#0 Transformations

Almost three years ago I posted my last blog here. From then on, my days were spent with (admin) matters that left little time and energy for writing, but since a month or so, I’m located at the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen (aka IVOC) and back into research and teaching, alongside my responsibilities for the Institute’s daily business and long term planning. And so I’m picking up on this weblog with regular updates on new and not so new books, on conferences and courses, and on whatever else relates to Christians in, of, from and about the Middle East. Under its anglicized name Globalization, Christianity and the Middle East it is now located elsewhere. To hear about new blogs, follow me on Twitter (Heleen van den Berg @hlvandenberg).

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Two recent books on the history of the Church of the East

Li Tang, East Syriac Christianity in Mongol-Yuan China (Orientalia Biblica et Christiana 18; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011) (Review to appear in BIOR)

David Wilmshurst, The Martyred Church: A History of the Church of the East (London, East & West Publishing, 2011), review to appear in Church History and Religious Culture

Last year, two books were published on the history of the Church of the East: a full-blown history from its earliest stages up till the present by David Wilmshurst (who earlier published the highly praised study The Ecclesiastical Organisation of the Church of the East, 1318-1913, Louvain: Peeters, 2000), and a detailed study of the Church of the East’s expansion into Central Asia and China in the twelfth to early fourteenth centuries by Li Tang, a young Chinese scholar who already published a number of articles and works, among which an edited volume together with Dietmar Winkler (Hidden Treasures and Intercultural Encounters: Studies on East Syriac Christianity in China and Central Asia, Berlin: LIT, 2009; review in Church History (2012) 81-2).

Both books certainly belong in the library of those who study the Church of the East, and both books can be profitably used by those who look for an introduction into the fascinating and varied history of this church that despite a modest and growing popularity in scholarly circles, still suffers from superficial judgments about ‘Nestorianism’ and about their ‘isolation’ from major trends in the history of Christianity. Especially the book of Wilmshurst goes a long way in providing a detailed history, with the necessary attention to the Syriac sources that undergird this historical construction, and rising above the more general introductions of Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler (Die Apostolische Kirche des Ostens: Geschichte der sogenannten Nestorianer, Klagenfurt: Verlag Kitab, 2000) and of Christoph Baumer (The Church of the East, An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity, London/New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006) – the latter of which remains my favorite, not in the least because its well-chosen and abundant illustrations.

Li Tang’s book is much more specialized, and focusses on bringing some order in the wealth of sources (ranging from western travelogues via Syriac sources and inscriptions in many languages to Chinese gazetteers) on the history of Christianity in Central Asia and China. She also tries to sort out the many names and indications of the various ethnic groups that have been connected to Christianity in this region, thus adding to a concise but detailed overview of what we know of this history.

Both books, unfortunately, also have their flaws: where Tang’s work suffers from an overload of detailed information and references (sometimes repeated twice or more) and from a certain hesitation to paint a more general picture of the Church of the East in this period, Wilmshurst took the opposite approach. His study obviously is well researched, but no footnotes and referencing are included to help the readers understand where some of his more original (or sometimes controversial) interpretations come from. This, of course, also detracts from the usefulness of this work for newcomers in the field.

More importantly, Wilmshurst at places allows his dislikes to dominate his story, preventing, in my opinion, balanced views on such important topics as the specific religious characteristics of the Church of the East (cf his lack of appreciation for the monastic literature), and the way in which this church is much more than a church in the modern western sense of the word – i.e., a church that in addition to a spiritual organization, is also a social, regional and linguistic community – everything that in the modern world is perceived as an ‘ethnic’ or ‘national’ group. The tensions that arose and continue to arise from these two aspects of the Church of the East, the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ (again, in modern terms), is something that Wilmshurst find difficult to deal with. As a consequence, his interpretations of the political and secular within the Church of the East always seem tinged with a hint of disapproval, as if clerical leaders should not be tainted with issues as mundane as the political protection of their people. Similarly, the move to the Assyrian nationalist interpretation of the Church of the East in the late nineteenth century, is described merely as a historical mistake that took the name ‘Assyrian’ for something that could just as well be described as the ‘Church of the East’ or even ‘Nestorian’ Church. That this development can be understood precisely from the changing interpretations of what is a religious or a national community in the modern world (and thus was in need of a new name that was not a priori religious), is overlooked when the ‘secular’ and ‘political’ are considered as separate from the ‘religious’ domain of a particular church.

