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Middle East Christians Have a Role in Nation Building

posted on: Jan 16, 2011

Facing threats, Christians in the Middle East need not run for cover abroad. They are at home. They are not suffering alone. The poor is the largest minority in Arab society.

News of “Muslim terror” against churches and Christians are bound to give the distorted impression that religious persecution in Arab countries is widespread and systematic. Despite rising incidents of politically-motivated attacks on the Christians of Egypt and Iraq, inter-communal relations in the rest of the region have not changed radically.

Middle East Christians need ample inspiration to stay calm and composed in facing sectarian stress. In societies where the majority of people feel oppressed by poor governance, effective advocacy must be national in scope and secular in Character.

Christians still maintain a strong presence in the Middle East. It is estimated that there are 12 to 15 million Christians in the region. The Arab speaking Christians are for the most part indigenous to the land, not converts or immigrants. Christians are normal citizens in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestinian Territories, Israel and Sudan. However, the majority of Christians of North Africa and the Arab Gulf area are expatriates. Iranian Christians are largely of Armenian and Assyrian background. In divided Cyprus, the Christians South is Greek and the Muslim North is Turkish.

The Copts of Egypt constitute about half the Christians of the Middle East. Christian Egyptians feel politically marginalized. In those Egyptian communities where church leadership is deeply integrated in society, religious tension and sectarian harassment is rare. But sectarian incidents are on the rise now, as the insecure Mubarak regime is anxious about the 2011 presidential elections. On one side, fanatic Muslim groups accuse the government of appeasing Christians, and on the other, a politically discouraged Christian community blames the same government for appeasing those fanatic groups.

There were over a million Christians in Iraq before the second American invasion. In a climate of foreign occupation and devastating insurgency-attacks on churches, many Iraqi Christians continue to flee to the northern Kurdish-Iraqi region, to Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria and to some Western countries. In Iraq, many churches were built by land donated by the state. Saddam’s foreign minister, Tarek Aziz, was a Chaldean Christian. Iraq’s Christians are, for the most part, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Oriental. The Chaldeans are Catholic. The Assyrians and Oriental Syrian-Orthodox are distinguished by some of the earliest forms of Christian theology.

Instability has local as well international dynamics: erosion of political freedoms, colonial military intervention and rise of fanatic “reform” movements. For the al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents, “War on terror” is processed as “a Christian war on Islam”. Guilt is established by association: fanatics view local Christians as political agents of the Christian West. Christians become targets for revenge against an imaginary global Christian world. Disturbing minorities is a way to arouse panic in society and send a message that the insurgent retains power. Those targeting Christians in Iraq are among the same disruptive elements that have been targeting Shiites, Sunnites and Kurds.

Ongoing wars leave their scars on identity. Middle East Christians should not be oblivious to souring East-West politics: deteriorating Arab-Israeli relations, an open ended Iraq war, an unresolved Lebanese civil war and an unsettled north-south war in Sudan. In each of these conflicts, religious identity has been manipulated and treated as social barrier.

To slow the demographic hemorrhage of Christians, US Policy in the Middle East must start to creatively address the basic etiology of conflict with Islam and Muslims. With ideas, not weapons, America can support democracy abroad.

In the past, American missionaries supported the people of the Holy Land Christians through schools and hospitals. Today, in foreign assistance, the American soldier, the detached expert and the security agent have largely replaced the teacher, the pastor and the doctor. And the missionary approach has changed from enabling people through social service programs to evangelical and political intervention. Proselytizing has replaced skill-building, politics has replaced care and theological warfare has replaced interfaith dialogue.

Christians of the Middle East can help or hinder their cause by the manner they respond to living under autocratic regimes. These regimes wax and wane in their policies of tolerance for minorities. It is important for Christians not to forget that they are not the only group suffering. If Christians wish to contribute to nationwide struggle for freedom and justice, they must organize in solidarity with other groups, not as Christians, but as citizens.

Ghassan Michel Rubeiz