We have every reason to be concerned with the fate of the Christian communities of the Arab World. From Egypt to Iraq.
The region’s minority religious and ethnic groups find themselves at great risk. Caught in the midst of sectarian conflicts, vulnerable communities have paid a terrible price, especially in Syria and Iraq. Whether forced to flee the violence of civil wars or expelled by murderous extremists, the size of these once vibrant Christian communities have been so depleted, that some rightly fear their extinction. It is inconceivable to imagine Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria or Iraq without their Copts, Maronites, Assyrians and other 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. Intolerant extremist groups like ISIL pose an existential challenge not only to Christians but to all Muslims and Arabs – asking them to look to the future and imagine the kind of society they want to emerge from the current turmoil.
Of course, given ISIL’s horrific displays of violence, the immediate question 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 Middle East’s churches, lawmakers and activists from several non-government organisations.
For several reasons, I am participating in the event both as an adviser and a speaker. In the first place, I am a Maronite Catholic and an Arab American, deeply committed to my heritage and concerned about the survival of 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 negatively contributed to the conflicts that are unsettling the Middle East today. I am concerned lest we err again by taking steps, out of blind ignorance or sheer folly, that will 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 about the impact that the war would have on these communities.
This same crowd went deaf again to the plight of Iraq’s Christians during the 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 Hussein 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 people 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 defence 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 civilisations” than 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 concrete wall. It is easier for an American tourist to travel thousands of kilometres to visit Jerusalem, then it is for a Bethlehemite to go a few kilometres to pray in the Holy City.
And as a Christian, I cannot counsel the approach of those who would only extend their support to Christians and say, in effect, “the hell with the rest”. The defence 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, ISIL 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.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
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