25 March 2014

Christians Caught in the Crossfire (2)

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This article in a Turkish daily newspaper, “Christians in Middle East Call for Unity,” offers the following caption, “This file photo shows a Christian mass from a Syriac church in the southeastern province of Adıyaman in Turkey. DHA Photo” This article in a Turkish daily newspaper, “Christians in Middle East Call for Unity,” offers the following caption, “This file photo shows a Christian mass from a Syriac church in the southeastern province of Adıyaman in Turkey. DHA Photo” http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/christians-in-middle-east-call-for-unity.aspx?pageID=238&nID=26444&NewsCatID=352


Mofed, an Iraqi Christian now a refugee in Amman, Jordan, tells of Muslim gunmen barging into his photo shop in Baghdad and giving him an ultimatum: convert to Islam, or pay a $70,000 tax (jizya), or be killed. It was then that he and his wife packed up and fled. More than sixty percent of Iraq’s million plus Christians in 2003 have left their country.

The cover story in a December 2013 issue of the Christian Science Monitor was entitled “What the Middle East would be like without Christians.” A bit sensationalist, no doubt. Yet, as I said in my previous blog, the situation is dire for Christians in the region where the church was born. The piece’s author puts it this way:


From Iraq, which has lost at least half of its Christians over the past decade, to Egypt, which saw the worst spate of anti-Christian violence in 700 years this summer, to Syria, where jihadists are killing Christians and burying them in mass graves, the followers of Jesus face violence and vitriol as well as declining churches and ecumenical divides. Christians now make up only 5 percent of the population of the Middle East, down from 20 percent a century ago. Many Arab Christians are upset that the West hasn't done more to help.”


In this second part I only want to talk about Syria. Then I’ll come back to issues of Muslim-Christian relations I brought up in the first part.


Syria’s horrendous free fall

Reading about the suffering of Syria for the last three years is like your worst nightmare – you barely can finish the latest article, because it’s so sad and revolting, and you think it can’t possibly get worse. Yet days, weeks and months pass, and it’s an even more depressing, heart-wrenching experience. No wonder many of us have been numbed by it and have stopped reading about Syria altogether.

I admit. I had come to that point. Then I saw it was the fourth “anniversary” of Syria’s civil war. So I read the New York Times article, “Three Years of Strife and Cruelty Have Put Syria in Free Fall.” Anne Barnard begins with these words,


Day after day, the Syrian civil war has ground down a cultural and political center of the Middle East, turning it into a stage for disaster and cruelty on a nearly incomprehensible scale. Families are brutalized by their government and by jihadists claiming to be their saviors as nearly half of Syrians — many of them children — have been driven from their homes.”

Yet never before has such a human tragedy and its victims’ desperate plea of help been so graphically documented. Syrians “capture appalling suffering on video and beam the images out to the world: skeletal infants, body parts pulled from the rubble of homes, faces stretched by despair, over and over.”


So no, it’s no just about Christians – every sect (Alawites, Druze, Sunnis, Shias and Christians) and ethnic group has shared in the horror and the loss. And so have its neighbors. Take Lebanon, barely the size of the state of Connecticut: the UN says it has close to a million Syrian refugees and the country’s infrastructure is stretched to the limit.


The loss of Syrian Christianity

I just want to touch on three reasons why, for the sake of the entire Middle East, we should pay attention to the suffering of Christians caught in the civil war inferno.

The first is that their decimation by the violence of war and the deliberate targeting of al-Qaeda-related militia jeopardizes the future rebuilding of Syria on a democratic basis. Hussein Ibish, quoted in the last blog, perhaps says it best:


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.”


Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Arab journalist – who also happens to be a cousin of Bishara Awad, founder of the Bethlehem Bible College where I used to teach – offered in the Jordanian press a tribute to King Abdullah for his convening a conference on Middle East Christians:


The emphasis and focus by Jordan on Christian Arabs is of extreme importance in confronting worldwide ignorance of the presence and contributions of Christian Arabs, and the unhealthy growth of the forces of religious darkness and intolerance in this region.

To be effective, such focus must continue in an inclusive and comprehensive way that attracts all and benefits from the great wealth of experience that has made this region so important to humanity and civilisations.”


