This blindness on the part of “conservative” American Catholics is partly ignorance; even many of those who have heard the words Melkite and Maronite have no particular interest in trying to learn anything about either rite, must less trying to grapple with the history of these Christian populations or even being bothered to find out who lives where or how they worship.
More importantly, though, it reflects a growing political reality. Since at least the Six-Day War, the presence of Christians in the Middle East has been a sign of contradiction that has stood in the way of American and Israeli attempts to reduce the broad conflict in the Middle East to the dualism of Judaism/Israel versus Islam/Arabs. The inconvenient reality of Middle Eastern Christianity has been a stumbling block to remaking the Middle East in a particular ideological image.
I started to write the “irreducible” (instead of “inconvenient”) “reality of Middle Eastern Christianity,” but, unfortunately, it is not so. By acting as if they were dealing only with Muslims, both the United States and Israel have changed the demographic reality in the Middle East. Palestinian Christians have left in droves. Much of the Maronite population is now in the United States. The Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq have, as Wayne Allensworth predicted before the war, largely fled the country. ~Scott Richert
I appreciate Scott’s comments, and I share his frustration with most Americans’ general ignorance of or indifference to Near Eastern Christian brethren of all confessions (for what it’s worth, there are also some Protestants in Lebanon, the fruit of the largely forgotten humanitarian and evangelical work of American missionaries in the Near East across the old domains of the Ottoman Empire). I would also like to join him in pointing out the blog of Andrea Kirk Assaf, Russell Kirk’s daughter and a Catholic currently living in Italy, who is married to a man from Lebanon. She has been blogging extensively on the situation in Lebanon, the Vatican response to the crisis and ongoing Vatican efforts to mediate the conflict. Today she reports on the Israeli bombing of a Catholic radio station, and has a long post on the bombing at Qana. Thank goodness that Israel is not targeting civilian sites, is not attacking all of Lebanon and is only going after Hizbullah.
There has long been scant attention paid to the extremely delicate and dangerous situation Arab and other Near Eastern Christians face, even in the officially secular states where they live and where they are supposed to be (and often, though not always, are) protected by law. What is striking about the Western interventions of the last 16 years is how disastrous they have been for the region’s Christians. It might be worth considering that the two major interventions in the Near East in my lifetime have been under GOP Presidents, and it has typically been their constituents who have, more than anyone else, endorsed these reckless and wrongheaded policies; many of these constituents are the same people who believe that we either live in or should live in a Christian nation. But these folks should consider that if they want to have a Christian nation, or at least help create a nation that takes its Christian Faith seriously, they cannot really continue to endorse a party that embraces a foreign policy that has such serious anti-Christian effects (to say nothing for the moment of goals). For that matter, any party that has people who are effectively apologists for Chechen terrorism among its prominent members is a party with which no self-respecting Christian should associate if he can possibly help it.
Not only are these Christians, as Scott has said, the “forgotten victims” of these conflicts, but the indifference with which Western governments greet the destruction or radical diminution of their communities is equalled only by the cynical, “humanitarian” crocodile tears that the same governments and their apologists shed for the ethnic and sectarian victims of governments they have chosen to eliminate. If the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians are driven from Iraq en masse to scratch out a living in another country, that’s a tough break (stuff happens, after all), but for 15 years there has never been a cessation of lamenting the longsuffering Kurds, with whom we in the West have nothing in common except a similar linguistic structure. There has been an ongoing disproportionate response of a different kind to the suffering of Near Eastern Christians: the rule seems to be that the more they are like us Americans (in their Christianity), the less interested “we” are in their fate, while you can’t turn around in this country but find a Christian who cares deeply for the fate of Israel or, even more incredibly, Darfur. Roger Scruton recently coined the term oikophobia to express the idea of fearing and loathing that which is your own (as opposed to xenophobia), so we are either seeing an outpouring of oikophobia with respect to our Christian brethren, a startling demonstration of American ignorance, or a widespread admission that “we” are not really like the Christians of the Near East but apparently have more in common with their persecutors with whom we unwittingly or knowingly align ourselves.
I do not dare assume that Mr. Bush has a significant working knowledge of the region he has proposed to transform into a beacon of human progress (this is the man who reportedly needed to have the whole Kurd-Sunni-Shi’a business in Iraq explained to him as late as the winter of ’02-’03 and who was surprised to find black folks in Brazil), so I do not assume that he knows about the Christians of the Near East in any detail and has simply decided they are unimportant or expendable. What some of his advisers know and think about Christians in the Near East may be a very different story (I do not think any secular neocons care a whit for what has happened to these people). Still, it is ironic in the extreme that this administration has been conventionally (albeit mostly wrongly, in my view) associated with a strong emphasis on Christianity and the interests of evangelical Christians and yet has presided over the displacement of so many Christians and the cleansing of Muslim countries of sizeable sections of their Christian populations and has undertaken policies that have hastened this cleansing. There was a time when a President of the United States would take particular interest in the suffering of Bulgarians and Armenians being massacred in the Ottoman Empire and would make it an issue of international concern; there was a time when Western peoples viewed with horror Kurdish atrocities against the Assyrians of Iraq, who suffered grievously during the last round of liberating Iraq. Now, if there is an awareness of these suffering people, there is an unprecedented indifference to their fate and their fears of Islamic oppression combined with a weird activist concern for other victims of Islamic frenzy. Everyone and his brother on the blogging right seems to belong to the Save Darfur Coalition, but when did you ever even hear of a Save Middle East Christians Coalition?
Why this ignorance of or contempt for people who are more “our own” than the myriad nations our government is supposedly intent upon freeing and democratising? Is this a function of secularism having taken such root in the culture that Christians are afraid or embarrassed to speak out for co-religionists on explicit grounds of Christian solidarity? Is this some strange leftover animus among the Protestant majority towards other confessions, an expression of an old prejudice that these people aren’t really Christians at all? I know there are some American Christians who take an active interest in the suffering and persecution of Christians around the world, including in the Near East, but why are they such a distinct and small minority?