CHICAGO: Arab Christians in the West continue to face mounting challenges of discrimination, marginalization, and even misunderstanding by other Christians, of their religious identities, experts speaking about Easter celebrations acknowledged during an interview on The Ray Hanania Radio show Wednesday.
Katherine Kelaidis, a resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum Chicago and an expert on Orthodox Christian identity, said that much of the confusion arises from the complex diversity among Christians from the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Rev. Khader El-Yateem, director of the Evangelical Mission and of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America based in Florida, said many more challenges result from a lack of understanding and recognition of Arab Christians by other mainstream Christians, and by being excluded from mainstream American fundamentals like the US Census.
“This country still does not recognize our presence. Does not recognize who we are. That is a movement we need to continue,” El-Yateem said, noting his daughter was forced to identify as being “White” rather than as “Arab” when she applied and was accepted at college this past year.
“When the Census 2030 comes out, we need to be on that census form. We need to change that college application that says no Arab or Middle Eastern. We don’t want to be lumped into this White Community which is slowly disappearing in the United States.”
El-Yateem told Arab News during the radio interview the goal must be to make “the Arab community as one” bringing together Christians and Muslims, and also being smart about engaging in American political dialogue and debate.
“I love the Jewish community. I hate the policies of the Israeli government. We have to be careful to make that distinction between the Jewish community and the Israeli government and its occupational policies which take away from the freedoms of the Palestinian people,” El-Yateem said.
He said that efforts are being made to strengthen the bond with Muslims, noting that last March the ELCA issued a declaration apologizing to the Muslim community for persecution by “the Christian Church.”
He said Arab Christians need to do a better job of educating Americans about who they are, adding that many mainstream Christians believe that Arab Christians converted to Christianity from Islam, and assume all Arabs are Muslim.
“People in America need to understand that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab,” said El-Yateem who agreed he identifies as a Christian by religion and a Muslim by culture.
One contributing factor to the misunderstandings many Western Christians have of Arab and Mediterranean Christians comes from the divisions that separate Christian religious sects, especially between the Christian West and the Orthodox Christian East.
“There is a general lack of understanding in America. American Christianity is an ethnic form of Christianity. They just don’t call it that. If you go to some mega church, you are practicing some form of Christianity,” Kelaidis said
“I think there is in America a lack of understanding about the complexities beyond Protestant and Catholic. I even hear people say are you Catholic or are you Christian? Catholics are Christians. I think there is a real ignorance about Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity.”
Kelaidis said that ironically, the Ukraine conflict is forcing Americans to look more closely at eastern orthodox Christians and to try to understand how the Ukraine Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church differ.
For example, while most Western Christians celebrate Easter on Sunday April 17, many Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later on April 24.
Kelaidis said the challenges are “complicated” by extreme diversity among Arab and Mediterranean Christians. Those differences are driven by diverging views over the old Julian calendar that traces back to the Roman Empire, and the new Gregorian calendar which was changed in the 19th century, she explained.
“One of the things that is happening in the orthodox world is that the calendar has become a point of contention,” Kelaidis said.
“So, you have groups that break away over the calendar. There are groups called Old ‘Calendarist’ Groups. Their initial point of contention is they changed the calendar.”
El-Yateem said Arab Christians need to work harder to cover the challenges and must become more active in Western societies like America.
“The Arab Christian community in the United States struggled. Many of them came from backgrounds that they thought they would come to America and be embraced and they are faced with the harsh reality (that) because you come from this background (of being Arab) and you will not be embraced,” El-Yateem said.
“You … are labeled. So, we try to work very hard with our community on education in empowerment more importantly to get engaged. To be part of your child’s school. To be part of your local democratic process. Be involved in your community. That is how we can have (a) voice, how we can have power, how we can have representation.”
But both agree that Easter is a time when Arab and Mediterranean Christians will reinforce their faith, come together in their belief if not in their calendars, and face the challenges in Western society together.
One way was explained by Palestinian American Chef Tariq Nasir, whose father was Palestinian from near to Jerusalem and mother is American from Michigan. He said Middle Eastern food is a foundation of the Arab community and for Christians a celebration of Easter.
The most popular food item at Easter, Nasir said, is the making of Maamoul, an Arabian dessert sweet filled with sugared walnuts or dates. Arab Christian children would call them “slammer cookies” because their mothers would press the mixture in a wood-carved molder and then bang it on the table to get it out for cooking.
Food is central to the Arab cultural identity, he said, explaining: “I think it is because it brings everyone together. When I was a kid, the whole family would go over to my grandmother’s house and everybody would be there. All her kids and then all her kids’ kids, and we would all sit around the table. And everybody passing food back and forth. And it is just a time when everybody can get together. And Arabs, as you know, are very social and love other people.”
El-Yateem, Kelaidis and Nasir were guests on The Ray Hanania Radio Show which is broadcast on four American radio stations in Detroit, Washington D.C., Ontario and Chicago. It is hosted by the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.