Matthew to Ethiopia, Thomas went as far as India. These historical figures produced the gospels, spread the teachings of Jesus, and established the first churches, giving birth to the largest religion in the history of the world.
Jesus was a brown-skinned Hebrew from the Middle Eastern town of Nazareth.
Arab Christians are Copts, Maronites, Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox), Chaldeans and Nestorians. Looking further East, there is also a substantial proportion of Indian Christians in Australia, who in the Catholic Church identify as Syro-Malabar.
Blonde hair, blues eyes and fair skin are all too common in the Western conception of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints even claims that after Jesus’ resurrection, he visited America, and that when Jesus returns to Earth, he will first go to Jerusalem and then to Missouri.
This is in spite of the fact that Christianity is a religion which began in the Middle East – the cradle of civilisation. So, the void of silence, the lack of currency, which Arab Christianity has in the Catholic imagination, not to mention that of wider Anglo society, needs to be addressed. As an Egyptian-Catholic, being a minority within a minority has already given me a deep need for recognition and affirmation: for most Egyptians are Muslim, and most Egyptian Christians are Orthodox.
In Sydney in 2019, the faith of Arab Christians remains vibrant. Our Coptic mass lasts for two and sometimes three hours, we abstain from meat and dairy during Lent (the 40 days before Easter) and periodically throughout the year. Our celebrations are loud and abundant with food.
During Lent, there are sandwiches of falafel, pickled radish and tahini or fava beans, cooked slowly and flavoured with cumin, lemon juice and olive oil. There’s also mokorona bechamel – a tray bake of penne in bechamel sauce and minced beef stewed in tomato.
Arab Christians vote conservative, indeed Maronite Catholics and Orthodox pushed hard against the 'yes' vote in the recent same-sex marriage postal survey, yet we run several social justice campaigns. This month for example, the Coptic Orthodox, Assyrian and Armenian church bishops gathered to lobby politicians at a housing affordability event at Sydney Town Hall.
It’s no secret that Christianity in the West is in decline: lower church attendance, an identification with 'atheist' or 'non-religious' on census surveys, and a general malaise about religion and the irrelevance of faith, all account for this. But this does not mean that Christianity is in decline.
Far from eschewing their beliefs as relics of the dark ages, Arab Christians are embracing the beauty of their traditions every week in their churches and in their homes. Young Lebanese-Maronites in Sydney’s west jump over queues to get to confession. The line to communion at Egyptian-Coptic youth conventions stretches out and back into the street. Young Syrian and Iraqi Catholics wear crosses and religious insignia not with a sense of self-conscious irony like the white middle class hipsters of Sydney’s inner-west, but with genuine, fervent conviction.
After mass the men in our church slap each other on the backs, mock each other’s children and laugh loudly. The women peck each other’s cheeks and laugh at their husbands.
Then there's the community life: vibrant and glowing. After mass the men in our church slap each other on the backs and laugh loudly. The women peck each other’s cheeks and laugh at their husbands. When the priest emerges exhausted from two long masses (the early morning mass in Coptic and Arabic and a second in Coptic as well as English), we kiss his hand and then immediately launch into a barrage of Arab-style requests and complaints:
‘Why haven’t you come to our house to bless it yet?’
‘Pray for my son: he’s old and single!’
‘When is the church picnic and why don’t we buy a barbecue for the congregation?’
Last month I was invited to two reception parties to celebrate the christening of newborn children: the mezze and alcohol was enjoyed in plain view of the priests and the dancing went long into the night.
I believe that it’s this sense of community which enables our charity services: country-wide, Arab-Christians run community food trucks, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and overseas aid programs. Maronites on Mission, Coptic Orthodox Community Outreach Services (COCOS), and the ‘Works of Mercy’ ministry, which is run by an assortment of Arab Christians, are just some which come to mind.
Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe recently said that the scale and scope of the church sexual abuse scandal shows “a profound spiritual sickness at the heart of the Church, just as the widespread nature of this abuse in our society points to a malignant cancer which is eating away at us all.”
Whilst it is certainly true that there are some serious issues within the Australian Catholic Church which need to be addressed, I believe it is important for Australians to recognise the diversity and complexity of what it means to call yourself ‘Catholic’ and ‘Christian’ in contemporary Australia. There are a variety of expressions of Christianity in Arab communities, which if better understood, can provide a healthier and more holistic sense of the role of Christianity in this country.
It's time that the Christians of the Middle East are no longer thought of as some addendum to, or worse yet, ornament on the Christmas tree of mainstream Christianity. Ours is a rich and sophisticated tradition, with a beauty all of its own.
The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
You can watch Episode 1 of Christians Like Us on SBS On Demand now. Episode 2 airs at 8.35pm, Wednesday April 10 on SBS.