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Middle East Christians: Caught in crossfire

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Sheltered within the rocks of Kadisha valley in Northern Lebanon, the Hamatoura monastery has become a destination for monks escaping the war ravaged lands of Iraq and Syria. Their story is that of a minority trapped between the horror of radicals and indiscriminate bombing of the regime, bringing about Christianity’s largest exodus from its birth-land in recent history.

For Daniel, one of the new comers to Hamatoura that I met last summer, leaving his monastery in Homs was not a choice. "We didn't want to take sides between the regime and the opposition, we wanted to be left alone." But neutrality in civil wars comes at a high price, and could mean life or death in Syria and Iraq.

A culture eroding

As the monks gather ahead of sunset prayers, questions about the Levant’s dark days linger. Will their Church that survived the Mamluks and the Ottomans overcome ISIS and the sectarian inferno? Or will the flames of the barbarians and the indiscriminate bombing of the Assad regime completely wipe out their culture and heritage?

One of the ironies of current struggle of Christians in Middle East is the fact that it was triggered by the same powers who historically claimed to protect and speak for the minority.

Joyce Karam

Neither the Iraq war nor the Syrian or the Libyan conflicts were sought by the Christian minority, yet and from the early stages of those wars, they became a target. In Iraq, the rise of sectarian militias since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and after ISIS took Mosul in 2014, have practically emptied old Mesopotamia from its Christians. Today, more than 50% of Iraqi Christians are displaced or have left the country. Two bishops Boulos Yazigi and Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, one year before ISIS proclaimed its so-called Caliphate, and others against the regime like Father Paolo were forced out only to be abducted by ISIS later. Local sources speak of Christians leaving in droves Aleppo and Homs. In Libya, this year witnessed killing of 21 Christians in cold blood by ISIS, as other Coptic Christians where persecuted at night.

Staying on the margins of the conflicts has not protected the community. The choices for many Christians in those countries are between exodus and submission, between living under ISIS and paying the “Jezya”, or leaving behind their life and their culture and attempt to resettle in Europe. Across the Middle East, some Christians strike a sentimental tone when talking about the days of Saddam Hussein, and express a great deal of anxiety when envisioning a post-Assad Syria. Whether the fake stability of the autocrats could have held longterm is a debate that many in the minority choose not to have.

Caught in crossfire

Today, the Christians in the Middle East are by in large caught in conflicts they neither triggered nor have decisive leverage over, but whose outcome will shape their own existence in the region.

The Sunni-Shiite war that's being partially fought and fueled in Iraq and Syria will not spare the minorities. Its radicalized fighters and mercenaries from ISIS to Asaib Al-Haq militia consider nothing sacred, and are pursuing sectarian dominance and borderline ethnic cleansing. Even in Lebanon, where the highest office Christians assume in the Middle East (the Presidency) has been vacant for 18 months due to the dysfunctional Sunni-Shiite split and internal Christian divisions.

In Iraq only 275000 Christians remain, and in Syria, at least 37 churches have been bombed. Within the region, Christians are fleeing to Lebanon or the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria. But given the dire economic and social conditions for those displaced regionally, thousands have taken the longer journey to Europe.

West looks away

One of the ironies of current struggle of Christians in Middle East is the fact that it was triggered by the same powers who historically claimed to protect and speak for the minority. It was U.S. President George W. Bush ill-fated invasion of Iraq that unleashed the sectarian radicals, followed by the international failure on Syria that magnified the crisis.

Now, the West and Russia are readjusting to the new regional fire, trying to put bandage through aerial bombing of ISIS and resettlement of refugees to what has become a disaster by all proportions. This strategy will fail because it ignores the fundamental political problems that gave rise to ISIS, and that continue to fester today.

The plight of the Christians in Syria and Iraq cannot be seen in isolation of the larger political crisis in Damascus and Baghdad. Saving the Assyrian or the Armenian heritage from being wiped out will not materialize through airstrikes, or arming of sectarian militias. The current strategy, whether through Russia’s alignment with Shiite militias or Turkey’s with radical Sunni groups, is only feeding the sectarian divide. As long as this narrative continues, it will empower the radicals on all sides, and will backfire on the minorities by playing into the hands of ISIS.

Tonight, Christmas bells will go silent again in Raqqa, Nineveh and many corners of Aleppo and Tripoli. Yet, the minority that has endured many cycles of oppression since the 5th century, still finds hope rooted in history that it will outlive this horror, even as the West looks the other way.
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Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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