03 March 2014

Christians Caught in the Crossfire (1)

Written by 
“A Coptic Christian holds up a cross in Cairo, Egypt (Courtesy Reuters)” “A Coptic Christian holds up a cross in Cairo, Egypt (Courtesy Reuters)” http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139917/reza-aslan/the-christian-exodus


Addressing a conference on Christian Arabs he had convened in September 2013, King Abdullah of Jordan emphasized how well established Christians were in the area long before the arrival of Islam and that over thirteen centuries had now passed with almost seamless Muslim-Christian relations. Yet now Christian Arabs are in crisis.

On the same occasion, prominent Jordanian columnist, Jawad Anani, wrote that Christians were the “salt of the earth,” contributing widely to Arab society “in the field of development, nationalism, education, business, medicine, media, literature and the arts.” But sadly many were now leaving the Mideast. He lamented, “If they continue to emigrate, our losses in developing ourselves technologically, security and culture will be negatively affected.”

I hereby begin two blogs on the Christian exodus from the Mideast. In this one, I look at some of the causes and examine the issue of religious freedom. The next blog goes into more regional detail and comes back to the theme of Muslim-Christian relations.


Why the exodus?

Colin Chapman, Anglican clergyman and Islamicist who taught for many years at Beirut’s Near Eastern School of Theology gave a lecture on the past, present and future of Middle East Christians (available here). Here are some of the challenges, he said, that all Christians in the region are facing:


1. An identity crisis: “In cultures in which it is assumed that ‘Arab’ means ‘Muslim’, Christians are made to feel that they don’t belong.” Yes, they massively contributed to the 19th-century Arab literary, scholarly and cultural.

2. A ghetto mentality: Because of many legal restrictions against them and an often difficult minority status over the centuries, Christians tend to fear their Muslim neighbors and despise them.

3. A fear of Muslim radicalism: with the rise of international jihadism since the mid-1990s Christians wonder if that might not become the true face of future mideastern Islam.

4. Economic hardship: Arab Christians are generally well educated, but squeezed by a stagnant economy without job prospects for the youth.

5. American foreign policy: even with the US pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arabs in general (you can add Turks and Iranians), who have suffered from arrogant and aggressive colonialist policies in the last two centuries, still see the founding of the State of Israel, the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and current US hegemony in the region as more of the same. Christians as a result have often been seen as secretly allied to the “Christian West” and have paid a heavy price for it. But never before has violence against Mideast Christians flared up as it has in this new century – hence, the last point I add myself, building on Chapman’s third point.

6. The new wave of violence against Middle East Christians: Imam Yahya Hendi, President of Clergy Beyond Borders, quotes Azizah al-Hibri, professor of law at the University of Richmond and founder the influential Islamic feminist website Karamah (“Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights”) in an article that calls on Muslim leaders to stem the tide of Christians leaving the region:


The desecration of cemeteries in Libya, the murder of clergy in Iraq and Syria, the attacks on churches in Egypt are all beyond the imaginations of civilized nations and educated spiritual region. Recently, suicide bombers targeted worshippers leaving their church in Peshawar and killed at least 60, including women and children and two Muslim policemen guarding the church. A gang of armed terrorists attacked a couple of weeks ago, the sleepy village of Ma’loulah in Syria. Several of its inhabitants were killed, its historic monasteries and churches were pillaged, and the crosses were removed.”


Plenty of other Muslim leaders and scholars are speaking out as well. I want to single out two in particular, Hussein Ibish and Reza Aslan. Ibish was born in Beirut, earned a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts and taught Islamics at the American University of Beirut. Today he is best known in his country as a prolific writer and journalist, though he is also a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and based in Washington, D.C. Already in April 2013 he published an article entitled, “Fate of Christians will define Arab Future.” The incident which sparked the piece was an islamist attack on a funeral service in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo which killed two people and injured ninety. This kind of attack, he writes, sends shivers down his spine:


As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East. If the Coptic community of Egypt is thus abused, disparaged, and attacked, what kind of societies are emerging in the Arab world? The regional implications are chilling.

