Besieged! Why save the Middle East’s Christians?

(OSV, The Priest, Michael La Civita)  The traumatic events of last summer finally have earned Middle Eastern Christians some attention, if not quite the respect, of the strategic classes inside the Beltway: politicians, candidates, policy wonks and journalists. The headlines are dramatic, betraying a sense of hopelessness: “Beleaguered Christians Make Final Stand,” “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians,” “Christianity in Iraq is Finished.”
“Western countries ought to come together and offer refuge to the tens of thousands [of Christians] who want to leave Iraq,” one observer wrote in The Washington Post in September 2014.
“Yes, this would mean the end of Christianity in this part of the world, where its presence has often served as a bulwark against fanaticism. But it’s over anyway, whatever happens to the Islamic State. It’s time to face that fact and save the Christians themselves.”
Saving Christians and Pluralism
But defending — indeed, saving — Christians in the Middle East is not just about saving Christians. It is about saving pluralism, or what remains of it, in the Middle East. It is about building prosperous civil societies. It is about saving the Middle East and civilization, where it first took root.
The expiration of the artificial geopolitical construct that is the Middle East — with its borders drawn arbitrarily by the British and French after World War I — is agonizing and violent. Its end is irrevocably affecting the lives of millions of people every day: Arab and Armenian, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Yazidi, young and old, male and female, urban dweller and shepherd, rich and poor.
In Iraq and Syria — carved from the smoldering remains of the Ottoman Turkish Empire nearly a century ago — the powder kegs once controlled by strongmen have exploded, unleashing forces so violent and extreme that even Al Qaeda has repudiated the bloodletting.
Iraq — once awash in cash thanks to its oil reserves — is unraveling, its people exhausted by more than 30 years of constant war. Syria — once the bedrock of regional stability — has disintegrated, its people maimed and displaced. Meanwhile, ISIS has overrun vast swaths of territory and proclaimed a caliphate, a form of state akin to those that once dominated the region for centuries. Targeting minorities, ISIS has cleared Christians and Yazidis especially from their homes, stolen their possessions, and confiscated passports and other forms of identification. Those few who remained were forced to convert, pay protection taxes or die.
In reports that sound eerily similar to those reporting the death marches of Armenians, Assyro–Chaldeans and Greeks carried out by Turkish soldiers almost a century ago, residents of northern Iraq have described an exodus of Christians walking on foot in the summer heat — among them the elderly and the disabled — robbed of their livelihoods and rights, and fearful for the lives of their children.
Threatened Every Day
“We’re providing people with shelter, food and water — people don’t have anything left and they can’t travel without the money to buy tickets,” Chorbishop Yosip Benjamin told The Telegraph as Mosul’s last remaining Christians gathered in the town of Tel Keif in late July.
“We’re being threatened every day,” said the priest of the Church of the East, fearing his own village community in the Nineveh Plain would suffer a similar fate.
“Now, we don’t have anything left but our faith,” he added, “It’s like life has stopped, and we are so tired.”
Less than a fortnight later, as ISIS tore through the area, Abuna Yosip fled with his community for Iraqi Kurdistan, and from there to points unknown.
“All Iraqis who have recently arrived in Amman, Jordan, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” said CNEWA’s Amman-based regional director, Ra’ed Bahou. “They have lost trust in everyone. And they need everything, from personal items to food, medicines and medical treatment, to milk and diapers for children. Many are worried about their relatives, who couldn’t leave Iraq, and they have told us very depressing and heartbreaking stories about their fleeing from Da’ash [ISIS].
‘No, Never Again’
“My colleagues and I asked them how they felt about going back, should Iraq become peaceful and safe again. Their answers were ‘no, never again.’ ”
Who are the Christians of the Middle East? Gathering statistics on anything connected to the region — even the number of Christians — is as futile and perhaps as useless as counting soapsuds in a bubble bath. A high-ranking hierarch in the Middle East once quipped to a colleague, “You have to understand that, in our part of the world, numbers have a very symbolic value.” In other words they are not accurate.
Utilizing census reports as well as numbers gleaned from various sources, including the churches, there were roughly 15.5 million Christians in the region before the events of the Arab Spring destabilized the region. Never prone to exaggeration, the Holy See estimated that perhaps as many as 20 million Christians lived in the Middle East, some 5.62 percent of the region’s population.
What Middle East Christians lack in numbers, they make up in variety. Most Christians in the Middle East are Arabs, but they constitute a diverse Church: Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholics make up the bulk of the remaining Christians in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. Chaldean Catholics stand out in Iraq. Maronites dominate Lebanon. Antiochene and Syriac Orthodox Christians comprise significant groups in Syria. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church is by far the region’s largest Christian community.
Complementing these larger faith communities are smaller groups. Many Armenian Apostolic Christians found refuge in Lebanon and Syria after the horrors of World War I in Ottoman Turkey. Most of Iran’s Christians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Assyrians, especially those who belong to the ancient Church of the East, are scattered throughout Iran, Iraq and Syria. Armenian and Syriac Catholic communities have thrived in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Anglican, reformed and evangelical Protestant communities may also be found in the region.
Christian Migrants
However, this accounting ignores the large number of Christian migrants settling in Israel, Lebanon and the Gulf states. According to Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for Arabia, more than 2 million Filipinos live in these states, 80 percent of whom are Latin Catholic. There also are tens of thousands of Syro–Malabar and Syro–Malankara Catholics from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, Latin Catholics from the southeastern Indian Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, as well as thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians — as many as 50,000 live in Yemen alone.
The circumstances of many of these Christian migrants in the Middle East is urgent, said Bishop Hinder, because in too many places migrant workers, especially women, “are treated as slaves,” not just in the Arabian Peninsula, but in Lebanon and Israel as well.
