Panel 6c. Middle Eastern Christian Migrant Experiences of “Liberation” and its Challenges in Europe

Chair: Fiona McCallum

“Are we living in a Christian country?”: Middle Eastern Christian narratives on opportunities and challenges presented by state and societal attitudes towards Christianity in the UK
Fiona McCallum, University of St Andrews, UK

The migration of Middle Eastern Christians from their regional ‘homelands’ to Europe can be analysed in the context of liberation from struggles pertaining to economic hardships and conflict situations as well as discrimination and in some cases violence as a consequence of their Christian identity in a Muslim-majority environment. The UK can be seen as providing new opportunities for Middle Eastern Christians given its Christian heritage yet simultaneously debates concerning the public and societal role of religion can result in different challenges relating to practising Christianity. Based on semi-structured interviews conducted in 2014 with Egyptian, Iraqi and Assyrian Christians residing in the UK as part of an interdisciplinary project on Middle Eastern Christians in Europe, this paper analyses their perspectives on understandings of Christianity and religiosity in the UK and how it impacts upon Middle Eastern Christian communities. It is argued that in a context of increasing secularism, Middle Eastern Christian narratives are characterised in some cases by disillusionment and feelings of being un-integrated. By exploring views on the ‘Christian’ nature of the UK, the impact of secularism on the youth and contested areas such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality, the paper shows the struggles faced by members of these communities in adapting to a contradictory context in which migration from the Middle East may have liberated them from some constraints associated with living in a Muslim-majority environment but has brought different challenges regarding political and societal attitudes towards Christianity.

Linguistic discipline in a post-migration world: Syriac Christians negotiate their beleaguered history
Heidi Armbruster, University of Southampton, UK

This paper is based on multi-sited ethnographic research among Syriac Christians of Turkish origin in Germany, Austria and Turkey, conducted between the 1990s and 2000s. During the 20th century, massacre, flight and large-scale emigration depleted the communities in Turkey. Most of the first-generation immigrants I met in Berlin and Vienna had left their home-region in south-east Turkey as labour migrants and asylum seekers between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. They viewed their departure from Turkey ambivalently – a liberation from a difficult long-term minority experience on the one hand, and a loss of community and culture on the other. In fact this ambivalent ‘freedom’ was a strong motif in stories about emigration and diaspora in all three places. I discuss these ambivalent positions through the prism of language and concerns with the Aramaic ‘mother tongue’. The paper draws on a number of symbolic and geographical sites at which linguistic discipline in Aramaic is shown to be equated with both, cultural capital and cultural survival, and explores its significance as a vehicle through which the Syriacs negotiate their difficult history and make it personal.

“Now my life is finished in Syria”: Identity transition in narratives of Syrian Christian refugees
Andreas Schmoller, University of Salzburg, Austria

In 2013/2014, Austria received 500 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria as part of a humanitarian resettlement program that was primarily addressed aimed towards Christians. Among them were 150 Syriac Christians from Aleppo and the governorate of Al-Hasakah. Their escape to Vienna was assisted by the support of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Austria which was assigned responsibility of resettlement logistics by the Austrian government. First narrative autobiographical interviews conducted by the end of 2014 with young refugees reveal not only individual and community integration strategies but also different forms of coping with war experiences and losses. This process of liberation therefore is strongly affected by the continuing Syrian conflict. This paper advocates looking at the narratives of these Syrian refugees as documents of transitional identities. The flight from Syria is a life turning experience – a one-way journey with no possibility of return – that cannot be presented coherently in autobiographical narratives without distancing experience after this break with the homeland especially as the war continues. In this transition process, life stories and memories might be restructured but in some cases narrations maintain old and/or consensual collective versions. This paper analyzes these disrupted transitions using examples such as childhood memories, Seyfo remembrance, narratives of religious co-existence, the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian war. The objective of this approach is to determine how the experience of the Syrian war and its sectarian component affects or might affect the discourse of narrative identities of Syrian Christians.

Free Assyria/Free Suryoye: Homeland Dreams Amongst Assyrians and Arameans in Sweden
Marta Wozniak, University of Lodz, Poland

The idea of liberation from Muslim rule and having their own homeland, whether an autonomous or independent state, was born among Aramaic-speaking Christians in the mid-19th century. Today it is still shared by some of the people who call themselves Assyrians or Arameans and originate from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This paper will explore differing visions of return within the diaspora in the context of 100 years after Seyfo – the Assyrian/Aramean genocide in the Ottoman Empire which resulted in their near disappearance from the region by focusing upon different movements based in Sweden, home to a diaspora of 120,000. Based on findings from 40 semi-structured interviews conducted in Stockholm and Södertälje during 2014 as part of a larger interdisciplinary project on Middle Eastern Christians in Europe, the paper claims that the idea of return now appeals only to a minority of Assyrians/Arameans in Sweden. Using three different examples of perspectives of return including a safe haven (independent state or autonomy) in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, autonomy for Arameans and Maronites in a ‘Christian homeland’ in Syria and Lebanon, and autonomy jointly with Kurds and Sunni Muslims in northern Syria, the paper will compare similarities and differences of these strategies and impact on relations within the already divided Swedish diaspora and to what extent these debates have been acknowledged by Swedish political actors. The aim of the paper is to show how Assyrian/Aramean diaspora tries to influence homeland politics facing both external and internal challenges and constraints.

“We’re not all the same”: Experiences of liberation and confinement among Iraqi Christians in Denmark
Sara Lei Sparre and Lise Paulsen Galal, Roskilde University, Denmark

Similar to their non-Christian compatriots, most Christian immigrants of Iraqi origin arrived in Denmark between the late 1980s and early 2000s, fleeing wars, conflicts and oppression involving the Saddam Hussein regime. Yet, today and unlike their non-Christian compatriots, many place their migrant narratives within a larger historical framework of the persecution and killings of Christians in the Middle East, not least due to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria. In Denmark, they find the liberation they had craved; they do not have to worry about their safety, and they have the rights to practice their religion freely. Yet, they also encounter a society in which the majority practice and identify as Christians in a completely different way, where Arab Muslims are much more visible in the public sphere and debate than they had expected, and where they are often racialized as Muslims. Hence, many experience uncertainty and confinement as to how and to what extent to practice and talk about their faith and identification as Christians. In this paper, we explore the relation between liberation and confinement in the experiences and narratives of Christian immigrants of Iraqi background in Denmark. How does a simultaneous experience of liberation and confinement contribute to their practices and identifications as Christians of Iraqi origin in Denmark? The research is based on findings from ethnographic fieldwork carried out in 2014 and is part of a larger interdisciplinary project comparing migrant experiences of Middle Eastern Christian communities in the UK, Denmark and Sweden.

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