Nevertheless – books that may profitably serve to introduce new students and researchers to this exciting field and at the same time challenge the old hands to (re)think their views on this story, are received with great appreciation and deserve a wide public among Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Syriacists and whoever else might be interested.

Picture: Mar Odisho Oraham, bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, at Mar Benyamin Parish, Netherlands (May 2012), next to the Assyrian flag

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Ariel Sabar: My Father’s Paradise

Ariel Sabar, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Family’s Past (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Yona Sabar is one of those dear colleagues whose presence always put a smile on my face. Though some time has passed since I last met him at one of the linguistic conferences on Neo-Aramaic, he made a lasting impression as both a great scholar and a warm human being. The book written by his son Ariel Sabar, on his father, his family’s Aramaic, Jewish, and North-Iraqi heritage, brought back this smile many times by painting his father in such vivid colors that it seemed as if the years that had passed since I last saw him shrank to nothing.

I am certain that also for those who did not yet have the privilege to meet with Professor Sabar in person, this book will endear him to many readers – through the eyes of a son that took quite a number of years before acknowledging his father’s pursuit for the survival, if only on paper and on tape, of the Aramaic language of his forefathers in Jewish Kurdistan. In trying to understand the hopes and fears of his father after the birth of his own son, Ariel Sabar traces his family’s history in North-Iraq, creating a vivid image of the flourishing community in the early parts of the twentieth century and its quick demise in the second half. The family history so expands into a concise history of the Jews of North Iraq, of their migration to Israel, and their difficult assimilation to the then-Ashkenazy dominated young state – an assimilation that for Yona Sabar eventually led to emigration to the United States where Ariel grew up, a journey driven by the opportunity offered to the father to work on and for the Aramaic language, but that distanced him even further from the paradise of his youth. The book ends with two trips to Zakho, the town where Yona Sabar was born and lived until he was twelve. The trips, though helping the son to understand more of the realities of life in the Middle East of his father, leave important questions unanswered and thus contribute to the putting to light the unfinished business of the Jewish presence in the Muslim world – one of the book’s subthemes that are touched upon but not worked out in detail.

In addition to a son’s search for his father and his family’s history, the other major theme is that of the demise of the Aramaic language, especially in its Jewish form. The community of linguists, painted somewhat caricaturally via a conference in Cambridge, that attempt to reduce the language to an intricate grammatical system, the role of his father as a native speaker within that community, the role of his grandmother whose stories become part of the working texts of the scholars, and the disinterest of the ‘Kurdish’ community in Israel for the language that was lost in the process of integration into the Hebrew-speaking world of Israel, are all aspects of the story of that demise. While Ariel’s assessment of the prospect of Aramaic is unduly pessimistic (at least most of the Christian varieties will outlive those of us who study the language in the early twenty-first century), the fate of Aramaic is the fate of many languages in past and present: languages that have lost its speakers to more powerful languages that entice its speakers with promises of paradise, mostly of the earthly kind. And so it is also the story of men and women whose old worlds unraveled, who had to move in unfamiliar territory and had to change the language of the mind long before heart and soul could follow. And thus for their sons, it becomes a language of the past.

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Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage

Early this year it finally became available: the Encylopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage. It treats the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, their Catholic off-shoots, the Syrian Catholic and the Chaldean Church, as well as the Maronite Church and the Indian Syriac churches – the last two branches, however, less well covered than the first two. Many of us in Syriac Studies have contributed in modest (such as myself) or in very considerable ways, among which especially the four editors, Sebastian Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz, and Lucas van Rompay. Not only did they organize the volume and stimulate the other authors to contribute to the volume, they also wrote numerous entries themselves. They are to be thanked wholeheartedly by all of us for the efforts in bringing together, in one volume, the highlights of what rightly has been called the ‘Syriac heritage’ – people, books, places and some of the major aspects of what is both an important part of world Christianity and at the same time a culture all by itself.