“It’s not a particular problem of the Muslim world,” but also happens when the employers are “wealthy Christians who treat these women in a horrible way,” forcing them to “work 22 hours a day, preventing them from leaving the house and, sometimes, subjecting them to sexual abuse,” he continued.
If they manage to flee, the first place they turn to is the Church, whose priests and religious take the exploited to their national embassies, which provide a safe house until they can be repatriated. No psychological help or support is offered, the bishop added, often due to the lack of funding and personnel.
On the Move Since Pentecost
Middle East Christians have been on the move long before there was ISIS, civil war in Syria, an Arab Spring, Al Qaeda, the U.S. invasions of Iraq, the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli–Arab wars. In fact, Middle East Christians have been on the move since Pentecost. Whether hiding from persecution by Jewish leaders, Roman emperors, Persian forces, Byzantine bishops or Ottoman bureaucrats, the region’s Christians have demonstrated agility, tenacity and the will to survive.
In October 2010, Pope Benedict XVI hosted a special assembly of the synod of bishops to address the challenges facing the Christians of the Middle East. Migration issues were discussed in depth — long before the current trials. In his subsequent apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, released in Beirut in September 2012, the pope noted that “many Christians are now seeking more favorable horizons and places of peace where their families will be able to live a dignified and secure life, and spaces of freedom where they can express their faith openly without fear of various constraints.
“This is a heartrending decision,” he continued. “It has a profound impact on individuals, families and churches. It dismembers nations and contributes to the human, cultural and religious impoverishment of the Middle East. A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians. . .are part of the distinctive identity of the region.”
‘Pulling Out the Threats’
Throughout the Arab world, historians, sociologists, politicians and clergy agree.
“The fewer Christians there are, the more [Islamic] fundamentalism rises, fills the void and gains the upper hand,” said Muhammad Sammak, a political adviser to Lebanon’s Sunni Muslim grand mufti. For Christians to disappear from the Middle East, he said, it would be like “pulling out the threads of a cloth,” so that the whole social fabric risks unraveling and dying.
Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity is not tied to a place, be it a land or a shrine. Over time, as Christians moved from place to place, leaving their ancient centers of Antioch or Damascus, Edessa or Mosul, Nisibis or Baghdad, they maintained their identities, their cultures, their languages, their rites and their unique approaches to the one Christian Faith. These communities have defied death and prospered, founding new centers, new monasteries and convents, new churches and schools.
Nor is mature Christianity bound by tribal mores or ethnic customs. Christianity transcends national, ethnic and cultural boundaries. And while particular churches may have at times become entangled with a certain culture, ethnic group or even political party, they serve the whole world as they envelop that world.
Generally, the churches historically rooted in the Middle East now have more members living in the Americas, Europe and Oceania than in their homelands. Many of these Christians have taken root in these new lands — often called the diaspora, which some resent — and are alive and well. Antiochene Orthodox and Chaldean and Maronite Catholics have revitalized Detroit. San Diego’s Chaldeans are thriving, while the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Church of the East, once centered in Mesopotamia, has made his permanent home in a Chicago suburb. These Christian communities have exercised their freedom of movement, but maintaining their culture and tradition are challenges met with uneven results.
The assimilation of Middle Eastern Christians in the New World is not a singular phenomenon isolated among Middle Eastern Christians. But it is deplored by bishops and academics, who believe such a movement of their peoples as the end of these particular churches. What will the universal Church look like, they lament, if it is bereft of its Arabic, Armenian, Byzantine or Syriac cultures, rites and traditions? The lure of Rome, some say, is so strong that many Maronites and Melkites, Catholics and Orthodox eventually enter her embrace, losing forever their contact with their ancestors.
Like Specialty Grocery Stores
That is not necessarily so, said the Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour of Brooklyn. The American-born prelate has placed pastoral responsibility on the shoulders of those pastors called to provide care for their flock in emigration. The bishop, in an interview days before the opening of the special assembly, likened the Eastern churches outside the Middle East to specialty grocery stores on the same block as large commercial grocery stores. “The small store knows they really have to look after their customers,” he said if they want to “stay in business.
“It’s the same with the Eastern churches.”
Perhaps the critical mass of a faith community that gave us the origins of Arab nationalism, modern Arab scholarship, pan-Arab sentiments and Palestinian liberation theology will evaporate. But hopefully the seeds of hope and social justice sown by generations of Middle Eastern Christian priests and counselors, doctors and nurses, midwives and sisters, therapists and teachers will germinate and take root.
Hopefully, these well-watered roots will sprout shoots, leading to the growth of what Pope Benedict called “positive secularism” and thriving Middle Eastern societies “concerned for the fundamental rights of the human person. . .whatever his or her origins, religious convictions and political preferences.”
‘A Healthy Secularity’
“A healthy secularity,” he wrote, “frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.”
All is not despair in the Middle East. Despite the deluge of violence, despite the flight, Middle Eastern Christians continue to play a significant role in society. Through their emergency relief responses, social service initiatives, schools and hospitals, Middle Eastern Christians even now are restoring self-respect and trust. They bring joy to persons robbed of these basic human values by the destructive ideologies plaguing the region.
But as the bureaucrats, the technocrats and the middle class, Middle Eastern Christians are like the canaries in the coal mine. As Christians flee the extremist forces rapidly taking hold in the Middle East, moderates from other communities follow, leaving behind those who cannot leave, and those who stand to gain by fanning the flames of hate.
“In defending Christians, yes, dear friends,” said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches at a conference in September in the nation’s capital, “in defense of all Christians. In defense of Jews. In defense of Muslims.
“In defense of humanity.”
MR. LA CIVITA, K.C.H.S., is communications director for CNEWA and oversees the publication of its award-winning magazine, ONE, and its ONE-TO-ONE blog.