Pluralism will be unattainable if long-standing and traditionally well-regarded Christian communities cannot be respected. Forget about skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. Never mind smaller religious groups like Yezidis, Alawites, Baha'is, and Druze. If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.”


Of course, this was written before August 14th of the same year, when the Egyptian military government forcibly dispersed the two Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Cairo sit-ins and massacred close to a thousand islamists. That very day, as is documented in a Human Rights Watch video, coordinated attacks by armed men burned and looted dozens of churches, schools and monasteries, with no intervention by the police to stop them before or after. This went one for over a week – which sends a chilling signal to Christians that even the state wants them out, or so it seems.

Liam Stack reported for the New York Times that according to the Maspero Youth Union (Coptic Christian) six Christians were killed, at least 38 churches were destroyed and 23 others were attacked. He added, “An activist with the group, Beshoy Tamry, primarily blamed Islamist leaders for ‘charging their followers with hate’ and trying to destabilize the country by attacking its weakest citizens. The government, though, was hardly blameless, he said.”

So if the prime reason for the dramatic uptick in violence since the 2011 uprisings is political instability, increased state repression and the backlash of islamist violence, the consequence of large numbers of Christians leaving cannot bode well for democracy in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. As Ibish concludes,


The bottom line is this: if the Arab world, and the broader Middle East, cannot accommodate Christians and other minorities, it won't be worth living in for anybody. And if the region emerges from a period of ethnic and sectarian conflict – of mountanish inhumanity when minorities are hounded out of areas in which they have lived for generations and been an integral part of the culture – those societies will one day look back on it as an unprecedented calamity.”


Iranian-American scholar of religion and bestselling author Reza Aslan recently rankled American evangelicals with his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth -- mostly because, like many scholars, he doesn’t take the New Testament gospels as historical accounts. That would have been uninteresting hadn’t he been Muslim and the fact that his portrait of Jesus’ God was Jewish (his followers later called him “God”) and, by the same token, Muslim as well. Most of you will remember that his interview on Fox News was deemed by many as “the most embarrassing interview” of the decade.

What is noteworthy too is that Aslan published in Foreign Affairs a piece in September 2013 with the title, "The Christian Exodus: The Disastrous Campaign to Rid the Middle East of Christians."

Here Aslan describes the August attacks in Egypt as “pogroms,” and the Syrian town of Maaloula, where Christians still speak Aramaic, as a “ghost town” after its being ransacked and destroyed by the jihadist group al-Nusra Front. The Arab Spring, he writes, “may have been the proximate cause of some of the worst violence, but its roots run much deeper . . . What we are witnessing is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.”

We’ll explore that scenario in the next blog, but let me end here with a reflection on the global rise of religious violence and the importance of religious freedom for all.


Religious persecution with Christianity at the top

The Huffington Post reports on a recent Pew Foundation study that documents a steady rise of religious violence worldwide. That violence is defined both by intra-religious as well as inter-religious violence. For instance, the intensifying sectarian recrimination between Sunnis and Shias in the ME factors into these figures. Hence we read,


Social hostility such as attacks on minority faiths or pressure to conform to certain norms was strong in one-third of the 198 countries and territories surveyed in 2012, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, it said on Tuesday.”


 Within the general rubric of religious violence, however, the percentage of attacks on religious minorities has noticeably increased – from 27% in 2007, to 38% in 2011, to 47% in 2012. This violence increased everywhere except in the Americas. It most strongly grew in the MENA region. And while Hindu, Buddhist and folk religions (among indigenous peoples) had seen no increase, all the following groups saw a rise in number of attacks against them – in order of highest incidence, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and “Other” which includes Sikhs, Bah’ais and atheists. Countries with the highest “social hostility” were, again in order, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia and Israel.

Furthermore, the percentage of countries imposing religious restrictions on their populations had grown from 29% in 2007 to 47% in 2012. The most severely restricting are mostly very populous as well – in order: China, Indonesia, Russia, and Egypt. But that’s not the whole story, as you will see below.

Yet among the varieties of religious violence, many voices are now separating out the ominous phenomenon of Christian persecution. The megachurch pastor from Nashville, Tennessee, Robert J. Morgan, contributed an article to the Huffington Post recently entitled, “The World’s War on Christianity”. In it he quotes senior Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Report, John L. Allen, Jr., as saying in his new book, The Global War on Christians (read historian Philip Jenkins’ review) that the rising tide of anti-Christian violence world wide is “the most dramatic religion story of the early 21st century.”