At first, I was a bit skeptical about publishing such a reference work in the old-fashioned way. Whereas the digital community is served by its downloadable version, the well-designed hard-cover volume in fact adds considerably to its effect: it reflects a field that has matured pretty quickly over the last thirty years, and now has something to show for it – something both attractive and impressive, scholarly sound as much as  easily accessible by the general public. This holds true also when zooming in on the entries themselves. For the scholars in the field, these provide concise overviews of the status questions on many different topics. While the older period, at least as to authors, places and topics, is best covered, the interest of the last decade or two in the early modern, modern and contemporary forms of Syriac Christianity is not neglected. One of the nice extras is the rather extensive covering of Syriac scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in the west as much as from the Syriac communities itself. Of course, all of this is as important for those not in the field. They will find this ‘Dictionary’ an excellent gateway to the Syriac tradition, to its churches and to the people that are the primary recipients and carriers of that heritage that hopefully will continue to inspire many.

Sebastian Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz, Lucas van Rompay,
Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2011)

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A 1500-year old Aramaic bible in Ankara (Turkey)?

Last week, the Turkish press made much of a bible reportedly recovered from smugglers, supposedly 1500 years old, and now, fortunately, in the possession of the ethnographic museum of Ankara.

The language of the text is said to be Aramaic, the ‘language of Jesus’, and the text is tentatively identified as the Gospel of Barnabas — and these two together, according to the news agency, would make for a very early witness to the Gospel of Barnabas’ claim that Jesus himself predicted the coming of Mohammed, pointing to the latter as the true Messiah.

However, even with the few glimpses of the manuscript that are allowed so far, there is nothing that supports this hypothesis – even if one isn’t convinced by the sound scholarship that has dated the Gospel of Barnabas to the late medieaval period (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Barnabas).

The most important counter-evidence comes from the language and script that very obviously do not belong to the fifth or sixth century, but, as would be my guess, to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century at the earliest. That makes it all the more important to see what the text says, and at least one little piece is easily read by those of us who are used to reading modern Aramaic — see the article posted to the Assyrian newsagency AINA: http://www.aina.org/news/2012022916569.htm. The authors correctly read the one sentence that occurs in all photo’s and videos – probably because it containts the word "1500" .. The further text on the same page is difficult to read, except for the word "Amen" that concludes it. What is clearly readable is the following: 

b-shimmi-t maran payesh kthiwa aha kthawa `al idateh d-rabbane d-dayra `ellaya d-Ninwe, b-she(n)ta alpa w-hammesh ma d-maran

in English:

"in the name of the Lord this book was written by the hands of the monks of the Upper Monastery of Nineveh, in the year 1500 of our Lord."

While this at first sight would suggest that the book dates to the year 1500 (it certainly does NOT say 1500 years old), this is rather unlikely – not only because this type of modern Aramaic, though it did occur occassionally in older manuscripts, became popular only in the mid-nineteenth century, but also because it wasn’t until this period that the East Syriac or Assyrian Christians started to date according to ‘the year of our Lord’ – in the year 1500 they used the Seleucid dating system (and thus would have written this year as the year 1811 of the Greeks (or, of Alexander)).

The question therefore remains if this is indeed a forgery intended to support an Islamic understanding of the history of Christianity, and thus the text indeed contain (parts of) the Gospel of Barnabas (which was rediscovered in Islamic circles in the early 20th c.) and which thus was translated into Modern Aramaic, or is it merely a copy of an old Syriac text that was written for internal Christian use in this same period? Only a full study of the text can bear this out, but several other characteristics make one think of something different from the usual Modern Aramaic or Syriac text of the period.

For one, as said, the dating is strange for this period, as is the attribution to a group of monks in a monastery – in this period manuscripts were always written by one person, who is mentioned by his full name.   

Second, though a reference to the ‘Upper Monastery’ of Nineveh (rather Mosul) is very common in older manuscripts, it always is done in a different way – referring to this monastery’s liturgical and editorial contributions, rather than to its scribal activities.

Third, such a text (the ‘colophon’) would always be found at the end of manuscript, not at the beginning, as appears to be the case here. Again, an indication of an amateur scribe, to say the least.

