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Thrown to the Lions

“Throughout the home are understated pieces of Christian iconography: a small portrait of Christ, a Virgin Mary figurine in the kitchen and a wallet-sized photo of an Eastern Orthodox priest attached to a mirror in the bedroom.”

The words are Jonathan Finer’s, writing on the front page of the Washington Post, and the description is of a residence in Baghdad that once belonged to the deposed Iraqi regime’s most famous Christian, deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz. That Aziz, a member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, was a Christian, and apparently a serious one, gives some suggestion of the place Christianity had in pre-liberation Iraq. But something else that Finer reports may give an even better picture: sitting on a desk in one of Hussein’s palaces, in what was evidently a child’s room, was an Advent calendar. Far from being persecuted, Christianity in Hussein’s Iraq was a visible presence even within the dictator’s own household.

Iraq’s Christians have been less than visible to the American public. Indeed, Christian minorities everywhere in the Middle East have received little attention from the public and the press, while U.S. policymakers have acted with indifference to fate of the region’s Christians. Israel, confronted with suicide bombers and hostile nations near and far, has garnered considerable sympathy and support from Americans, and from evangelical Christians most of all. But the Middle East’s own Christians, faced with similarly grave dangers, have attracted little concern. What is more, the Christians of the area have no Israel, no nation, of their own: they are minorities in every country in which they live. Their plight deserves our attention, especially when the United States’s own actions risk making the region an even more dangerous place to practice Christianity.

Where Christian persecution in the Middle East is concerned, it is not clear that the United States is on the side of the angels. Under Saddam Hussein, Christians in Iraq were free to practice their faith. Now that the U.S. has deposed him, Christians face the threat of an Islamic revolution that will reduce them to the level of their co-religionists in Iran. But even Iran, charter member of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” seems positively liberal compared to U.S.-ally Saudi Arabia. And while the U.S. is in bed with Saudi Arabia, the most religiously tolerant Arab state in the region, Syria, is a potential target for “regime change.”

There have been Christians in these lands from the faith’s earliest days. These are some of the oldest churches in the world. It was in Antioch—Antakya in modern Turkey—that, according to the New Testament, the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Today there are 10-12 million Christians in the Middle East; Muslims outnumber them by more than 10-to-1. Christian denominations include Eastern Catholic Churches—like Chaldeans in Iraq and Maronites in Lebanon—that resemble Eastern Orthodox Churches but are in communion with Rome; several Eastern Orthodox Churches proper, with sees at Istanbul, Jerusalem, and elsewhere; and many Protestant denominations as well, in addition to a few very old schismatic denominations that can only be classified by themselves. The rites of several of these churches are still conducted in Syriac, a language closely related to the Aramaic that Christ spoke.

In most of the nations of the Middle East these Christians live in a state of “dhimmitude,” as recognized religious minorities under Islamic law. The Koran designates Christians, and also Jews and Zoroastrians, as “Peoples of the Book,” who have received partial revelations; as such, Muslims are not supposed to convert them forcibly or otherwise overtly mistreat them, although “Peoples of the Book” are not accorded the same status and rights as Muslims. In those states where Islam is the official religion, proselytizing by other religions is usually forbidden, and a Muslim who converts may find himself ostracized, jailed, or—in Iran and Saudi Arabia—even executed.

Nothing resembling Western-style religious liberty exists in the region, even in those states where Islam is not the official religion. Lebanon, for example, whose general population is 30 percent Christian and whose Muslim population is divided among several denominations, reflects its divisions with a constitution that specifies that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi’ite Muslim. Conversion from one faith to another is legal in Lebanon, but religion is still very much a political issue. Identification cards specify the holder’s religion.

Ironically, the U.S. has found itself at odds with the two most religiously neutral governments in the Middle East, the rival Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Syrian constitution specifies that the president must be a Muslim, but otherwise establishes wide-ranging freedom of religion. There is no state religion, proselytizing is legal, and Assad generally leaves the country’s 1.7 million Christians (10 percent of the population) alone. Religious institutions must, however, register with the government.

Saddam’s Iraq, with between 500,000 and one million Christians out of a total population of 23 million, was broadly similar to Assad’s Syria, except that Islam was the official state religion and proselytizing was prohibited. In that sense Iraq’s Christians were under more restrictions than their neighbors in Syria, but in other ways Hussein posed as a patron of Christianity. He ruthlessly suppressed any outbreaks of Islamist violence against Christians, and he provided inexpensive materials to Christians for building churches. He was also known to give money, as illustrated by a story reported by the Associated Press in March, that Saddam Hussein had the key to the city of Detroit, a gift from the city after Hussein donated $250,000 to an expatriate Iraqi church in Michigan in 1979.

Not that all of Hussein’s actions toward Christian communities were well intended. Toward the end of his regime, Iraqi Christians came to fear that they were seen as a “Western” influence within the country and, by extension, as an enemy of Hussein. In February 2002, Hussein put all priests and church property under the jurisdiction of his Ministry of Islamic Property, a move that outraged the expatriate Chaldean Catholic community. But an April article in the Christian Science Monitor quoted Iraq’s Armenian Archbishop Avak Asadourian, interviewed after the fall of Baghdad, as saying that Christians “enjoyed total religious freedom and there was no religious discrimination.”

