Sep 9th 2014

In Defense of Christians

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

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

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 midst of sectarian conflicts brought on by war, occupation, repression, and severe social and political dislocation, vulnerable communities have paid 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, the size of these once vibrant Christian communities have been so depleted, that some rightly fear their extinction in their homelands. Because 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. In a word, intolerant and violent extremist groups like ISIS and their kin, pose an existential challenge not only to Christians, but to all Arabs and Muslims—asking them to look to the future and imagine the kind of society they want to emerge from the current turmoil.

Of course, given the onslaught of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and their 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 Defense of Christians”, which will take place 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 organizations devoted to human rights and religious freedom. 

For several reasons, 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 rite 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, which 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. It is disturbing, of course, that 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 went deaf again 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 should have been tolerated because he provided more protection for Christians than the sectarian pogroms that followed? Most certainly not. But because those 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 defense 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 harm the fate of Christians in the Middle East. In the end, they appear to be more focused on fomenting a "clash of civilizations" then contributing to a reformed and reconstructed Arab World.

What should also be of concern are those who either want to defend only some Christians—ignoring for example, the hardships faced by Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation— or those whose advocacy 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, while ignoring the indigenous Christians 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 30' concrete wall. It is easier for an American tourist to travel thousands of miles to visit Jerusalem, then it is for a Bethlehemite to go a few miles to pray in the Holy City.

And as a Christian, I cannot counsel the approach of those who would extend their support to Christians-only and say, in effect, "the hell with the rest". The defense 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, ISIS must be defeated and dictators must be removed. But we will only succeed in defending Christians and all other minorities if the sectarian extremists and the 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.

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