Fourth, as was noted by the authors of the AINA article, the scribe’s orthography is inconsistent (though not necessarily incorrect) and casual – thus, again, not that of an experienced clerical scribe (who certainly were around in the early 20th c.) 

Fifth, professional scribes would prefer to use the high-level Classical Syriac for texts such as this – a language, however, that few literate men or women in the early 20th century would have been able to actively handle.

Sixth, finally, the text has a strange look (darkened with golden-yellow lettering) that is uncommon in manuscripts of the time. A somewhat similar look has been attested in a few medieaval (Mongol period) manuscripts, and one may venture that the producer(s) of this text (and there seem to more around like this one) may have been aware of these — copying the look to make this one look older. Or even more speculative: the darkening may function to cover an older text under this modern one …

Let us wait and see what comes out of further study (if indeed the text will be made available to scholars – from the Vatican or from elswhere). In the meantime I would advise people not to pay the suggested 20 million Euros. And if the text does indeed belong to the twentieth century, I would happily contribute in trying to understand when, by whom, and why it was produced.

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Colleges voorjaarssemester / Courses Spring semester

Drie bachelorcolleges die voor dit voorjaar op de rol staan (vanaf week 6)

Geschiedenis van het christendom: Een brede inleiding in de geschiedenis van het wereldwijde christendom, in oost en west, noord en zuid, orthodox, katholiek, protestants en pinkster. Zie verder: https://studiegids.leidenuniv.nl/courses/show/27709/geschiedenis_van_het_christendom

Rituelen en symbolen van het christendom: hoe wordt dat wereldwijde christendom vormgegeven? In Nederland (op heel veel verschillende manieren) en daarbuiten? Zie verder: https://studiegids.leidenuniv.nl/courses/show/27973/rituelen_en_symbolen_van_het_christendom

Global Christianity: A closer look at global Christianity, focusing on the whens, wheres and whys of this huge diversity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal) through the lens of their reprsentations on the world wide web. Just as important, the class analyzes current theories and methods in the study of global Christianity.
See: https://studiegids.leidenuniv.nl/courses/show/27974/werkcollege_wereldchristendom

Meld je aan via USIS en Blackboard (Leidse studenten), of eerst als toehoorder en daarna in ieder geval ook in Blackboard (http://hum.leidenuniv.nl/godsdienstwetenschappen/aanstaandestudenten/toehoorders-cursussen/toehoordersonderwijs/algemene-informatie.html)

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Arabic and its Alternatives: Religious Minorities in the Formative Years of the Modern Middle East (1920-1950)

Picture: Ceiling of the Church of Mary, Reginae Palaestinae, Deir Rafat, Israel

Last December, the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research decided to fund a research project that I submitted together with Dr. Karene Sanchez from the Leiden Centre for Linguistics (LUCL). The project plans to start in June, when, hopefully, two Ph.D. students (for the two Iraq case studies – Jews in Baghdad and Christians in North-Iraq) will have joined the team. Those interested in these positions are referred to the site of Leiden University referred to above. For a Dutch summary of the project, see the previous post.

For the time being, updates on the project will be posted via this weblog; a separate site will be created later this year.

Project summary 

This project aims to revisit the ways in which religious minorities in the Middle East participated in, contributed to, and opposed the Arab nationalism of the post-war years, when the British and French ruled the region via the Mandates. This period of societal modernization and competing nationalisms saw the emergence of new political structures that would define the Middle East for most of the twentieth century. While Arabic nationalism, predicated as it was on the Arabic language more than on Islam, was seen as a positive development by many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians, others showed increasing uneasiness with its ramifications. This was more specifically the case among those non-Muslims that in addition to Arabic highly valued other languages, such as Syriac, Hebrew and Armenian, but also English and French. Would participation in Arab nationalism also imply giving up the allegiances symbolized by these languages?

Three case studies, into the Jews of Baghdad, the Syriac Christians of North Iraq and the Catholic Christians of Palestine, form the starting point of an inquiry into the linguistic practices and language ideologies of these religiously-defined minorities. How and why did they choose to use Arabic, and how and why did they prefer other languages? What was the role of religious elites, both local and foreign (such as missionaries) and how were their ideas picked up by others in the respective communities? How were these choices related to the strength of competing nationalisms (e.g., Zionist, Assyrian), to theological and ecclesial considerations (e.g., Catholic universalism versus Orthodox particularism?) and to global, local and regional alliances?

