The story of Arab Christians is often hijacked for political gain

Christians are caught between the bullets of Israel and the barbarism of ISIL, writes Sharif Nashashibi

Sharif Nashashibi writes about Christians in the Middle East
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The Christmas period is a time to reflect on the deteriorating situation for Christians in the Middle East, who are affected not just by regional trends, but by the specific and varying situations in their countries. Each year, there are fewer Christians left to celebrate in a region where Jesus Christ, and subsequently the religion, was born.

This century has witnessed mass emigration from countries in the Middle East, instigated by the fallout from the US-led invasion of Iraq, and accelerated by the tumult of the Arab Spring.

The vast majority of those fleeing are Muslim, but concerns over Christians is amplified by the extent of their emigration as a proportion of their population, raising fears about the very future of the religion in the Middle East.

At most only a few hundred thousand Christians remain in Iraq from a pre-invasion population of some 1.5 million, and about 600,000 Syrian Christians – nearly a third of the community – have fled their country. The exodus continues with no end in sight.

Middle Eastern Christians are victims not only of the conflicts and turbulence that afflict the region generally (though at times target them specifically), but also the manipulation of their plight for political and ideological gain.

For instance, every Christmas comes with pro-Israel propaganda about how Palestinian Christians are persecuted not by Israel itself, but by their Muslim compatriots.

One such example comes from the UK’s justice minister Michael Gove, writing in The Times: “The parlous position of Palestinian Christians... is a consequence not of Israeli aggression but of growing Islamist influence.”

These allegations – deceitfully portrayed as concern for Palestinian Christians – continue despite consistent and vehement denials from the community, who say they stand by and suffer with their Muslim compatriots under Israeli occupation, violence and discrimination.

In 2012, Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited a poll that revealed “the vast majority” of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories “said their desire to emigrate was linked to the lack of security and stability they feel under Israeli rule. Less than 1 per cent spoke about being afraid of Muslims”.

Protecting Christian communities in the Middle East is at times cited to justify involvement in the region by outside powers. It is particularly galling when this is done today by those who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which directly contributed to the plight of Christians in the country.

This justification is either used as cover to further political agendas, or is the result of blinkered humanitarianism, whereby those from a particular faith are concerned only with the suffering of their co-religionists. This is not true humanitarianism. It is narrow and discriminatory.

Such a blinkered view of suffering manifests itself in, for example, viewing Palestine as a purely Muslim cause, or calls for western countries to only take in Christian refugees, or the portrayal of religious and ethnic minorities as the primary victims of jihadist groups such as ISIL. In fact, Sunni Muslims – in whose interests they claim to act – are treated just as barbarically.

This mindset breeds division, which only exacerbates the region’s problems.

One wonders whether former US president George W Bush realised, or cared, how much damage he was doing to Christian communities in the Middle East by referring to the Iraq war as a “crusade”.

The same question can be asked of the Russian Orthodox Church’s description of Moscow’s direct military involvement in Syria as a holy war.

Such references conflate Christian communities in the Middle East with foreign powers who cite their well-being to implement destructive policies and interventions.

This can have catastrophic consequences, particularly amid the misguided belief that these communities, who are no less indigenous to the region than their Muslim compatriots, are agents of foreign powers (though such accusations are also exchanged between Sunnis, Shiites and other sects).

However misplaced, the origins of these suspicions far predate the invasion of Iraq, arguably going back to the birth of secular Arab nationalism in the 19th century.

The movement was championed by prominent Christian figures such as Michel Aflaq, a Syrian who founded the Baath party in the 1940s.

Christians backed and often led the Arab nationalist cause partly as a means to achieve equality in a predominantly Muslim region by fostering a common identity.

However, this bred suspicions that their intent was dominance, suspicions that were fed by the relatively good treatment of Christians and other minorities by colonialist powers and oppressive secular regimes in a typical divide-and-rule fashion.

These suspicions have been more forcefully expressed with the demise of Arab nationalism and the subsequent rise of previously-repressed Islamism, both in its political and militant forms. The regional tumult caused by the Iraq invasion, and later the Arab Spring, has led to extremism and polarisation on both sides.

Christians are seen as either openly supporting the dictatorships that have been toppled or challenged, or refusing to back popular demands for reform, rights or regime-change.

Their reluctance – both real and perceived – to challenge the old order is understandable given their precarious position as a minority amid increasing instability and jihadism.

An ultimatum last year by ISIL to Christians in eastern Syria and northern Iraq to convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or face death “led to possibly the largest exodus of Middle Eastern Christians since the Armenian massacres during the First World War”, wrote William Dalrymple, a historian and author of the book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East.

However, the feeling of Christian complicity or acquiescence in regime oppression has contributed to resentment among those who view it as proof of the community’s self-interest over the well-being of society at large – a resentment on which extremist groups have fed for recruitment purposes. It is a vicious cycle that seems ever more intractable.

The rise of sect-based identity is destroying the rich social fabric of the Middle East, and obscuring the fact that the region’s problems are not limited to specific communities, and cannot be solved based on the benefit of one over the other. As their histories are intertwined, so too should their futures be.

I grew up used to westerners reacting with disbelief when my mother would tell them she is an Arab Christian, either because they had never heard of such an identity, or because they rejected the possibility of its existence.

From general ignorance about the Christian community, particularly beyond the Middle East, it is now very much in the spotlight, but sadly for the wrong reasons.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs