Christianity was born in the Middle East, and spread the world from there. Today, however, the region has some of the smallest percentages of Christian populations anywhere in the world. In some parts of the Middle East, and forecasts about their future are seldom positive. While renewed attention to the issues faced by Christians in the MENA region is positive and necessary, there needs to be more critical reflection on behalf of both the Christians of the region and their co-religionists globally on how to respond to real and worrying challenges. We have asked a leading expert on Christianity in the Middle East, Dr Harry Hagopian, to offer such a critical reflection on the challenges facing Christians in the MENA region. Dr Hagopian is an International Lawyer & Church Consultant, with decades long professional background in working with the Christian communities in the Middle East. The article below reflects his personal views.
I must admit that it is not easy to be a Christian in some parts of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region these days. Mind you, it often was not easy in the past either. If we peel back the pages of history by some two millennia, we come face to face with an era in the life of the Early Church that was also quite iffy for those nascent communities. In fact, Christians in the MENA have witnessed their fair share of ups and downs with every system of governance until 2010 when the Arab uprisings, dubbed “The Arab Spring”, took off from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. Its consequences drove the MENA into an even more violent course whereby the regional demographic markers and assumed norms were shaken abruptly.
The Arab Spring? What began as peaceful demonstrations across the MENA region with the masses seeking dignity and political participation gave way eventually to blood-stained chapters of violence and counter-violence. Suddenly, the region found itself in the throes of untold barbarities committed by different parties - in some cases, by those in power and in others by terrorist organisations like ISIL (referred to as Daesh in Arabic). And the Arab Christian indigenous communities, no matter their confessional labels, also ended up at the receiving end of such indiscriminate monstrosities.
How can one forget those horrid pictures of Christians being beheaded in Libya in 2015, of bishops and priests kidnapped in Syria, or of murderous attacks against Iraqi and Egyptian churches across both those countries? Year in year out, Christians in some MENA countries have found themselves facing one existential crisis after another. They have seen their numbers diminish, such as in Iraq by well over 65%. Their natural birthright to a region that also witnessed the birth of their Christian faith has been remorselessly eroded by self-empowering dictators or else by the brutality of those who pretend to speak in the name of an Islam that subscribes solely to their own anachronistic tenets and dismiss others - Christians and Yezidis come to mind here - as infidels who become disposable dross.
So those Christians - and their leaders - in the MENA countries were spooked and raised the alarm in increasingly strident tones. Church leaders - such as the Syriac Orthodox or Coptic Orthodox - spoke out vocally against such excesses and even mobilised the word ‘genocide’ to describe the acts perpetrated by those lawless thugs. And the painful tempo of their despair was picked up by the international community when HRH The Prince of Wales for instance complained that the UK ‘obsession’ with Brexit had stifled the debate on Christian persecution. From the Vatican in Rome to Lambeth Palace in London or the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Christian and ecumenical leaders responded to those pleas. There was no deafening silence in my opinion but rather a faith-based and moral solidarity that was achingly aware that it often does not know all the facts or get them right and that it cannot also compete with the sword.
Concomitant with those increasingly loud protests, there were nonetheless other intellectuals, thinkers, believers and writers from the MENA region and elsewhere who underlined the jarring disharmony and dangerous introspection inherent to some of those Christian reactions. An article (in Arabic) by Rasha Al-Atrash, editor of the Lebanese Al-Modn online news agency, lambasted some of the Christian political positions to those MENA conflicts as being almost a flip side of the savage exclusivity pedalled by ISIL.
So why do I feel uneasy with such inward-looking attitudes? Here are three ambient thoughts today:
It is axiomatic that some Christian communities in the MENA are being persecuted, harried, pushed out, bullied, accused of heresy or blasphemy and also killed with sheer impunity. However, I remain ambivalent whether such dastardly deeds necessarily qualify as genocide according to Article 2 of the Genocide Convention of 1948. I am uncertain that they fully satisfy any of the the four criteria of this loaded G-word. I would probably qualify those vile attacks as ethnic cleansing and refer ‘genocide’ to the horrors experienced by, say, Armenians, Jews and Rwandans.
But there is more than legal rigour to my viewpoint. I often feel awkward - and at times deeply frustrated - when the Christian communities in the MENA focus almost exclusively on their own pain and ignore the pain and suffering of the other communities that face the same perils on a daily basis. MENA Christians cannot claim to be in the country but not necessarily of the country. They live in multi-faith and multi-ethnic societies. As such, they should reach out to others rather than shield themselves behind insular ideologies or ethnocentric enclaves. After all, it does not take much prescience to realise that what happens to Christians - execrable though it is - is also happening to other communities such as Sunnis. Shiites, Kurds, Druze or Mandaeans. It is indelicate to speak out only when one’s own kith and kin are the hapless victims.
However, I also appreciate the multiple dilemmas that church leaders in the MENA face in their daily pastoral ministry. After all, they are trying to maintain and forfend the identity let alone welfare of their own believers. Should they encourage their faithful to emigrate or should they encourage them to stay in their homes despite the hardships? How could they assist their faithful whose lives have been damaged by the violence? It is not easy for priests to turn into politicians or bankers, but it is equally unacceptable for them to remain mute.
Let me put theology and religion to one side and coldly focus on self-interest. Imagine if Christians defend or seek the protection of those very rulers who are massacring some of the population in their country. Look at Syria and Iraq. Look even at Lebanon that faced its own demons during 15 years of a bloody civil war. Or in a truncated Palestine with its Gaza and West Bank entities. People often have long memories. And once these conflicts are dealt with somehow, there could well be quite a few people waiting to settle scores. Are Christians ready to face such a critical moment? Do they really think they will receive the succour of the West? Or should they stand in solidarity with their ‘neighbours’ against all ills and injustices no matter the source or purveyor?
I recently wrote a blog in The Huffington Post in which I took the Syrian regime to task for its criminal use of chemical reagents in Khan Sheikhoun on 4th April. Some Christians in Syria panned me for my views. They rubbished my article for excoriating an authoritarian president who pretends to defend Christians. They ignored that he coarsely divides and rules Syria with an unrelenting policy of divide et impera that has been applied as far back as Ancient Greece and by the likes of Caesar and Napoleon.
I wonder if those Christians and their leaders defend some MENA regimes because they are scared to express themselves differently? Are they seeking the protection or patronage of the regimes for themselves, their families or their communities? Or are they simply unwilling to examine reality frontally? And at what cost comes such denial? Is it - like Peter behaved toward Jesus in Lk 22:54-62 - tantamount to miscalculation at best or perhaps a faint-heartedness to stand up against crude oppression?
Does the rooster have to crow twice before it becomes clearer to those indigenous Christian communities - whose faith I share too - that they are walking a very tight rope?