A more general analysis of the role of these non-Muslim minorities in the formative years of the Middle East will follow upon the study of these three particular cases. This in-depth analysis, informed by a network of international experts, expects to modify not only the sometimes all too straightforward accounts of Arab nationalism, but also the concept of religious and ethnic minorities itself, since language, in its practical and symbolic components, may well reflect a reality that blurs rather than underlines the seemingly sharp dividing lines between religious and national identities.

For a brief presentation of the project, see also: http://prezi.com/5nf1pdtdo9tp/arabic-and-its-alternatives-religious-minorities-in-the-formative-years-of-the-modern-middle-east-1920-1950-heleen-murre-van-den-berg-leiden/

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Arabisch of iets anders? Joden en christenen in het moderne Midden-Oosten (1920-1950)

Afgelopen december heeft de Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek mij een subsidie toegekend om het onderstaande onderzoeksproject uit te gaan voeren. Ik zal dat gaan doen samen met dr. Karene Sanchez van het Leids Centrum voor Taalkunde (LUCL), een specialist op het gebied van de koloniale geschiedenis in het Midden-Oosten – zie de link hierboven. Binnenkort zullen advertenties verschijnen om twee promovendi aan het project toe te voegen, voor de twee case studies die Irak betreffen: de joodse gemeenschap in Bagdad en de Syrische christenen in Noord-Irak. Geinteresseerden wordt geadviseerd de vacaturesite van de Universiteit Leiden en de algemene site van Academic Transfer in de gaten te houden.

De komende maanden zal nieuws over dit project via dit weblog gepost worden, later dit jaar zal een eigen weblog worden aangemaakt.

Arabisch of iets anders? Joden en christenen in het moderne Midden-Oosten (1920-1950)  

De jaren na Eerste Wereldoorlog (1914-1918) waren cruciaal voor de vorming van de moderne Arabische staten in het Midden-Oosten. De voormalige Arabische provincies van het Osmaanse Rijk waren onder Brits en Frans mandaat gesteld in de veronderstelling dat deze koloniale machten de landen zou begeleiden naar onafhankelijkheid. Hoe die nieuwe staten eruit zouden komen te zien was echter onderwerp van felle discussies, met name over de inhoud en grenzen van het Arabisch nationalisme. In een nationalisme dat volgens vele betrokkenen vooral door de Arabische taal gedefinieerd was zouden niet-islamitische minderheden een belangrijke rol kunnen spelen, ja, daarmee zelfs hun minderheidspositie kunnen kwijtraken. Maar zowel binnen de kringen van de Arabische nationalisten (waaronder verschillende prominente christenen) als van de verschillende minderheden was deze prioritering van taal boven religie allerminst vanzelfsprekend. Dit leidde soms tot een impliciete gelijkstelling van ‘Arabisch’ met ‘islamitisch’, of, in pan-islamitische ideologieën, tot expliciete prioritering van religie boven taal. In beide gevallen werden daarmee joden en christenen opnieuw tot minderheid gemaakt, ondanks hun eventuele Arabischtaligheid. Maar ook de versie van Arabisch nationalisme die consequent vasthield aan de prioritering van taal was niet onproblematisch: daarmee werden niet alleen belangrijke islamitische groepen als de Koerden uitgesloten van staten als Syrië en Irak, maar ook religieuze minderheden die andere talen minstens zo hoog hielden als Arabisch, zoals de Armeense en Syrische christenen in Syrië en Irak en de groeiende Joodse gemeenschap in Palestina. Daarnaast waren er vele christenen die als gevolg van westerse educatie en verbondenheid met katholieke of protestantse kerken naast Arabisch, westerse talen als Frans en Engels als belangrijk deel van hun sociale en religieuze identiteit zagen.

