Middle Eastern Christians in Diaspora: Past and Present, Continuity and Change
26th – 27th May 2015
On 26th and 27th May 2015, the DIMECCE team organised an interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘Middle Eastern Christians in Diaspora: Past and Present, Continuity and Change’. Over forty scholars, community representatives, public and ecumenical actors met in St Andrews to discuss the experiences of Middle Eastern Christian migrants in various global locations as well as connections to their countries of origin. The conference programme consisted of various formats including keynote speakers, traditional academic panels and presentations by the DIMECCE team introducing selected findings from the comparative project, followed by responses from invited panellists, from community members and ecumenical actors.
The Tuesday morning programme started with an introduction to the DIMECCE project. Dr Marta Wozniak (University of Lodz), Principal investigator of the Swedish component, gave an overview of the project focusing on the research questions, methodology and current achievements. Dr Lise Paulsen Galal (Roskilde University), Principal Investigator of the Danish component, then outlined the analytical framework of the research introducing the concept of ‘Cultural Encounters’ and how this has been applied to the research. The first keynote speech entitled ‘The Maronite Diasporic Condition: questions of specificity and universality’ was given by Professor Ghassan Hage (University of Melbourne), who posed important questions relating to ethnographic research.
The first of the DIMECCE research findings presentations was given by the Project Leader and Principal Investigator for the UK part of the project, Dr Fiona McCallum (University of St Andrews). This presentation focused on the Internal Dynamics of the case study communities in the UK, Denmark and Sweden and covered issues such as the significance and impact of the new location on rituals, community practices and traditions, relations within the communities and challenges for the development of the communities. The panellists – Fr Mark Aziz, St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Kirkcaldy, Scotland, Adnan Dahan, Intercultural Christian Centre, Denmark and Nuri Kino, A Demand for Action – reflected on these issues in relation to their own experiences.
Tuesday’s afternoon session started with the first academic panel entitled ‘Faith and Identity in the Diaspora’. In her paper ‘A Copt, but first and foremost a Christian: Tags and self-identifications’, Nora Stene (University of Oslo) explored the significance of different labels used by Coptic Christians to self-identify. Fr Robin Gibbons (University of Oxford) then discussed issues affecting the Greek Melkite community in his paper ‘25 years of Growth: The Greek – Catholic Melkite Parish in the United Kingdom’. Andreas Schmoller offered a case study approach from Austria in his presentation entitled ‘Authority, Reason and Emotions: Structures of faith and personal identity in narratives of young Syriac and Coptic Christians’. In the final paper of this panel entitled ‘Break-aways among Middle Eastern Christians in Denmark: Ambivalences of practice and belonging’, Anne Rosenlund Jørgensen (University of Southern Denmark) explored the practice of individuals who worship outside of the traditional Middle Eastern Churches.
The last session of a full day was the second DIMECCE panel where Sara Lei Sparre (Roskilde University), postdoctoral researcher for the Danish part of the project, presented the project findings on Transnational Actors, where she explored the impact of individual and institutional connections of Middle Eastern Christians which are found across several nation-states, including their country of origin, their country of residence and other countries of immigration. This was followed by responses from the invited panellists – Therese Isho, MOTAWA Denmark and Peter Bibawy, a political and Human Rights activist in the UK.
Another full day’s programme on Wednesday started with the second academic panel, Diaspora Views on the Homeland, which followed on from the previous panel, focusing on ongoing connections between migrants and their country of origin. Soner Onder Barthoma (University of Amsterdam) discussed recent return trends in his paper ‘Return Migration of Assyrians: The Myth of Returning Home’. Kristian Girling (Heythrop College) offered a historical analysis in his presentation entitled ‘The Chaldean Catholic Community in Britain 1960-2012: Moving between Baghdad and London’. The theme of return was continued in Nicholas Al-Jeloo’s (University of Melbourne) paper ‘Absent yet Visible: Reconciling with Hakkâri’s Missing Christian Half’ which explored the historical Christian presence and recent pilgrimage tours to the area. The last presentation in this panel was given by Naures Atto (University of Cambridge) who discussed different homeland notions among Syriac Orthodox in Sweden based on fieldwork and interviews.
The second keynote speech was given by the historian Professor Yvonne Haddad (Georgetown University) on the timely topic of ‘Who will save the Christians of the Middle East?’. While this focused on the US political context, it raised important questions for the European political scene and the presentation led to a lively Q & A session.
The final DIMECCE project findings session covered issues concerning engagement with actors in wider society in the countries of residence and was presented by Alistair Hunter (University of St Andrews/University of Edinburgh) who was the postdoctoral researcher for the UK part of the project. The invited panellists – Robert Ewan, a freelance journalist based in London who has a particular focus on Middle Eastern Christians and Hakan Sandvik, Sankt Ignatios Theological Academy, Sweden – commented on the interactions of Middle Eastern Christians in Europe from their professional perspectives.
The last session in a packed programme was the third academic panel Experiences and Interaction in the Diaspora. Carsten Walbiner (Birzeit University) offered a more historical perspective exploring the role played by Eastern Christian theologians in Europe in his paper ‘Learned like a Maronite’: Eastern Christian students and scholars in Western Europe during early modern times and their influence on the diaspora societies’. The next paper by Erin Hughes (University of Edinburgh), entitled ‘There is no Mayor of Chaldean Detroit’: Boundary-Formation and Nation-Building in the American Assyrian and Chaldean Diaspora’, explored identity and the role of communal institutions in the US using Assyrian and Chaldean case studies. Mara Leichtman (Michigan State University) provided a different location by examining the Maronite community in Senegal in her paper ‘Transnational Christianity, Secularism, and the Politics of Notre Dame du Liban in Senegal’. The final presentation by Donald Westbrook (Claremont Graduate University), entitled ‘Out of Egypt I Called My Son’: Hybridized and Digitized Identities of Copts in the Diaspora, explored the use of social media by prominent individuals and institutions in the Coptic transnational community.
Over two full and intense days, made more bearable by delicious meal breaks and the rare Scottish sunshine making an appearance, the conference provided a fantastic opportunity for participants to learn more about the diverse scholarship being undertaken about Middle Eastern Christianity in the diaspora, as well as to meet different actors working on the issues being discussed. For the DIMECCE team, after months of fieldwork and analysis, it also allowed some of the project findings to be presented together as a team in one conference for the first time. Now the writing begins in earnest!