Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Church through the eyes of the Arab press

Symbols - Islam and Christianity
An important presence which is nevertheless sometimes represented in a stereotypical way: this is the image of the Church and Christians given by Arab newspapers, according to an analysis by Samar Messayeh in her PhD thesis in institutional Communication at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

The study analyses 1371 articles published between November 2007 and April 2008, in 18 Arabic language newspapers of 18 Arab League countries, from Morocco to Syria, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. 

What emerges is a clearer and in some ways surprising picture of the Church’s public importance in a part of the world where Christians often make headlines because of incidents of violence and persecution against them.
The study reveals, once again, the Christian minority’s central role in Arab culture – a role which dates back a long time ago: the first printing works were introduced by the Christians in 1610 and the first Arab top found an Arabic newspaper was a Christian.
Given the lack of means and freedom of journalism in the region, “the Church - Messayeh summarised - and the Pope’s gestures are often followed closely. Naturally, Christians are given more attention in countries where they are a strong minority, while emphasis is given to Muslim-Christian dialogue - perhaps in a slightly “hypocritical and sterile” manner, the researcher remarks – in countries such as the Gulf States, where there are no “visible” Christian communities.
Naturally, descriptions of Christians are not free from stereotypes: some are historical – these see the Church in light of the crusades, the inquisition and the power of time – and others which are more typically “Arab” and tend to identify Christians with the West.
Messayeh is an Iraqi Christian who is not afraid to criticise her “martyred land”. 

Unfortunately her study was carried out before all the Arab Spring upheavals in many Middle Eastern an North African countries.

As such, the institutional interest shown in the Church, can be considered at least partly a consequence of the policy-making of dictatorial regimes who take care to censor any potential source of tension; at the same time, “the Church’s role in defending human values and peace” does receive recognition and in some cases the comparison with the Church helps Islam and the Arab states be self critical.
One case where this happened was the publication in January 2008 of an article in Ittihad, a United Arab Emirates daily, entitled “The Islamic reawakening”. 

The author analysed the role of political Islam , presumably in light of the inactivity which Arab societies seemed stuck in at the time, and predicted the danger of it “happening in Islam as well as in Christianity” in the future, with the Church called to pay even for “crimes it did not commit.”
“The general feeling reflected in newspapers is of a need for political change, which is more of a lay than a religious character,” Messayeh writes. The reference is often to the process of separation between State and Church in the West, both as a model that should be “imitated” and as an occasion to observe the “diversity of Arab-Muslim society.”
What happened in the years after the publication of the study, show just how strong these two different trends are and how they now openly contrast each other, despite the fake harmony imposed by the regimes. 

“Once current changes have been set in stone - Messayeh rightly concludes - it would be interesting to see whether anything has changed in the way the media speaks about the Church.”

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