Dit onderzoek zal deze tot nu toe nauwelijks onderzochte breuklijnen van het Arabisch nationalisme bestuderen aan de hand van drie minderheidsgroepen in de Britse Mandaatsgebieden: de Joden in Bagdad, de Syrische christenen in Noord-Irak en de katholieke christenen in Palestina. De grotendeels Arabischtalige joodse gemeenschap van Bagdad werd tussen 1920 en 1950 geconfronteerd met het groeiende belang van Hebreeuws enerzijds en de steeds moeizamere participatie in het Irakese Arabisch nationalisme anderzijds. De Syrische christenen in het noorden van Irak die naast Arabisch ook Syrisch spraken en schreven (meestal in een moderne variant), hadden te maken met een vergelijkbare spanning tussen Arabisch en Syrisch (‘Assyrisch’) nationalisme, die, meer dan in de joodse gemeenschap, langs denominationele lijnen binnen de gemeenschap uitgevochten werd. Hoewel bij deze twee groepen ook enige spanning tussen lokale oriëntaties en die op globale gemeenschappen (kerkelijk of politiek) zichtbaar werden, was deze bijzonder prominent bij de katholieke christenen in Palestina. Hun verwevenheid met katholieke opleidingsinstituten en de Roomskatholieke Kerk was zodanig dat hun participatie in het Arabisch nationalisme allerminst vanzelfsprekend was, ondanks het feit dat juist vele van de Arabisch-Palestijnse nationalisten op deze katholieke scholen hun vorming hadden ontvangen.

Uitgaande van een rijke hoeveelheid schriftelijke bronnen zoals archieven, kranten, boeken en pamfletten die uit deze periode bewaard zijn gebleven, zal dit onderzoek zich concentreren op zowel de praktijk van taalgebruik binnen deze gemeenschappen als op de ideologieën die ingezet werden om de eigen gemeenschappen te overtuigen van het belang van de ene of andere taal. In de tweede fase van het onderzoek zal vanuit de drie case studies een vergelijking worden gemaakt met gelijktijdige ontwikkelingen in de taalsituatie van andere religieuze minderheden waarnaar veelal al meer onderzoek is gedaan, zoals naar de Armeniërs in Syrië en de Maronieten in Libanon. Hierbij kunnen dan meteen ook eventuele verschillen tussen de Britse en Franse mandaatspolitiek met betrekking tot de religieuze minderheden aan de orde komen.

De belangrijkste inspiratiebron voor deze studie naar taal als cruciale locatie voor discussies over grenzen van religieuze en nationale gemeenschappen vormt het werk van Sheldon Pollock. Hij heeft in zijn studie van het Sanskrit laten zien dat keuzes in het domein van taal en in het domein van religie weliswaar nauw samenhangen, maar dat op veel meer verschillende en veel complexere manieren doen dan onderzoekers geneigd zijn aan te nemen. Soms helpt religie om een lokale gesproken taal tot belangrijkste geschreven en formele taal van een relatief kleine gemeenschap te maken, soms ondersteunt religie, na aanvankelijk verzet, de secularisering van wat begon als de heilige taal van een religie. Nog veel vaker lopen deze processen door elkaar heen, elkaar dan weer tegenwerkend dan weer versterkend. De religieus-talige situatie van het Midden-Oosten vormt bij uitstek een casus om de uitgangspunten van Pollock nader te testen. Hiermee zal deze studie ook bijdragen aan een beter begrip van wat modernisering in deze periode voor het Midden-Oosten betekende, onder meer omdat zowel de modernisering van zowel taal als religie vanuit in de lokale gemeenschappen werd geïnitieerd. Ten slotte zal deze studie naar taalgebruik en taalideologie bijdragen aan de ontmythologisering van schijnbaar heldere categorieën als ‘taal’, ‘ethniciteit’ en ‘religie,’ categorieën die in het Midden-Oosten en ook elders eenduidige groepsafbakeningen eerder bemoeilijken dan vergemakkelijken.

Voor een eerste korte publicatie over dit onderwerp, zie

Heleen Murre-van den Berg, "Het nieuwe Midden-Oosten: lappendeken of eenheidsworst? Historisch onderzoek naar de constructie van minderheden op basis van taal en religie," in Christel de Lange en Roos Mulder, Vijf continenten, vijf eeuwen: Vijf jaar geschiedbeoefening in het Kerkhistorisch Gezelschap S.S.S. (Leiden, 2011).

