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The Agony Of Middle East Christians

For many Christians in Iraq and Syria, every day is 9/11
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Sixteen years ago today, Al Qaeda terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, unleashing a series of catastrophic wars in the Middle East that have been particularly devastating for Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria. As Peter Feaver and Will Inboden write in Foreign Policy magazine:

Do we want to be the generation that stood by as Christians disappeared almost entirely from the ancient homelands they have occupied since the days of the New Testament?

Will the Trump administration and this Congress let this historic and preventable tragedy happen on their watch?

We are on the precipice of catastrophe, and unless we act soon, within weeks, the tiny remnants of Christian communities in Iraq may be mostly eradicated by the genocide being committed against Christians in Iraq and Syria.

Andrew Doran and his colleagues are fighting to prevent that from happening. He is vice president and senior policy adviser for In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based non-profit that advocates for human rights for the besieged Christian minority in the Middle East. If they fail, future historians might see 9/11 as the beginning of the end for Christians in the faith’s ancient homeland. On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, I e-mailed Doran to find out more about the situation today. The interview is here:

RD: We have seen images recently of Christians returning to their badly damaged sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq. Has the worst passed for Middle Eastern Christians?

AD: The number of Christians in Iraq and Syria has gone from over three million combined fifteen years ago to less than a million today.  This happened for many reasons.  One is the radicalization of Muslims through well-funded ideologies.  The most pernicious of these ideologies is Wahhabism, which Saudi Arabia has spent untold billions to export globally for decades.  Everywhere I go in the Middle East, Muslims and Christians alike ask, “Why isn’t America doing something to stop the Wahhabis?  Don’t you know they’re your enemy and ours?”  The petrol wealth and influence of the Gulf states has thus set the Muslim world back generations, if not centuries.  Most of the violence against both Middle East Christians and Americans has come from this source, though I hasten to add that Iran and its proxies are also a serious threat.

The worst has probably passed, but ISIS isn’t going away.  Millions of Christians across the region live under a daily threat—especially on Sunday.  But they show up at church every Sunday.  They’re the toughest people I’ve ever encountered in my life.  There’s a reason ISIS targets them.  That’s going to continue.  The worst may be over the Christians of the Middle East, but it’s only just beginning in the West.  This is going to be with us for a generation at least.  And until we change some important policies, it’s going to worse before it gets better.

Another reason is that Middle East Christians had no real advocacy presence in Washington until recently.  This is why In Defense of Christians was founded three years ago.  We worked with the Knights of Columbus and other groups to see that Congress and the Secretary of State recognized the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities at the hands of ISIS.  We work to unify the advocacy efforts of various Middle East Christian organizations, build networks between American and Middle East Christians, educate lawmakers and encourage policies that will both protect minorities in the Middle East and advance U.S. interests.

IDC is having a Summit on U.S. leadership and preserving Christians in the Middle East on October 24-26.  We encourage anyone who cares about these issues to attend.  The Summit will advance specific policies that will protect America’s natural allies in the Middle East—and hold our enemies to account.  There are millions of Christians there and it’s in America’s interests to see that they and other minorities survive.  They’re America’s natural allies in the region.

From a strictly political point of view, what do Americans not understand about the situation Christians in the Middle East face — not just in war zones, but elsewhere?

Americans probably don’t understand the extent to which their public servants in DC really don’t care.  The foreign policy establishment, like the public culture in America, has a general contempt (often masquerading as indifference) for Christians.  This is ironic because the Christians are the progressives of their societies in the Middle East.

Americans would probably be shocked at how unapologetically Christian and free Lebanon is.  Lebanon is the closest thing to a Western country in the Arab world, and not only because of the lifestyle and prevalence of French and English.  There are monasteries in the mountains, catacombs, statues of Jesus and Mary, Christian universities, Christian politicians, and above all a confidence in Christian culture that we’re losing in the West.  This has rubbed off on non-Christians in Lebanon, giving the place a very moderate feel.  (There are places one usually doesn’t go, of course, but think of all the places we never go in America because they’re unsafe—and far more dangerous than anything in Lebanon.)

