Aug 28th 2013

Invisible Victims

by James J. Zogby

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

For decades now, Christians have been the "invisible or ignored victims" of conflicts in the Middle East. At best, the US has paid scant attention as once thriving communities of indigenous Christians in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt have been attacked, threatened, or forced to endure indignity and hardship.

There are many reasons for this lack of attention to the situation of Arab Christians, with one principal factor being ignorance. Most Americans have so little knowledge of the Arab World, its history and people that they are unaware that these Christian communities even exist. This must be remedied, since without an understanding of the role played by Christians in the Arab societies of the Middle East, there can be no reasoned discussion about the past, present, and future of this region.

One striking example of this ignorance comes to mind. I once hosted a press breakfast in Washington for a visiting Palestinian priest from the Galilee. Since I had invited only reporters who covered religion issues, I hoped for an informed and thoughtful exchange. 

A set of initial questions from the AP's religion reporter established, early on, that the conversation would not be as productive as I had assumed. His questions made it all too clear that he was simply unaware of the existence of a Palestinian Christian community. He began by asking, "You say that you are an Arab Christian. But how can that be - aren't they two different groups?". He followed up by asking "When exactly did you and your family convert to Christianity?".

The clergyman from the Galilee, without missing a beat or cracking a smile, replied quite simply "My relatives converted about 2000 years ago." He went on to describe the continuous Christian presence in the Holy Land since the time of Jesus, the role they have played in the region's history, and their shared struggle with their Palestinian Muslim brethren. 

I have found that not only reporters were ignorant or dismissive about Christians in the Arab World. About two decades back, a high ranking State Department official told me that he was off to Syria and high on his agenda was his intention to challenge "Assad's and the Ba'ath's persecution of Christians". I cautioned him to drop that issue from his "to-do list" informing him that, in fact, Christians had been among the founders of the Ba'ath party and, for better or worse, saw the Assad regime as supportive of their rights—a history that had to be known if one was to understand Syria's political culture and society.

Just a few years ago, I had another disturbing conversation about Syria's Christians with a senior official—this time from the White House. We were in agreement about the brutality of the Assad regime and the need for fundamental change in Syria. But when I raised concern about the vulnerability of Syria's Christians, his dismissive response was "Maybe it's time for them to just pack their bags and leave". He said this without any sense of concern for this community or for what Syria's future might be like were it to lose its Christian population. 

Even when their presence is known, the Christian's plight is ignored in our political discourse and press commentary either because acknowledging their situation might muddy up a simplistic story-line or conflict with what has been identified as a larger policy objective.

And so, for example, the West has been silent about the precipitous decline in the Christian population of the Palestinian West Bank and Jerusalem out of deference to Israeli sensitivities. Pro-Israel right-wing Christian groups from the US frequently make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to show their support for Israel, while completely ignoring the existence of an indigenous community of Christians and the hardships they are forced to endure with the rest of their Palestinian brethren living under occupation. "They come", a Palestinian cleric told me, "to look at the places where Jesus walked and don't even see that we are here. We are invisible to them".

Similarly, it was the Evangelical Christian president George W. Bush whose ill-conceived war in Iraq unleashed the twin demons of violent extremism and sectarianism that resulted in the near destruction of the ancient Chaldean Christian community of Iraq. The Bush White House alternately ignored this tragedy or shrugged it off as a mere unfortunate by-product of the more important objective of removing Sadaam Hussein from power. 

And even today, the impact of sectarian conflict on the two thousand year old Christian communities of Syria and Egypt is rarely factored into policy discussions and press commentary about these countries. In each instance, the dominate narrative has been determined to be of far greater consequence. And so the Syria story is "opposition versus regime", or "al Qaeda facing off against Hizbullah", while the Egypt story is framed as "Muslim Brothers against the military" or "democracy versus coup". Meanwhile, on the ground, in both Syria and Egypt, ancient Christian churches are destroyed and communities live in fear of violence incited by extremists.

On occasion some right-wing ideologues have selectively embraced the plight of one Christian community only to use it as a partisan club with which to attack a Democratic administration or as part of their on-going efforts to demonize Islam. They will never, for example, criticize Israel's behavior toward Christians in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, just as they were silent during the uprooting of the Christians of Iraq. As a result, their advocacy has been so transparently crass and hollow, that they are easily dismissed as political posturing. 

In this context, it is important not to allow a one-sided narrative born of ignorance to be replaced by another born of prejudice. A wholesale maligning of Islam is not the way to correct the neglect of the past and would be profoundly unjust to the overwhelming majority of Muslims who have for centuries lived with, worked with, and, even now, struggled to protect their vulnerable Christian neighbors and friends from extremist rhetoric and violence.

The way forward must be based on acknowledging the rich religious diversity that is the heritage of the societies of the Arab East. Simplistic formulas that ignore this reality aren't the answer. 

The societies of the Arab East are undergoing profound change. The resolution will neither be found in dictatorships nor in governments based on one or another form of intolerant sectarian dogmatism. The future of the religiously complex societies of the Middle East must recognize their diversity and respect the equal rights of all their citizens.

If America is to play any constructive role in this region's future, it is imperative that our policy discussion be better informed by a deeper understanding of the history and present-day reality of the Arab East.  A good place to start would be to acknowledge the role that Christian communities have played, together with Muslims, in shaping the region's culture and politics and to have our policy discussion reflect that reality




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