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Why are the clerical scuffles in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem world news?

In my Dutch blog (see below) I started to answer this question but got side tracked in explaining why these scuffles are indeed interesting: as part of the boundary skirmishes that ritually take place before and during important events in the two major shared churches, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem) and the Nativity Church (Bethlehem) in the Holy Land – at least one or two times every year, with Easter and with Christmas, during cleaning, or during processions. Once in a while all the faithful should realize how exactly the boundaries between the Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Catholic were drawn in the mid-19th c., and how these lines are still with us today.
This is interesting stuff, especially because I suspect that today’s broom fight reflects some of the increased tensions over the restoration of the church, badly needed for many years, initiated by het Palestinian Authority a year or so back, boosted by their recent UN bid, and contentious among the communities that use the church. Not that they are not convinced something has to be done, but paying for repairs, as much as cleaning, may alter the rights of usage of each and everyone in the church. Who’s to pay for what and when? Some tension over these major changes is quite understandable, as is some brawling by young and eager monks …

However, most of today’s commentators seem to have missed both its rituality and its link to current Palestinian affairs and this therefore does not explain the world wide fascination with these scuffles. Part of the fascination, of course, is the obvious tension between Christianity’s ideals of peace on earth and its reality of fighting clergy – especially when the fighting is so visually satisfying with nice new brooms that seem to have been bought just for the occasion. No deaths, no seriously wounded … we all love to watch a good fight, especially when it confirms our preconceptions about Christianity, clergy, and the Holy Land – yes, of course, it must also have something to do with the fact that it happens in Bethlehem, in the Church of the Nativity, in the week following Catholic and Protestant Christmas, in preparation for Orthodox Christmas – if a fight seems out of place, then this one, there and now.
Perhaps most importantly, the place is well-known: with Jerusalem, this is among the most visited places on earth – and even those who haven’t visited, know the place from television broadcasts and countless photographs. And with the worldwide exposure and familiarity, also comes the feeling of belonging, of possession even: this church is not just any church. Rather, it is one of those few churches that belong to the world as a whole, not just to the Christians of Palestine – and as such the onlookers want a share in that church – positively or negatively. And in this, they are not so different from the clergy that started to fight this afternoon – they too represent an international community rather than a few local Christians. And this, in conclusion, furnishes yet another reason to see their fight not merely as local tensions getting out of hand, but as part of boundary skirmishes of huge international communities with high stakes in the Holy Land. Orthodox and Catholic Christians everywhere want a symbolic share in this church, a church that formed one of the reasons for the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, and that until today, together with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, constitutes one of the most powerful images of worldwide ecumenical Christianity – as was symbolically underlined today by the inevitable boundary skirmishes. And while most that posted and re-posted today’s footage are not aware of all this, they unwittingly become part of this long train of global involvement in the Holy Land – for a laugh or a cry, for better or for worse.

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Waarom is een klerikale vechtpartij in de Geboortekerk (Bethlehem) wereldnieuws?

Niet echt nodig om een linkje naar het filmpje bij te voegen: elke zichzelf respecterende nieuwssite heeft op dit moment een filmpje met de monikken die elkaar vandaag in de Geboortekerk met bezems te lijf gingen. Mediageniek, dat zeker. Goed getimed, dat ook, zo in de rustige dagen tussen Kerst en Oud en Nieuw. Maar nieuws?

