A few days ago, a Tinley Park man was among 60 seminarians celebrating Mass with Cardinal Francis George in Rome. He is expected to be in Rome for the election of the next Pope, and was very grateful he could have an audience with Chicago's Cardinal before the conclave begins. It was a bit unusual because the Institution of Acolytes in Rome coincided with the papal transition. Chicago's own Francis George came to Rome to prepare for the conclave. Thus, the Chicago area seminarian was able to take part in a Mass with his own Cardinal. The most interesting part of this story isn't about Cardinal George or the Mass, however, it's the candidate himself. Khalil Hattar, age 25, will be one of the few Arab Americans to serve as a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
For some reason, Americans always seem to use the term "Arab" and "Muslim" interchangeably, despite the fact there are millions of Arab Christians in the world. Even the phrase "Arab Christian" seems to confuse some people, like those who don't seem to believe that "white Africans" and "black Catholics" exist.
Without question, Catholicism is pretty rare in the middle east these days. There are examples of large Catholic communities, however, such as over million Catholics in Lebanon alone. Still, in most middle eastern countries, Catholics are pretty hard to come by -- especially Roman Catholics. Khalil Hattar is the son of a Palestinian mother, Majeda, and Jordanian father, Jacob. He has two younger sisters, Adina and Amanda. Hattar and his siblings grew up in the United States, but his parents met in Jordan after his mother's family fled their Palestinian homeland. They immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s.
To give an idea about the land they came from, there are approximately 170,000 Catholics in Jordan today, making up about 2.9% of the Jordanian population. Interestingly enough, only about 25,000 of them are Roman Catholics, the remainder come from other Catholic traditions. There are presently 32 Roman Catholic churches in Jordan. To other Arabs, they are known as "Roum Catholiks", and those who follow the standard western-rite Mass of the Roman Catholic Church are referred to as "Lateen". It is forbidden for Jordanian Catholics to received Holy Communion by hand, and the practice is completely foreign to them. In the present day Palestinian areas of Israel, there are roughly 80,000 Catholics, living in cities from Ramallah and Bethlehem. Most of them live in the West Bank suburbs of Jerusalem.
Arabs make up a very small percentage of Roman Catholics worldwide, but surprisingly the opposite is true of eastern-rite Catholics around the world. The 2008 statistics from the CNEWA showed that among eastern-rite Catholics, they are almost equally divided between those of European ancestry, and those of Middle Eastern ancestry. Roughly 47% of Eastern Catholics come from cultures in the Middle East, and roughly 46% come from cultures in Eastern Europe, especially those from Byzantine rites.
What seems to be lost with most Americans is the fact that traditionally, many Middle Eastern countries were home to great Christian communities, including many of the earliest fathers of the Church and holiest saints in the Catholic Church. No less than five Catholic Popes have come from Syria: Pope Anicetus, Pope John V, Pope Sisinnius, Pope Constantine, and Pope Gregory III. Many Christian traditions that originated from the middle east are now assumed to be "Muslim" culture, such as onion shaped domes on religious buildings (this was a major feature of Christian churches in the middle east for centuries, before it was adapted by Islam). Many Americans will likewise insist the word "Allah" is the name of a "Muslim moon god", even though it is simply the Arabic word for "God" and actually predates Islam. While its associated with Islam now because so many Arabs are Muslim, Arab Christians will still refer to God as "Allah" when speaking in their native language. Claiming the word means a "different Muslim god" is actually quite insulting to fellow Christians who live in the Middle East.
The real story about why Christians traditions are forgotten in the middle east is because of the current situation in those countries. The American media seemingly ignores the fact that Christianity has become an extremely rare presence in the middle east because of the constant persecutions of Christians there. According to the International Society for Human Rights (a non-partisan monitoring group based in Germany) 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are directed at Christians, and a great many of those occur in middle east dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Nations like Egypt were home to great Christian comm unties since the founding of Christianity two millenniums ago. Sadly, now the percentage of Christians there has dwindled to single digits due to the extreme hostility of their neighbors. Such circumstances is what caused Khalil Hattar's family to flee their homeland and settle in America. He recently wrote "Our Christian brothers and sisters who are being martyred in Iraq, persecuted in the Holy Land and forced into hiding and exile across the region for the sake of righteousness. Be attentive to their plight, as they are forced to endure oppression and even death for the name of Jesus"
In spite of what his family suffered, Khalil Hattar is very grateful his family was able to start a new life in the Chicago area. He grew up in Tinley Park learning to speak both Arabic and English fluently, and is currently learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Hattar is parishioner at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Orland Hills, and graduated from Loyola University in Chicago. He describes himself as a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls. Hattar originally wanted to become a doctor, but realized after college that God was calling to him to the priesthood. He struggled with this for several years, but finally embraced it and enrolled at Mundelein Seminary. One reason why Hattar feels he is the needed in the church is because of the absence of Arab priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI added Arabic to the official languages of the Vatican. Still, it is rarely used in the Archdiocese of Chicago and is still largely seen as the language of Muslims. Hattar will go where ever he is needed, but says he hopes to minister to the Arab community when he returns to Chicago in several years. In the meantime, he is staying in Rome for an historic event due to the coming election of a new Pope in a few weeks. “He's going to be here when the next pope is elected,” noted Cardinal Francis George said. He added “Not all seminarians get that chance.”
Here's hoping the Archdiocese's newest priest will break the stereotype about all Arabs being Muslims. Arabic: It's not just for Muslims anymore.