The Witness of the Christians of the Middle East
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matthew 2.13)
It’s hard being a Christian in the Middle East today. Just ask Joseph. OK. Joseph wasn’t a Christian, he was a Jew. And the historical veracity of this Biblical tale is questionable. But you get the point. Unfortunately, we often get the wrong point. While some wish to portray today’s plight of Christians in the Middle East as Muslim sponsored persecution, the story is, in fact, far more complex, and far more politically driven.
For more centuries than not, Christians and Muslims have shared the Middle East relatively peacefully. Major disruptions of this accommodation have generally come from the outside – the Crusades launched by European kings and popes, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the colonial division of the Middle East by the former Allies after the War into frequently illogical nation states, the creation of the State of Israel, the maneuvering and manipulation of the Soviet Union and the United States and their puppets during the Cold War, often hand in hand with oil interests and, most recently, the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Even the 1915 genocide carried out by the Turks against the Armenians had more to do with the rise of Turkish nationalism and alleged threats from powers outside Turkey aligned with the Armenian population than with the Armenians’ Orthodox and Evangelical Christian faith. We shouldn’t be surprised by this story. After all, in Matthew’s account Jesus becomes a refugee not because he’s a Christian or a Jew, but because he is seen as a political threat to King Herod.
During the long years of Ottoman rule the minority Christian population was not free and privileged in the way we experience life as Christians in the United States. But for the most part they were years of intellectual and cultural vibrancy, economic prosperity and sufficient liberty to exercise one’s faith, albeit within certain clearly defined boundaries. Christian communities were able to organize and represent themselves and their concerns to the Ottoman authorities in order to protect their interests. By the 19th century Protestant missionaries were able to move freely throughout the Middle East leaving a legacy of Evangelical communities and church related health and educational institutions. But all of this began to change one hundred years ago this year with the outbreak of the First World War and the ensuing calamities of the 20th century.
Today Christians are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria. They live sequestered in shrinking territory in the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli occupation and in the face of expanding Jewish settlements. They hang on in dwindling numbers in Iraq where the Christian population has, by all accounts, shrunk to well less than half its former size since the U.S. invasion. Christians live caught in the crossfire between military rule in Egypt and the now beleaguered Muslim Brotherhood. In Lebanon they struggle to maintain a place in the political balance of power amid myriad destabilizing influences that include an influx of refugees, the political and military activities of Iran backed Hezbollah, and a hostile neighbor to the south.
Conservative politicians in the U.S. and their allies among the Christian right may wring their hands over the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But the reality is that our massive financial support and diplomatic cover for Israel’s harsh Occupation, and our invasion of Iraq, have done far more to destabilize life for Christians than anything Muslim extremists do, however reprehensible their terrorist attacks on Christians may be.
No, it is not easy being a Christian in the Middle East. And yet they endure. They gather for worship. They educate their children and the children of their Muslim neighbors. They train their pastors. They act as voices of reconciliation. In the Palestine Jesus fled they operate hospitals and universities. They empower women living in the refugee camps set up after the Nakba in 1948. They care for young people traumatized by the violence of Occupation. In Syria before the civil war they cared for refugees from Iraq; now Christians in Lebanon do the same for those fleeing Syria. They develop theologies of liberation and hope that transcend the church, embracing Christians and Muslims alike. They inspire interreligious engagement and dialogue in the face of political forces that continue to try to use religion as self-serving political leverage.
The suffering of Christians in the Middle East is real. It is a story that needs to be told. But the witness of Christians in the Middle East – a rich array of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Evangelical (Protestant), and Roman and Eastern Rite Catholic traditions – is the even more compelling story, the story we must also tell. Helping to sustain Christians in the Middle East is not about nostalgia for the places “Jesus walked.” Nor should it be about preserving access to holy sites for religious pilgrims and tourists. It is about maintaining a witness to mercy, justice, and peace in a part of the world that suffers today, often in ways in which we are complicit. Matthew’s Jesus returned from exile to witness in Palestine. Today’s Middle Eastern Christians, often exiled in place, seek to do the same.
John H. Thomas
January 2, 2014