Schermutselingen als deze komen regelmatig voor, en halen de laatste jaren ook bijna altijd de pers, inclusief vermakelijke filmpjes. Ergens ook wel logisch: de spanning tussen het ‘vrede op aarde’ dat een paar dagen geleden nog in de katholieke vleugel van de kerk gezongen werd, en de vechtende ‘mannen van god’ die de schoonmaak uit de hand laten lopen is genoeg om het nieuws te halen: het bevestigt de vooroordelen over immer kibbelende christenen, die hun meningsverschillen niet eens op de een van de heiligste christelijke plaatsen opzij kunnen zetten. Gelukkig, denken sommigen, misschien, ze zijn net als wij. Dat laatste is inderdaad het eerste dat bedacht moet worden, voor de heilige verontwaardiging losbarst. Ja, die Armeense en Grieks-Orthodoxen monikken zijn niet veel anders dan wij, die woest kunnen worden als de buurman z’n vuil onze kant op veegt, als de nieuwe schutting net een paar centimeter verder op onze grond komt te staan, als de buurvrouw net iets te veel afknipt van onze prachtige boom die, inderdaad, ook een beetje in de tuin van buren hangt. Zoals ik leerde uit het prachtige boek van Raymond Cohen over de Heilige Grafkerk in Jeruzalem (al vaker op deze plaats aangehaald), gaat het bij deze vechtpartijen vooral om grensschermutselingen: kleine botsingen die de status quo bevestigen, de ‘Status Quo’ tussen de christelijke religieuze gemeenschappen in Palestina sinds de Krimoorlog die de precieze grenzen van het territorium van deze gemeenschappen in de betreffende kerken afbakent.

Hoewel het overgrote deel van het jaar de drie grootste kerkgemeenschappen, de Grieks-Orthodoxe, de Roomskatholieke en de Armeens Apostolische Kerk broederlijk met elkaar omgaan, is de vrede fragiel. Dit is in het bijzonder het geval in de twee kerken die door deze christenen als de allerheiligste op aarde worden gezien: de Heilige Grafkerk in Jeruzalem en de Geboortekerk in Bethlehem. Elke kerkgemeenschap beheert een heel precies afgebakend stuk in deze twee kerken, een afbakening die door de verschillende heersers over deze gebieden (Osmanen, Britten, Jordaniërs, Israëliërs en Palestijnen) nauwgezet is gehandhaafd. Iedereen had eigenlijk meer gewild, zou nog steeds meer willen hebben, maar nu gaat het er vooral om niets te verliezen, zeker niet aan een van de andere kerken. En verliezen kan op z’n minst op twee manieren: door restauraties te betalen, ook van gedeelten die niet strict tot het eigen gebied behoren (als je eenmaal meebetaald hebt, is dat stuk ook van jou), of, door het schoon te maken. Het bezemgevecht is dus geen toevalligheid: als een van de priesters per ongeluk-expres net een stukje te ver meenam, kan dat als een verregaande eigendomsclaim worden opgevat. Gezien de opwinding zal er vanmiddag wel zoiets gebeurd zijn. De rituele schoonmaak voor het orthodoxe kerstfeest is blijkbaar een geschikt moment voor dit soort schermutselingen. Gezien de camera’s en de parate politie in de kerk (meestal staan ze buiten te kletsen) kwam het ook niet geheel onverwachts – wat dat betreft was het wrschl groter nieuws geweest als er niets gebeurd was.

Op de achtergrond speelt nog iets anders, namelijk de net in gang gezette restauratie van de Geboortekerk. Deze wordt, precies om nieuwe eigendomsclaims te voorkomen, zoveel mogelijk betaald door de Palestijnse authoriteit. Het kan niet anders dan dat zo’n majeure verbouwing (die vooral het lekkende dak betreft – besef hoe ingewikkeld dat is ivm de gebruiksrechten) allerlei onzekerheid over de grensafspraken in de kerk met zich meebrengt. Wat gaat er veranderen, wie gaat wat betalen, en wat betekent dat voor de eigen aanwezigheid in deze meest heilige kerk? Ik stel me zo voor dat de veelal jonge monikken waarschijnlijk wel in de mood waren voor een robbertje vechten. Wat de aanleiding dit jaar precies was, blijkt niet uit de filmpjes. Misschien gaan we dat nog horen, maar waarschijnlijk niet. Dat het een onbenullige aanleiding was, is wel zeker. Dat het iets zegt over de uiterst complexe interkerkelijke verhoudingen, vooral als het gaat om de materiële aanwezigheid op de Heilige Plaatsen, leidt geen twijfel. En het zou zo maar kunnen dat het kwajongens zijn (ook al zijn ze ook priester of monnik) die het vuurtje van de rivaliteit gelegitimeerd een beetje opstoken, om zo de besprekingen over de restauratie weer een boost te geven en iedereen weer scherp te krijgen voor een nieuwe ronde van uiterst complexe onderhandelingen.

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