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Middle Eastern Christians; death, exodus, betrayal and silence

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

“The victims are ‘too Christian’ to excite the Left, and ‘too foreign’ to excite the Right.” - Regis Debray

In the multiple wars and conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, a particularly vicious war is intensifying against the descendants of the first Christian communities that made the Fertile Crescent and Egypt their homes. The world is watching helplessly and silently the disappearance of the oldest living churches - as if their long history of enduring wars, conquests, schisms, peaceful co-existence and conflicts with Muslims is about to expire. The ancient communities of believers, some of whom still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, are withering away along with their once glorious civilizations in a genocidal cultural war of eradication. If only the stones of the churches and monasteries could speak.

Christian communities in Iraq and Egypt were subjected to violence, intimidation and legal discrimination long before the onset of the devastating season of Arab uprisings. Egyptian authorities invariably were accomplices in the crimes of extremist Islamists against Copts and other Christian churches. The American occupation of Iraq unleashed a vicious Islamist war on the Christians who were accused of supporting the occupation.

In America’s decade in Iraq Christians almost became extinct. By blessing a sectarian based polity, and acquiescing in the long sectarian era of Nouri al-Maliki (by Presidents Bush and Obama) the United States, ensured that Jeffersonian democracy will not grow on the banks of the Tigris. President Obama’s ambivalence about Syria’s war, his dithering and contradictory policies and his inability or unwillingness to deliver on his promises and threats contributed to turning Syria into the most savaged and tormented country in the twenty first century, including dealing the Christians of that country their worst calamity since the massacre of the Christian community in Damascus in 1860.

Apathy and helplessness

Those of us who have been sounding the alarm about the death of cosmopolitanism, pluralism, inclusiveness and the imperative of maintaining what is left of the once rich human mosaic that was at the heart of what made some of the great cities of the region beacons of culture, are stunned at the general silence, and yes the betrayal of Western societies - particularly the United States - of these communities. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq contributed significantly to the unraveling of that country, just as the continuing support of Egyptian autocracy over recent decades has made a bad situation worse.

It is almost too late to stem the tide against the Christians of the region, particularly in the Fertile Crescent

Hisham Melhem

The horrors of the sound and the fury of the war on the Christians of the Middle East have been fully documented and yet the reaction of western political classes, public opinions and even Christian churches has been mostly and scandalously muted. A recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) titled “The Plight of Christians in the Middle East” describes the grim agony and challenges facing these “disappearing” communities “in the very lands where their faith was born and first took root” then notes correctly that “the reactions from the United States, Europe, and other key powers to this new wave of destruction have been marginal.”

The reasons are complex and varied. Brian Katulis, the principal author of the report, told me that there is an “entrenched apathy” and “helplessness, regarding what can be done effectively and without any cost” to mitigate the predicament of Middle Eastern Christians. The apathy extends to society and academia, and the attitude of the secular media towards organized religions has been one of ambivalence, sometimes bordering on distrust. Also, many Christians in the West know very little about the descendants of the first Christians in the East.

It is true that statistically, more Christians in the world in recent years (before the wars in the Arab world) have been persecuted and suppressed than members of other faiths, yet very few “comfortable” Christians in the West fully understand that, that kind of persecution is still practiced in the twenty first century. To many of them the “moral” fights of Christians in the West are mainly over abortion, birth control and same sex marriage, where your beliefs rarely - if ever - subject you to political and physical persecution.

Is there a way out?

CAP’s thoughtful report is welcome, because it does not limit itself to detailing the various levels of persecution and challenges the different Christian communities face in their respective societies, thus avoiding simplistic generalizations, but because it includes a number of recommendations to address the Plight of the Christians in the Middle East. Mainstream American think tanks rarely publish such reports. The recommendations are not too ambitious and measured, reflecting the realization of the authors of the report of the limits of American influence and the reluctance of the Obama administration to get deeply involved in such sensitive issues.

The report urges the U.S. government “to elevate freedom of religion and conscience as a priority in U.S. engagement in the region.” It does envision a role for “partnerships with the private sector and nongovernmental institutions,” and “advancing diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution in the region.” The report calls on the government to prioritize assistance to Christian refugees, and to “weigh carefully the benefits and costs of special visa programs for Christians that may be seen as encouraging emigration, aiding in the exodus, or providing special treatment.” Other recommendations includes promoting religious freedom, and pluralism, economic development and reform efforts, investment in education, and working with international organizations and leading churches to preserve Christian heritage in the region. The report cautions the government to “use U.S. military force and security assistance cautiously and beware of potential pitfalls.”

Moral relativism and selective outrage

The U.S can and should do more. President Obama should start by shedding his ambiguity regarding issues of religious extremism. The embarrassing initial reluctance of the White House to admit that the 21 Egyptians beheaded recently by ISIS affiliated group in Libya because they were Copts is a case in point. Addressing Arab states solely through the administration’s “Muslim world” framework is flawed. Arab states, particularly Egypt and the states of the Fertile Crescent are homes to Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslim, where Christians, and before them the Jews have planted their deep roots before the advent of Islam. A better approach would be to address the violence against Christians as taking place in the context of deteriorating economic conditions, the collapse of brittle political regimes bereft of legitimacy, and in the context of unprecedented Sunni-Shiite sectarian bloodletting.

When ethnic or religious groups are subjected to systematic violence and persecution because of who they are, their plight should be addressed urgently, because this is how genocide starts. In this context, addressing the plight of the Christians of the Middle East should not be seen as a special treatment just because they are Christians with long cultural and religious links with the West.