Put simply, the Christians of Lebanon don’t have the dhimmi mentality of a hostage, contingent people that sadly characterizes so many Christians in the Middle East.  When you see Lebanon, you understand why it’s worth saving.  Christians in places like Egypt and elsewhere will often point out that Lebanon gives them a model for equality and hope.

The problem isn’t the American people so much as it is Washington.  There’s a clear chasm between the values of the American people and their elites.  It’s important not only to make a moral argument, of course.  IDC and its partner organizations make a case that it’s in American interests to protect and preserve Christian and other minority communities.  Americans often think that humanitarian aid is the answer, and that is needed, but we also need policies that will protect Christians.  If we can get that part right, no humanitarian aid will be needed.

I’d like to ask the same from a religious point of view. Many, perhaps even most, American Christians don’t seem to understand that Middle Eastern Christians exist. 

That’s very true.  There is a culture gap between American Christians and Middle East Christians, similar to that which existed between Greek and Latin churches around the time that Constantinople fell to the Turks.  Refugees flooded into the West, bringing with them the cultural heritage of the East.  As I wrote in TAC last year, something similar is happening in our own age.

When Americans visit Middle East Christian communities, they’re usually struck by the richness of the cultural heritage there, the continuity since the first centuries of Christianity.  There are millions of Middle East Christians in diaspora living in America and they urgently want American—particularly Evangelical—Christians to join their advocacy efforts, but this has been difficult to achieve.  There are two very different attitudes about faith, one rooted in the history and culture of the Middle East; the other reformed and distilled through the cultures of Europe and North America.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that there are perhaps as many as three million Christians, mostly Filipinos, who work as servants in the Gulf states.  They often have their passports seized upon arrival and are treated as little better than chattel slaves.  There are no churches in Saudi Arabia (non-Islamic faiths are forbidden by law), so they have to practice their faith in underground, usually in house churches, where they are often hunted by ruthless secret police.  There has been almost no discussion about these Christians, though numerically their community is larger than those of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran combined.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump indicated that as president, he would be more sympathetic to Middle Eastern Christians than the Obama administration was. Has he been? What policy changes would you like to see?

The Trump administration isn’t off to a great start, but Middle East Christians haven’t given up.  An Iraqi Christian man told me this summer that Trump is their last hope, as I recently wrote in Newsweek.  He said, “We believe in God first, Trump second.”  They need help and urgently.  At the moment there’s an aid bill that’s been sitting in the Senate for months.  Senator Corker—for reasons he might best explain himself—has been holding it up.  He owes the American people an explanation.  This kind of thing happens all the time.  It’s absolutely unacceptable.

IDC is advocating that the Christians and other minorities of Northern Iraq, particularly the Nineveh Plain, be protected for a time by a small multinational force to stabilize this area during a period of revitalization.  There are successful models for this, even in Northern Iraq.  IDC is also advocating for the passage of a resolution to promote stability and security in Lebanon.  We’re also pressing the government for greater accountability for America’s “allies,” who have turned a blind eye to their own citizens supporting violent extremists through a global jihadi network that is a threat to Christians and other vulnerable communities in the Middle East, and ultimately to the national security of the U.S. and other Western countries.

I was in Raqqa this summer with a Syriac Christian unit fighting ISIS.  They’re not interested in being dhimmi to Islamists or to any regime.  They simply want equality in their own societies.  These young men have suffered terribly but they’re profoundly courageous.  They have literal scars mixed with tattoos of crosses and rosaries.  They’re only perhaps two thousand within the Syrian Democratic Forces but are an important symbol of pluralism.  They would probably quadruple in size overnight if given the resources.  Moderate, secular-minded Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, often want to serve with them.  They’re vital for reconciliation efforts.  The U.S. government actually passed on equipping them during the Free Syrian Army debacle but seems to be warming up on a key concept:  they’re one of the few groups in the region that can be trusted.

Why have the US news media not been especially interested in the plight of Middle Eastern Christians? 

