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Political theology (Middle East)

Christian political theology in the Middle East, also known as public theology, is a religious response by Christian leaders and scholars to political problems. Political theologians try to balance the demands of a tumultuous region with the delicate but long history of Christianity in the Middle East. This has yielded a diversity of political theology disproportionate to the small size of Middle East Christian minorities. The region's importance to Christians worldwide - both for history and doctrinal authority for many denominations - also shapes the political theologies of the Middle East.

For many Christian leaders, the dominant approach to political theology is one of survival. Many Arab Christians see themselves as the heirs of a rich Christian heritage whose existence is threatened by regional unrest and religious persecution. Their chief political goal is survival, which sets their political theology apart.

At times, Arab Christian leaders have appealed to Christians outside the region through both denominational challenges and broader calls to Christian unity for humanitarian or political aid. In other cases, Christian politicians downplay their faith in the public sphere to avoid conflict with their Muslim neighbors.

In the mid-20th century, many Christians in the Middle East saw secular politics as a way out of their traditional status as a minority community in the Islamic world. Christians played prominent roles throughout the Pan-Arab nationalist movement in the mid-20th century, where their experience with Western politics and generally high educational attainments made their contributions valuable to nationalist governments around the region. One prominent example was Michel ‘Afleq, an Orthodox Christian, who formed the first Ba’ath group from students in Damascus in the 1940s. His belief was that Christians should embrace Islam as part of their cultural identity because nationalism was the best way for Christians to be successful in the Middle East.

With the shift from Pan-Arab nationalist movements into Islam-oriented politics, Christians have changed their approach. They have also lost influence because their numbers have declined due to birthrate, emigration, and sometimes overt persecution. Some Christians seek to emphasize the historic Christian presence as a sign of their commitment to the homeland. This ties the Christian minority to the national identity. These Christians often point to the presence of shrines and holy sites nearby to justify the importance of remaining in the Middle East. They emphasize their homeland as the birthplace of Christianity, even at the sacrifice of some religious duties such as evangelical work, as conversion from Islam is illegal in most Middle Eastern countries.

  • Na’im Ateek, an Anglican priest whose family settled in Jerusalem after expulsion from the Galilee, founded Palestinian Liberation Theology and published a book in 1989 called Justice and Only Justice; A Palestinian Theology of Liberation.
  • Elias Chacour, a former archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Melkite Church, has worked to create a liberation theology that emphasizes love and support for both Jews and Palestinians. He has used educational activism and non-violent political protest to call for Palestinian equality in Israel.
  • Mitri Raheb, an Evangelical Lutheran priest in Bethlehem, writes that the people of the Holy Land have lived under an occupying power since the time of Jesus. His writings use the Bible to establish a place for Palestinians in the Christian narrative.


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