Moving quickly

And it is commendable that the Obama administration move quickly last summer to save the Yezidis of Iraq from the mass killers of ISIS. Ideally, the Christians in the Arab states, even though they live in societies that are not democratic, with the partial exception of Lebanon, should struggle for their political and civil rights as full citizens, in modern civil states governed by constitutions and legal systems that guarantee their rights as equal citizens. If the Christians are unique in the Arab world specifically, it is because of their outstanding over all contributions to the development of their societies in the last two millennia, culturally, artistically scientifically, economically and politically, before and during the Muslim era.

The evolution of Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut cannot be fully appreciated without realizing the pivotal roles of the various Christian communities in these cities.

The U.S. can promote this vision in a variety of ways. The president and other senior officials should speak publicly and forcefully against persecution of Christians and other minorities and use their influence particularly in countries where they have clout. The U.S. was muted when Copts were subjected to government discrimination and the violence of radical Islamists in the last few decades during which the U.S. provided Egypt with generous financial and military support.

The U.S. did not fight this good fight in Iraq, during its decade long special privileged position in Mesopotamia, when undemocratic rules where incorporated in the Iraqi constitution. The argument that U.S. official cannot publicly criticize discriminatory practices without harming bilateral relations is bogus. No one can deny that Russia is an important country, but that did not prevent the Obama administration last year during the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics from criticizing Russia’s laws against the gay community.

Onward Christian soldiers

The war being waged against the Christians by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist Islamists and the fracturing of Syria and Iraq, have forced local communities of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Christians in both countries to form armed militias to defend their villages.

According to recent press reports U.S. authorities are aware of these activities and some of the Christian militias in Iraq may benefit from U.S. funds to train and equip local forces to protect civilians exposed to ISIS in the plains of Nineveh. And while international attention has been focused correctly on ISIS’ foreign legionnaires, given their relatively large number and viciousness, there is a small trickle of Christian volunteers coming to Syria and Iraq to do battle with ISIS and to defend the Christians. These modern would be Crusaders are not significant militarily or numerically, but the prospects of even a low number of Christian volunteers posing as the great grandchildren of Richard the Lion heart doing battle with the descendants of the famed Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi is enough to give one the shivers.

It is difficult morally and politically to deny these local communities of Christians under siege the rights to defend themselves, but these desperate acts demonstrate the extent of the unraveling of Syria and Iraq into hundreds of warring factions engaged in a war of all against all. While these small armed Christian militias will never exert a dominant military influence, it is important to remember the tragic outcome when other much more powerful “ruling” Christian militias in recent history from Lebanon to Serbia abused their powers and committed atrocities against unarmed civilians.

The Serb militias committed the worst mass killings on European soil since the Holocaust, when they killed thousands of Muslim civilians and when Lebanese Christian militias went beyond self-defense and either killed Muslim civilians or turned their guns on fellow Christians. The lingering memories of the Lebanese civil war and the actions of some of Lebanon’s Christian militias remain one of the reasons there is not much sympathy inside the U.S. government with the political leaders of the Lebanese Christian communities.

Christian responsibility

One is reluctant to criticize the Christians in the Middle East when they are down. But precisely because they are down one should remind them that they still have human agency and that their blunders and occasional parochialism can be their own worst enemies. Even in the face of historic challenges, Christians in the region are still notoriously fragmented and short sighted. In Lebanon, the political leaders of the Maronite Christians in particular are infamous for their bickering, vindictiveness and their outrageous readiness to enter into alliances with the devil just to spite their co-religionist rivals.

Former General Michel Aoun, a reckless and shallow Christian leader of something called the Free Patriotic Movement, has been driven by a blind ambition to be the President of Lebanon, a position that is shrinking with each passing day, to the point that he allied himself with his old enemies Hezbollah and Syria believing that through them he can realize his dream. In the process, he allowed Hezbollah to hijack the brittle Lebanese state, divided the Maronites more than ever, and allowed the Syrian regime - even when exhausted - to share control of Lebanon with Hezbollah.

In the past, some Christian leaders, in the political and religious domains, allowed Arab tyrants to use them. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assads, both father and son in Syria, did that. That closeness to the hated regimes was used as an excuse by the killers of Al Qaeda, al-Nusra and ISIS to justify their brutalities against innocent Christians.

The terror visited on the Coptic Church in Egypt in the last few years was historically painful, and can in a tiny part explain the public support of Pope Tawadros II the leader of the largest Church in the Middle East for the “savior” of Egypt Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi before his election as President. Some Copts, cognizant of their sensitive dilemma were extremely uncomfortable, watching their Pope sharing the stage with the Field Marshal following the bloody ouster of former Islamist President Mohammad Mursi.

Last September, a large delegation of various Eastern Churches visited Washington to highlight the plight of their churches with members of congress and government. Their notorious divisions and their inability to frame their challenges or to propose practical options were on display during a meeting with President Obama. The President was strongly advised by some to work with President Assad of Syria, while others urged him forcefully never to collaborate with Assad.

The lack of agreement about fundamentals among the leading Eastern churches is usually used as an excuse by those in Washington who are, to begin with inclined not to get America involved deeply in the problems of the region. It is almost too late to stem the tide against the Christians of the region, particularly in the Fertile Crescent. But Middle Eastern Christians owe themselves, their ancestors, and hopefully future generations, if they defeat extinction, to rise once again to save themselves and maybe their dying world.


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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.