Christians in the Middle East must be a voice for justice, peace, pardon, reconciliation and selfless love. The fear that dominates the experience of many Christian communities can only be overcome by understanding, dialogue and faith, all of which are necessary to maintain the Christian presence in the Middle East.
In one of his pastoral letters to the Christian faithful in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah wrote:
“Your first duty is to be equal to the situation. However complicated or difficult it is, you should try to understand it. Take all the facts into account. Consider them objectively, calmly but courageously, and resist any temptation to fear and despair.[i]”
Any discussion of the situation of Christians in the Middle East today must begin with the reality of the fear that has gripped Christian communities as they watch the horrific scenes broadcast from Iraq and Syria. It is not insignificant that on 31 October 2010, a few days after the closure of the Extraordinary Synod on the Church in the Middle East, convened by Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, an attack on a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad left 58 dead. The subsequent surge in acts of violence directed against various ethnic and religious minorities in different regions of the Middle East is one result of the toppling or destabilising of regimes that kept the Arab world in an iron grip for decades. In Egypt, Iraq and Syria, Christians watched in horror as the authentic and deep-rooted desires for human dignity, democracy and freedom that took shape in what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’, were transformed into a chaotic and mostly brutal struggle for power. Diverse extremists, freed from decades of forceful suppression by secular dictators, emerged from the underground into the light of day.
Since 2010, thousands of Christians have been driven out of their homes in Iraq and Syria. Christian roots and heritage have been wiped out by hooded terrorists speaking in the name of Islam and calling for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the lands that have been home to Christians since the very beginning of the Christian faith. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have left behind their homelands not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Egypt, Palestine, Israel and elsewhere, and emigrated to the West, to the New World, to more welcoming Arab countries like Jordan and Lebanon, in the wake of the collapse of a known political order.
Fear is linked to a term on the lips of many who observe what is happening: persecution of Christians. There is no doubt that some Christians have been killed because their Muslim extremist executors see them as infidels, polytheists or Western spies. However, as the Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land pointed out:
“In the name of truth, we must point out that Christians are not the only victims of this violence and savagery. Secular Muslims, all those defined as ‘heretic’, ‘schismatic’ or simply ‘non-conformist’ are being attacked and murdered in the prevailing chaos. In areas where Sunni extremists dominate, Shiites are being slaughtered. In areas where Shiite extremists dominate, Sunnis are being killed. Yes, the Christians are at times targeted precisely because they are Christians, having a different set of beliefs and unprotected. However they fall victim alongside many others who are suffering and dying in these times of death and destruction. They are driven from their homes alongside many others and together they become refugees, in total destitution.[ii]”
It is also true that the term ‘persecution’, when it is used uniquely to describe Christian suffering in the contemporary Middle East, is often being manipulated within the context of a particular political agenda whose aim is to sow prejudice and hatred, setting Christians against Muslims.
Fear of what?
Fear is a bad teacher. In order to face fear and overcome it, it needs to be understood. Christians are a particularly vulnerable sector in the Arab world as for the most part they have consistently refused to organise themselves along denominational lines as political parties or militias. For decades (since the end of the nineteenth century), the Christians who were politically and socially motivated invested their energies in the development of Arab secular nationalism in various forms. In this project, they worked alongside similarly motivated Muslims and members of other minority communities. What came to be known as the ‘Arab awakening’ was successful as Arabs developed a sense of their identity, based upon the Arabic language, the Arab-Muslim civilisation and a vast geographical region that served as a centre for the ancient civilisations that gave the world Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the wake of the 1948 War in Israel/Palestine, in many parts of the Arab world, the monarchic regimes were toppled by Arab nationalist revolutions. Subsequently, however, these nationalist regimes, often strongly supported by the army and the police, were transformed into dictatorships that used systems of control that brutally suffocated any opposition. Among the victims of these regimes were the members of movements that sought to strengthen Muslim identity and develop anti-Western, Islamic models of government.
