Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1213, (11 -17 September 2014)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1213, (11 -17 September 2014)

Ahram Weekly

In defence of Christians

Defending minorities in the post-Arab Spring Middle East is of vital and urgent importance, but should not be a vehicle for Islamophobia, writes James Zogby

Al-Ahram Weekly

We have every reason to be concerned about the fate of Christian communities in the Arab world. From Egypt to Iraq, these ancient churches have not only survived centuries of hardship, foreign invasions, and domestic repression, they have also played an important role in Arab culture and Islamic civilisation.

Given the unsettling hostilities of the post-Iraq and post-Arab Spring Middle East, the region’s minority religious and ethnic groups find themselves at great risk. Caught in the middle of sectarian conflicts brought on by war, occupation, repression and severe social and political dislocation, vulnerable communities are paying a terrible price, most especially in Syria and Iraq.

Whether forced to flee the violence of the civil wars that have ravaged these countries, or expelled by murderous extremists as part of genocidal “cleansing” campaigns, once vibrant Christian communities have been so depleted that some rightly fear their extinction in their homelands.

These ancient churches date back to the time of Christ and have added richness and texture to the culture of the Arab East. It is inconceivable to imagine Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, or Iraq without their Copts, Maronites, Assyrian/Chaldeans, and other Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities.

In a real sense, what is at stake is not just the survival of these important minorities: it is the future of the region itself. Intolerant and violent extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and their kin pose an existential challenge not only to Christians, but to all Arabs and Muslims, who must look to the future and try to imagine the kind of society they want to emerge from the current turmoil.

Of course, given the onslaught of IS in Syria and Iraq and the horrific displays of violence and intolerance, the immediate question before us is what is to be done now to defend Christians and other minorities put at risk by the raging conflict. This will be the topic of a conference, “In Defence of Christians”, that will be held in Washington next week. The event will bring together the leaders of six of the churches of the Middle East, lawmakers, and activists from a number of non-governmental organisations devoted to human rights and religious freedom.

I am participating in the event both as an advisor to the group and a speaker. In the first place, I am a Maronite Catholic and an Arab-American, deeply committed to my heritage and the land of my father and forefathers, and concerned about the survival of my rites and that of the other Christian communities in the Arab world.

I am also participating because I am an American who believes that my country, and the west in general, has, on too many occasions, negatively contributed to the conflicts that are unsettling the Middle East today. I am concerned lest we err again, taking steps — out of blind ignorance or sheer folly — that would only make the regional situation more volatile and precarious.

I am concerned, for example, that some of the loudest voices calling for action to defend the Christians in Iraq today come from the far right. A decade ago, as the Bush administration blundered its way into Iraq, this wing of the political spectrum was too busy beating the drums of war to hear the warnings coming from Iraq’s Christians about the impact that the war and the pathetic, misguided occupation would have on their communities.

This same crowd was also deaf to the plight of Iraq’s Christians during the brutal civil war that followed, with its “ethnic cleansing” that reduced the country’s Christian population from 1.4 million to 400,000.

Does defending Christians mean that Saddam Hussein should have been tolerated because he provided protection for Christians? Most certainly not. But because the people who are now the most strident advocates for a US military-led assault on Iraq and Syria are the very same folks whose policies led to the current crisis, I believe we should, at the very least, be wary of their advocacy.

Just as it is important that we be concerned not to allow the defence of Christians to serve as a cover for the agenda of the war hawks, we must not allow it to degenerate into Muslim-bashing. Islamophobes may draw applause from some in Washington, but their inflammatory rhetoric will only worsen the fate of Christians in the Middle East. In the end, they appear to be more focused on fomenting a “clash of civilisations” than contributing to a reformed and reconstructed Arab world.

Also of concern is a desire to defend only some Christians — ignoring for example, the hardships faced by Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation — or advocacy that is limited exclusively to Christians. As a Christian and an Arab-American, I reject both approaches. I cannot imagine Palestine without its Arab Christian community. All too often, American evangelicals come to the Holy Land to see the sights and ignore the indigenous Christians who are struggling to survive in the face of an unrelenting occupation.

The famed little town of Bethlehem has lost most of its land to Israeli land grabs, and its people are hemmed in by a high concrete wall. It is easier for an American tourist to travel thousands of miles to visit Jerusalem than it is for a Bethlehemite to go a few miles to pray in the Holy City.

As a Christian, I cannot counsel the approach of those who would extend their support to Christians only and say, in effect, “To hell with the rest.” The defence of Christians must be holistic and comprehensive. Minorities are most secure when they live in societies that are inclusive and representative, tolerant and respectful of the rights and contributions of all their citizens.

To be sure, IS must be defeated and dictators must be removed. But we will only succeed in defending Christians and all other minorities if sectarian extremists and dictators are replaced by systems of governance that do not establish one religion or sect above others. As demanding and far-reaching as that may be, it is the challenge we must face.

The writer is president of the Arab-American Institute.

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