Ross Douthat put it well a few years ago when he said that Middle East Christians are too Christian for the left and too Middle Eastern for the right.  The media has actually gotten better about covering this in recent years but there’s a fairly significant bias against Christians in America’s public culture.  Our elites have been conditioned to believe that there is a perpetual victim-oppressor dialectic—and that they, the elites, are somehow the victims.  Of course, some progressives do recognize that Christians are their natural allies.

In Iraq and Syria this summer, I spent time with some European journalists, all of whom were (I think) post-Christian.  They recognized that the Christians were progressive, moderate, and vital to the future of the Middle East.  There are many reasons that might account for the different attitudes of European and American elites toward Middle East Christians, but I think the simplest explanation is that Europeans don’t have a peculiar messianic urge to Americanize the Middle East.

What drew you into advocacy on their behalf? 

It struck me as the most overlooked area of U.S. policy.  I remember my father saying in 1991, as my brother was serving in the first Gulf War, that there were over a million Christians in Iraq.  I was in high school at the time but it stayed with me.  While I was in law school, the U.S. was deporting Iraqis from Michigan because we didn’t accept their claims of persecution—this despite the U.S. invasion giving rise to the danger they faced.  A few years later at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, I watched a Chaldean priest come onto the compound to say mass for a handful of Americans and then leave through the gate.  I have no idea if he’s still alive.  That stuck with me.  Shortly thereafter, I began traveling the region, writing articles about U.S. foreign policy and human rights, and worked with others to launch an advocacy group, IDC.

I’ve been shocked to learn that so-called “conservative” foreign policy think tank types were fine with the eradication of Christianity in the Middle East so long as there was procedural democracy.  The hatred of ISIS for other religions has at least some kind of logic.  The hatred of elites for Christians—in the Middle East or here—was in many ways more demoralizing.

Almost 20 years ago, in New York City, I attended my first Maronite (Lebanese) Christian mass, and was unnerved to hear ancient prayers chanted in Aramaic, the language of Christ. It struck me that the ancestors of these people were worshiping Christ at the time my European ancestors were still praying to pagan gods. What do Western Christians owe to Christians living today in the lands that were among the first to receive the Gospel?

In general, we have very different understandings of God.  American Christians seem to worship Bourgeois Christ, the god who blesses the chosen with prosperity and comfort.  It’s easy for someone who thinks this way to conclude that those who suffer deserve it—which should be a revolting thought for a Christian.  This thinking is so deeply ingrained that I’ve even heard American Catholics express this idea.  There’s overlap, I suppose, with what you’ve called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Middle East Christianity is very different.  There’s a depth, courage, and authenticity to their faith that I can only admire.  They, like many Eastern Christians, have been the victims of often violent religious persecution for much of their history.  They’re very tough people—Maronites, Copts, Armenians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Assyrians—but they’re also committed to their homeland.  Theirs is the birthplace of Christianity.

Every so often someone will say, “The Christians should just leave,” as if they were living on a flood plain, rather than the victims of deliberate human action.  Never mind that this would be giving ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Wahhabi-Salafis precisely what they want, this isn’t what the Christians want.  Even if some leave, millions will stay.  It’s hard for us who are so transient, whose ancestors moved here and then moved all over a continent, to understand the rootedness of the people, the almost sacredness of the land.  This was the land where Christ lived and preached, where the apostles were martyred, where Christians survived in catacombs.  They’re not going to leave.  They shouldn’t have to.

Western Christians do owe a cultural debt to Middle East Christians.  By their very survival they provide a continuity with the early church.  They also preserved many works of antiquity that might’ve been lost had they not been translated from Greek into Arabic, and later transmitted to Europe during the High Middle Ages.  Few Americans, Christian or secular, would pause to contemplate such a debt.  That’s kind of the way it’s always gone.  Christians in the East have been fighting a rear-guard action for centuries.  Western Christians looked to the Atlantic and to the New World, to new frontiers—always looking West, never East.  Christians in the East also looked to West, but for help.  Rarely has it come.

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