Bradley University professor Jason Zaborowski admits many people do not often associate the Middle East with Christianity.
Zaborowski has encountered that reality often while participating in panels during the annual American Academy of Religion conventions.
“Often the people in the audience will express a familiarity with the Christianity part of the Christian identity, but they'll be a little bit more hesitant when talking about the Middle Eastern part of that identity,” Zaborowski said.
“One of the things about Middle Eastern Christianity that strikes people from the start is that they have a direct connection, an organic connection, to the biblical lands and personalities. So, they have sites of pilgrimage to places where Jesus walked or where the Holy Family fled the persecution of Herod.”
The study of Christian history and culture in the Middle East will bring several scholars to Peoria next summer. A $170,000 grant recently announced by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) will fund a summer institute on the topic, with Zaborowski serving as program director.
“I am really excited about this project,” said Zaborowski, noting the NEH summer institute is one of 11 funded in the country, and the first to focus on Middle Eastern Christianity.
“People who teach on the college level will enroll in one of these institutes so that they can augment their teaching abilities in their field. … This will bring together 10 scholars who are experts on Middle Eastern Christianity; they’ll be coming to Bradley University and they will be helping a group of 25 non-expert scholars add knowledge to their work related to Middle Eastern Christianity.”
Zaborowski, who will be assisted by co-director Nelly Van Doorn-Harder of Wake Forest University, said a large portion of the program will deal with Christian minorities from the Middle East who live in the U.S., and the community around Bradley provides an ideal location.
“Peoria is a natural candidate for this project because of our large Lebanese Christian immigrant community here,” he said. “That's one of the intentions of the project is to hopefully get together some of these participants in the program with some of the Lebanese Christian community.”
Zaborowski said that although Middle Eastern Christians often are lumped together as one group, there is actually quite a bit of variety among them.
“They’re diverse. The thing is that Middle Eastern Christians themselves aren't all in communion with each other,” he said. “They don't all recognize the same priesthood. There are large communities that are in communion with the Roman Catholics and there are others that are in communion with the Orthodox churches meaning the Greek Orthodox, and still others that aren't in communion with Rome or the Orthodox churches.
“The largest of them is the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church which is about eight million people, and they're not in communion with Rome or with the Greek Orthodox or with the Protestants.”
Zaborowski noted that Western Christians generally do not have any awareness of being part of a minority faith the way Middle Eastern Christians do.
“They've lived as minorities for a long period of time and have developed ways of still participating fully in their societies even as minorities,” he said.
“On the local level, the Christians are often dealing with the same things that their fellow Muslims are in the Muslim majority countries like getting a job, getting housing, finding their way in the economy. ... By and large Christians in the Middle East take a sense of satisfaction in the ways that they've been able to preserve their tradition and to live their tradition authentically amongst Muslims.”
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