The Holy Land Justice and Peace Commission document, formerly cited, stated:
“Christians had lived in relative security under these dictatorial regimes. They feared that, if this strong authority disappeared, chaos and extremist groups would take over, seizing power and bringing about violence and persecution. Therefore some Christians tended to defend these regimes. Instead, loyalty to their faith and concern for the good of their country, should perhaps have led them to speak out much earlier, telling the truth and calling for necessary reforms, in view of more justice and respect of human rights, standing alongside both many courageous Christians and Muslims who did speak out.”
It seems the worst Christian nightmares have become reality as the relatively secular dictatorial regimes were challenged by political Islam. The emergence of political Islam provokes a legitimate fear on the part of Christians who, at best, would be marginalised in a political system that insists on denominational identity and defines society in denominational vocabulary. At worst, Christians have been murdered, displaced from their homes, deprived of their rights, forced to submit to extortion and humiliation.
Fear does not know fine distinctions, however. It is essential that Christians study each current of political Islam in detail. The Islamic movements in Iraq and Syria are diverse and divided; these movements cannot be simply assimilated to the Islamic movements in Egypt and Palestine. Murder and programmatic displacement of Christians cannot be assimilated to demands that Islamic symbols be respected and prioritised; emptying Mosul and the plain of Nineveh of Christians is not the same as Muslims demanding that their daughters be allowed to wear a head covering (hijab) in Christian schools in Jerusalem. Fear must be overcome as Christians not only address directly the leaders of the diversity of currents of political Islam but also challenge them to reflect on the consequences of their ideologies and visions. In fact, some Islamic currents have begun to reflect on the challenge of denominational diversity and have begun a dialogue with Christians. Fear motivates a perception that all Muslims are partisans of one vision in which Christians have no place, but overcoming fear means seeing the diversity and complexity within the complex world of Islamic resurgence.
Overcoming fear and isolation
A first fruit of fear is the tendency to isolation. A visible tendency among Christians in the Middle East is to isolate themselves in their own neighbourhoods, institutions and clubs. After decades of refusing isolationist tendencies in politics, some Christians are now proposing that Christians need their own political parties. More extremist Christians are proposing a Christian identity that no longer includes the Arab component, its language and civilisation. According to this view, Christians are Arameans, Phoenicians, Copts or Chaldeans, but not Arabs.
Overcoming fear and its offspring, isolation, must take the Christians out of their self- imposed ghettoes in order to discover all those within the larger Arab world that are similarly threatened by monolithic Islamic visions that threaten the very composition of Middle Eastern society. First and foremost, it must be recognised that the first victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims who do not agree with the vision of the extremists. More Muslims than Christians have been murdered by the extremists; more Muslims have fled in fear. Secondly, other minorities, for example Yazidis, Druze and Alawis, are at greater risk than Christians because their religious faith and practice are seen as beyond any acceptable Muslim vision of diversity. Thirdly, the various currents within political Islam are far from united by a singular vision of relations with non-Muslims, and Christians must seek out those within these currents who are willing to engage and dialogue.
A national dialogue based upon shared visions of society and its future opens up communities to interact. The Holy Land Commission for Justice and Peace proposed in its recent document:
“Christians and Muslims need to stand together against the new forces of extremism and destruction. All Christians and many Muslims are threatened by these forces that seek to create a society devoid of Christians and where only very few Muslims will be at home. All those who seek dignity, democracy, freedom and prosperity are under attack. We must stand together and speak out in truth and freedom (…) We, alone, can build a common future together. We have to adapt ourselves to our realities, even realities of death, and must learn together how to emerge from persecution and destruction into a new dignified life in our own countries.”
Christians, in overcoming their fear, reawaken to a sense of solidarity with their compatriots in the broader Arab world. Whereas many are inviting them to abandon their homes and their identity in this time of crisis, church and civil leaders are inviting them to remain faithful to their homeland and national identity, and to be a leaven of hope amidst the tragic dramas of today.
Fr David M Neuhaus SJ serves as Latin Patriarchal Vicar within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He is responsible for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel as well as the Catholic migrant populations. He teaches Holy Scripture at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary and at the Salesian Theological Institue in Jerusalem and also lectures at Yad Ben Zvi.
This article has been published in Etudes and La Civilta Cattolica.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.