The bloody assault on Baghdad’s Church of Our Lady of Salvation has opened the door to a bigger question about the fate of Christian citizens in Middle Eastern countries, and the future of their presence there. Furthermore, it has exposed an Arab and Islamic wound, and we must get to the source of this crisis.
It would be a shame to see the land that witnessed the birth and life of Jesus Christ, and the spreading of his teachings, became devoid of followers of the Christian faith.
For many centuries Christians lived in the Middle East without fearing for their lives, and it is a shame that they feel under threat today and that the Christian exodus from the Middle East has become such a serious issue.
It is distressing for the people of this region to acknowledge the words of Jesuit scholar Father Samir Khalil Samir, who is an Egyptian Catholic based in Beirut who recently presented a paper to the Vatican’s Synod for the Middle East. Regarding the current crisis that Christians in the Middle East are facing, Father Samir Khalil Samir said “If this phenomenon continues, Christianity in the Middle East will disappear” according to Reuters and other news agencies. He added “the emigration of Christians from Iraq since 2003 may ultimately lead to their complete disappearance from the country.”
What happened at Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad is only the latest chapter in a bloody saga that has seen the Iraqi Christian community in the region being targeted. In recent years, churches have been attacked and Christians killed in Mosul, as well as other Iraqi cities.
What happened in Iraq cannot be exclusively attributed to the deterioration of the security situation and the stagnation of the political condition. We cannot say that the attacks on Iraq’s Christians is a direct result of American incitement in the region, or part of some secret plan to drive a wedge between the people Iraq, as those who have mastered the art of dodging questions and changing the subject have continually maintained. What happened in Iraq has also occurred in Egypt, albeit in a different manner. Egypt has recently experienced sectarian tension, the repercussions of which have been discussed and dealt with at high levels with regards to Muslim scholars to Coptic clergymen. This has stemmed from violent clashes which broke out in Alexandria, and the claims that two Coptic women who were said to have converted to Islam before disappearing and being forced to re-embrace Christianity. These incidents served as a pretext for Al Qaeda to launch an assault on the Baghdad church, killing a number of Christian worshippers, as part of an outrageous plan to link Baghdad and Cairo.
What happened in Egypt has also taken place elsewhere, in one way or another. Evidence of this can be seen in the targeting of the Yemeni Jewish minority by some radicals, who perhaps were not aware of the major historical and cultural role played by the Jewish community in Yemen since ancient times.
I am not going to talk about the internal crisis within Islam between the Sunnis and Shiites, for this is an equally complicated and distressing issue. However the question that must be asked here is; what has endangered the Christian presence in the Middle East today to the point that the most important Christian establishment in the world, The Vatican, felt it necessary to hold a special conference to discuss this issue?
I agree with Lebanese intellectual Radwan al-Sayyid’s comments about the Synod for the Middle East which he made during a previous article in Asharq Al-Awsat. Al-Sayyid noted that this crisis is not limited to the increase of radical Islamic fundamental rhetoric [against Christians], for there is another crisis being faced by Arab Christians, and this is one of citizenship and the weakness of some Arab governments and their weak economic situation. Otherwise, why would swarms of Lebanese Christians, among others, emigrate to work in Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, particularly as these are all Sunni Arab countries with Salafist characteristics? If this Christian emigration [from the region] was only caused by the decline in secularism and a move towards radicalism then Lebanese Christians would have only emigrated to Christian countries where they would feel at home with their fellow Christians. There are a number of reasons for alienation, including language and cultural barriers.
Although it is true that the emigration of Arab Christian citizens is motivated by a desire to search for better job opportunities and a better life – which is the same with regards to the emigration of Arab Muslim citizens – this does not detract from the unique characteristics of Arab Christian emigration in particular.
We suffer from a self-consuming syndrome in our Arab societies, and a desire to search for a scapegoat to blame for our general failure and decline. The minorities have always represented this scapegoat to the radicals and extremisms; with these minorities becoming the object of condemnation, taking the blame for polluting our nations. This is something that we saw in Nazi Germany with regards to opinions towards the Jews and the Gypsies, and today we are seeing it in the European right-wing rhetoric towards the Muslim minorities.
The idea that there is a pure untainted national identity with its own unique characteristics is a form of intellectual naivety. However the most dangerous thing about this is that it is an idea that resonates with the instincts of the general public who are looking for a demon to blame for society’s ills.
This was not the case with Middle Eastern Christians in the past. During the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, Muslims and Copts marched through the streets side by side. Notable Christian intellectuals formed part of the foundations of the Arab Nationalism movement. How revealing is it that Lebanese Arab-American writer and intellectual, Ameen al-Rihani was a supporter and friend of the Salafist Arab monarch, King Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.
This does not mean that there was no sectarian violence in the past between Muslim and Christian communities across the Middle East. Any accurate interpretation of history in the region would recount many such instances, even in Egypt where the Wafd Party served as a vivid example of unity between the Crescent and the Cross. Despite this sectarian violence, public awareness was moving towards the creation of a “universal identity” surpassing specific religious affiliation.
As Lebanese intellectual Albert Mansour informs us in his book “The Destiny of Arab Christians and their Choice”, methods of integration and identification pursued by the Arab Christians have varied since the dawn of the Arab renaissance. There was the universal humanitarian approach which manifested itself in the liberal, secular, rationalist trend and was exemplified by Farah Anton. There was also the physical scientific trend, as advocated by Shibli Shameel, as well as the general pan-Arab cultural route, which was followed by the al-Yasiji and al-Boustani families.
Moreover, there was also the route of Arab nationalism, and the idea of an all-encompassing Syrian nation, created and championed by Antun Saadeh. His movement attracted and involved many of the Fertile Crescent’s intellectuals and activists. The Arab nationalist trend brought about the idea of the “Pan-Arab nation” and one of its major theorists and supporters was the godfather of the Arab Baathist party, Michel Aflaq. There was also the idea of a pan-Lebanese nation, which was put forward by intellectuals like Michel Joha and others. There was also the concept of the nation-state, as represented by the Egyptian nation. In addition to this, of course, there were the universal global trends such as Marxism.
Some of these ideas served – and continue to serve – as categories for political identity, which have included many Arab intellectuals under non-religious and non-sectarian banners.
Analyzing and assessing these ideas and experiences is a different story altogether. However, these ideas were all effective and active at grassroots level in the Arab street, and the single feature that these ideas all shared in common was that they all paid no heed to sectarian affiliations.
Therefore what precisely is happening today? Is the targeting of the Christians part of the wider crisis, namely targeting Islamic moderation itself and the idea of the Arab nation (if this concept indeed still exists)?
[Lebanese professor] Kamal Salibi has warned against stifling such nationalistic ideas, arguing that these should endure in order to guarantee Christian and Arab coexistence. According to Professor Salibi’s shrewd remarks, if the Christian presence was completely removed from the Arab world, this region would then be characterized solely as Muslim, thereby losing its Arab identity.
Christians are an essential part of this region. Jesus Christ himself was born in Palestine, and baptized in the River Jordan. Arabs should coexist with one another and protect all national minorities, particularly the Christians. Pluralism is a protection against ignorance and intolerance.
What is truly required, as Archbishop of Mosul George Qas-Moussa previously stated commenting on the Iraqi government’s preparations to restore and repair the Church that was attacked is not simply a “restoration of the church” but a “restoration of our conscience.”