Britain’s first Minister of Faith, the Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is also a Pakistani immigrant with both Sunnis and Shias in her family, came to Washington in November 2013 to speak about this very thing – the global persecution of Christians. Speaking at Georgetown University, the Baroness declared that the Christian population was "hemorrhaging," and this "in the very lands that birthed this faith."

Prince Charles delivered an impassioned speech at an interfaith event before Christmas in 2013, expressing how “deeply troubled” he was by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Prince Ghazi of Jordan, whom I have singled out before as a dedicated dialog partner, was also present.

That said, the MENA region is not the most egregious in this regard. Morgan, again quoting from Allen’s book, gives us two shocking examples:


North Korea remains the most evil nation on earth due to the oppression of its people, especially Christians. According to accounts, 80 people were machine-gunned the other day in a stadium in front of 10,000 people. The crime for some of the victims was owning a Bible. Reports from North Korea have told of Christians being pulverized by steamrollers. Hundreds of thousands of believers north of the Thirty-Eight Parallel have simply vanished. At this very moment, there are over 50,000 Christians suffering in concentration camps in Korea.

Turning elsewhere, Christians in India are trying to resist discriminatory laws promoted by Hindu extremists. In the Indian state of Orissa, as many as 500 Christians were hacked to death some time ago, with thousands more injured or left homeless. As many as 350 churches were destroyed.”


The most quoted study on the topic is that published yearly by Open Doors, a Christian organization devoted to supporting the persecuted church. Mostly because of 1,213 documented killings of Christians in Syria, the number of Christian martyrs worldwide doubled from 2012 to 2013. A Reuters article had the following comment on the Open Doors report:


Nine of the 10 countries listed as dangerous for Christians are Muslim-majority states, many of them torn by conflicts with radical Islamists. Saudi Arabia is an exception but ranked sixth because of its total ban on practicing faiths other than Islam.”

In the list of killings, Syria was followed by Nigeria with 612 cases last year after 791 in 2012. Pakistan was third with 88, up from 15 in 2012. Egypt ranked fourth with 83 deaths after 19 the previous year.”


Why Religious Freedom is good for all

In 1948 forty-eight countries signed the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 reads,


Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”


As we’ve seen here, a lot of social turmoil and violence worldwide would be avoided if this document were applied everywhere. Sadly, that is not the case, and in the MENA region in particular.

President Obama at this year’s presidential prayer breakfast, which gathers people from all faiths from all over for a week of discussions, networking and prayers. He opened his remarks with a word on his own personal faith journey going back to his days of community service in Chicago. His following words drew him naturally into the mainstream of American presidents who, since Jimmy Carter, saw themselves as “born again” Christians:


And I’m grateful not only because I was broke and the church fed me, but because it led to everything else.  It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  It led me to Michelle -- the love of my life -- and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters.  It led me to public service.  And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”


Then he put on his hat as president of perhaps the most multireligious nation on earth, in a way that would have made Thomas Jefferson proud (see my blog on that). Religious freedom strikes at the root of all religious traditions and strengthens the democratic fiber of all nations:


Our faith teaches us that in the face of suffering, we can’t stand idly by and that we must be that Good Samaritan.  In Isaiah, we’re told ‘to do right.  Seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.’ The Torah commands: ‘Know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The Koran instructs:  ‘Stand out firmly for justice.’ So history shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people – including the freedom of religion – are ultimately more just and more peaceful and more successful. Nations that do not uphold these rights sow the bitter seeds of instability and violence and extremism. So freedom of religion matters to our national security.” (Applause.)


We started with King Abdullah and ended with the American president. They, along with other people of faith mentioned here, give me hope that the exodus of Christians from their place of origin will be stemmed. It’s already been a “hemorrhage,” as Baroness Warsi put it – 850,000 from Iraq alone since 2003, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. Still, with the situation varying from country to country as I hope to show in the second half, there are encouraging signs that Muslims and Christians are working together on turning the tide.