The idea of religious freedom I mentioned earlier in conjunction with Baronness Warsi and President Obama is also picked by Thomas Farr, a Catholic scholar who directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. In this interview, Farr says this about Middle East Christians:


“The exodus of Christians is a serious blow to the prospects of religious freedom, not only because their existence ensures religious pluralism, but also because faithful Christians are uniquely ‘hardwired’ to defend religious freedom for all. Their tradition demands it.”


“The contributions of Christian Arabs” is the second reason why their dwindling numbers bode ill for the whole region. Joseph Amar, who directs the program in Syriac and Middle East Studies at the University of Notre Dame, published a wonderful article on Syrian Christianity in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. Dating from October 2012, Amar’s title was “The Loss of Syria: New Violence Threatens Christianity’s Ancient Roots.”

Christians in Syria, as in the rest of the Middle East, are divided in two main families. The Byzantine, or Eastern family includes the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholics or Melchites, who, like Lebanon’s Maronites, rejoined Rome just a few centuries ago. The Armenian Orthodox and the Syriac churches belong to the Oriental churches. Those two represent the oldest native churches of the region (add to that group the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches). Armenia was the first nation, which, around 300 CE, officially embraced Christianity.

Unlike Armenian, however, Syriac is a Semitic language almost indistinguishable from the Aramaic Jesus spoke. But I will come back to that issue when dealing with the third reason. Here, it’s important to note that Syriac Christians, along with Jewish colleagues, had already been translating manuscripts from the Greeks long before the rise of Islam. After about fifty years after the Abbasid caliphate had made its capital in Baghdad, the skills and ambition of these Christians caught the attention of the 8th-century caliph, Harun al-Rashid, of Thousand and One Nights fame.

That caliph made a decision that was to positively impact Islamic civilization henceforth and beyond that, Western civilization as well, since the Renaissance was sparked from the creativity and knowledge Europeans had been gleaning from Muslim Spain and further east, as a result of the Crusades. Harun al-Rashid founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and hired Eastern Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian scholars to multiply the translation work, research and writing that had been pursued in various centers previously located in Byzantine territory, like Alexandria, Egypt, Nisibis and Edessa (both in today’s Turkey) and in Sassanian territory (Persian), like the Academy of Gundishapur.

Harun’s son al-Ma’mun put a Syriac-speaking Christian (also Nestorian) in charge of all the translation work, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq. Hunayn was already considered the “Sheikh of the translators” with over 116 works under his belt! Thousands of works in Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian and Syriac were translated into Arabic. Note too that Syriac is a language closely related to Arabic – likely one of the reasons for the prominence of Syriac Christians in this massive, unprecedented collaborative project. The other reason was their own longstanding scholarly tradition.

This of course was the beginning of “Islam’s Golden Age”: by the next century the House of Wisdom boasted the largest collection of books in the world and its scholars built astronomical observatories and expanded knowledge in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, alchemy and chemistry, among other disciplines.

Fast forward to the 19th century. It was “Maronite Christians of Lebanon and Syria [who] were the driving force behind what is known as al-Nahda, the modern renaissance of Arabic that brought about the intellectual modernization and reform of the language.”

The third reason why we should mourn the Christian exodus from this region is that these communities carry within their DNA some of the earliest distinctives of the Christian movement. Some of the most prominent Church Fathers came from North Africa, like Cyprian, Tertullian and Augustine. But they were culturally Roman. Others further east were culturally Hellenistic, writing and thinking in Greek. But the Oriental family of churches in and around Syria had its own separate culture and spirituality. Syriac Christians, alternatively called Assyrians or Chaldeans, look to St. Ephrem as their guiding light.

Ephrem (d. 373) decried the rationalism (especially the Greek philosophical tradition) so prevalent in the Western church of his day. Amar explains,


“For Ephrem, abstract philosophical language and cleverly constructed epistemologies had no place in theology. Divine truth, like life itself, required a subtler, more comprehensive language. Only poetry was sufficiently allusive to intimate the truths of God.”


Sadly, in the next century Syriac Christianity became hopelessly divided and demoralized. Amar quotes the Jesuit scholar Robert Murray who in strong language condemns the way the Western church intentionally repressed and beat down this early Christian tradition. These “cruel and destructive wounds” were inflicted upon Syriac Christians in total disregard for the wealth of spirituality these Christians could have passed on to the wider church. Fortunately, St. Ephrem’s works have been widely translated today and the tide may be turning.

What is also unique to these Christians is that they most likely developed out of the Jewish communities of the diaspora (they spoke Aramaic, after all) who, after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, gradually came to appreciate the church’s emphasis on prayer and faith. More than other Christian traditions, the Assyrians are deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible.

I quoted Reza Aslan’s striking article, “The Christian Exodus,” in my first blog. Tellingly, he begins with the Nusra Front’s attack on Maaloula, one of three Syriac Christian villages of Syria. The jihadists, after several days of occupation, left the village decimated. They desecrated churches and statues, killed several villagers and abducted twelve nuns from a Greek Orthodox monastery.

One last thing I should mention about Syrian Christians: they are united in asking the West to reconsider its support of the opposition forces. Part of this comes from the obvious strategy followed by Bashar al-Assad and his father to favor the members of their own Shia-related sect, the Alawites, along with other minorities like the Christians and Druze. As a result, Christians in Syria and Iraq remained mostly loyal to their dictator. Though they’ve now had to distance themselves from the Assad regime, if only to survive, they are plainly caught between a rock and a hard place.

Here you can read about a high-level, representative delegation of Syrian Christians coming to Washington in order to lobby the White House and Congress to seek a diplomatic solution to the war and stop their support to the rebels.


Muslim voices condemning the attacks against Christians

I already have cited many of these, from King Abdullah, to Hussein Ibish, Reza Aslan and others. Now I briefly highlight two American imams who speak out of their religious convictions to denounce any infringement worldwide on religious freedom, and particularly the actions of their coreligionists in the Middle East.

Imam Muhammad Musri, head of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, was the man who tried to broker a deal with Qur’an-burning pastor Terry Jones. He has drawn the ire of right-wing activists and of more conservative fellow Muslims. His January 2014 piece in the Huffington Post no doubt drew more controversy in some Muslims circles: “Muslims Need to Speak Out Against Persecution.”

He starts off by telling how indignant he was in reading about a Buddhist mob in Myanmar that went around “hacking Muslim women and men with knives.” Then he read the article of a Florida rabbi in the SunSentinel who in commenting about the atrocities committed by Buddhists against the Rohingyas in that country concluded that if such “hatred could flourish in a Buddhist country, it could happen anywhere. Human frailty is universal. No religion, no nationality is exempt.” Musri agreed with that “astute and sobering” remark.

Later he had a chance to look at the Open Doors website (I referenced before) and saw a world map showing where the persecution of Christians was most severe. These were overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries, most of them clustered in the Middle East, "which is where I was born and grew up.” He then adds,


“In fact, Syria, where I studied to be an Imam, is where the greatest number of Christian were killed last year – 1,213 of them, killed just because they were Christians.

When a people I love, from a region of the world I love, wearing the label of the religion I love, are killing Christians – whom I also love – just because they're Christians, we have a huge problem. And it should be of major concern to every Muslim.”


Imam Yahya Hendi made an even more articulate declaration on the subject. Georgetown University’s Muslim chaplain is also President of Clergy Beyond Borders. Noting how central a role Christians have played in this region for two millennia, he calls on his fellow Muslims to not only reject violence against Christians, but also actually "promote civil harmony and religious freedom in their societies."

As for the Christians in the Middle East, he urges them to “hold fast to their ancient homelands, maintain their historic presence, and not flee to the West. They must continue their witness, and permit their difficulties and suffering to be a sign of hope and peace for their fellow citizens.”

I’ll let you read his 13 principles for yourself, but I’ll quote the next paragraph, as it summarizes so well what this website is all about – reminding Muslims and Christians of their God-given mandate to manage the earth’s affairs in His name and according to His values. Indeed, our Creator has empowered us all with the solemn mission of acting as his trustees in our world. Back to Imam Hendi:


“We Muslims cannot stand silent and must present a prophetic voice of justice and unconditional love for religious minorities amongst us Christians being in the forefront. Muslims must treat others, as they like to be treated and must live the values of Islam, which calls on them to live in light of three values: politics of justice, economics of equity and covenant of community.”


Let’s pray many more come to share this sentiment; that peace and stability will come back to the region, and that Christians will keep a strong witness to God’s love for all, even in the face of brutal suffering. This is, after all, the way of the cross.