Since Hussein was overthrown, instances of discrimination and violence against Christians have proliferated. On May 10, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported the murder in Basra of two Chaldean Catholics who had been involved in selling liquor, an entirely legal and legitimate business under Saddam Hussein but one that would be illegal under Islamic law. A week later, the Seattle Times carried a story about an Iraqi Christian who had been evicted from his home because his Muslim landlord no longer felt obliged to rent to Christians. The story quoted the man’s wife as saying, “I think we were better off under Saddam.” In the lawlessness that has ensued since the collapse of Hussein’s government, many Christians have fled Shi’ite-majority areas of the country, such as Basra, for cities like Mosul with larger Christian populations.

In the short term, an Islamic revolution would make matters worse for Christians in Iraq than for those in neighboring Iran; in the long term, it might result in conditions nearly identical to those in the Islamic Republic. Iran is one of the most religiously repressive countries in the region. Islamic law, Sharia, is strictly enforced. Muslims who convert to Christianity may be put to death, and suspected apostates have faced everything from employment discrimination to detainment and torture. Even in Iran, however, the Christian minority—less than 1 percent in a country that is 99 percent Muslim—has certain rights. There are reserved seats in Iranian parliament for Christians and other “Peoples of the Book,” and although they are not allowed to run, they can vote in the country’s presidential election. In theory, Christians and other religious minorities can have their own private schools, although in practice the government imposes several bureaucratic hurdles. The printing of Christian literature is outlawed, and Christian testimony in court counts for only a fraction of the worth of a Muslim’s testimony. Some Christian denominations, particularly evangelicals suspected of proselytizing, are subject to considerable police harassment.

Christian life in Iran is severely circumscribed, but Christianity is at least legal and accepted. Such is not the case in Saudi Arabia. As in Iran, in Saudi Arabia apostasy is punishable by death, although it not always is. Also as in Iran, printing Christian literature is prohibited. But unlike in Iran, Christians in Saudi Arabia are effectively barred from practicing their religion at all. Public forms of worship that are not Islamic are illegal in Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, Christians are allowed to observe their religion in the privacy of their own homes, but in practice even this right is often violated by the kingdom’s religious police, the Mutawwa’in. Christians meeting in private for prayer groups or Bible study have been subject to arrest by the Mutawwa’in. Some who have been arrested have been beaten, tortured, and deported from the country.

Officially, Saudi Arabia has no Christians. All citizens of the kingdom must be Muslims. But of the 17 million people who live in Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2002 International Religious Freedom Report, some seven million are foreigners, and many of them are Christians. The same report cites the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as estimating that there are between 500,000 and a million Catholics in the country. There are large Ethiopian and Filipino communities of immigrant workers. These are some of the people who fall afoul of the Mutawwa’in. International Christian Concern, an organization that monitors Christian persecution around the world, has reported, for example, that in 2002 five Ethiopian Christians were tortured in two separate incidents in the Breman Deportation Center, before ultimately being sent back to Ethiopia.

The State Department’s 2002 International Religious Freedom Report details several similar episodes, including the arrest in April 2002 of 26 Christians after Mutawwa’in raids on two private residences. But don’t think that just because the U.S. State Department publishes a report that mentions such abuses that that means they are taken into account in making U.S. policy. Despite the recommendations of its own Commission on International Religious Freedom, the State Department refused to add Saudi Arabia to the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for violations of basic religious liberty. Both Iran and Iraq made the list in 2002, but Saudi Arabia did not.

There are several readily recognizable factors contributing to Saudi Arabia’s exceptional religious intolerance. It is, after all, the Muslim homeland and holy land, and the Wahhabi ideology endorsed by the House of Saud is quite radical. Yet the House of Saud has little room to maneuver for fear of upsetting even more radical elements, including the followers of Osama bin Laden, who find the royal family to be insufficiently devout—for allowing U.S. troops on holy soil, among other things. This situation minimizes the prospects of Saudi Arabia liberalizing any time in the near future. For the United States to make the kingdom the latest addition to the “Axis of Evil” would surely only do harm, further inflaming radical Islamic sentiment in the country. But the Bush administration’s refusal even to list Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Particular Concern” speaks volumes about the place that the plight of the Middle East’s Christians occupies in the hierarchy of the administration’s regional priorities.

On the bright side, Saudi Arabia is not the norm for Arab states. Others may put limits on the freedom of Christians to meet, publish literature, or proselytize, but none of the kingdom’s neighbors is anywhere near as repressive. Jordan’s Christians, roughly 6 percent of the population, have prospered and are disproportionately well represented in education, government, and the media. Proselytizing is forbidden, but Muslim apostates face only informal penalties. Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates all discourage proselytizing and put some restrictions on Christians, regulating such things as where public services can be held and whether or not literature can be sold or distributed, but otherwise Christians are unmolested.

Qatar is more restrictive and, like Saudi Arabia, prohibits non-Muslims from holding public worship, but unlike Saudi Arabia, Qatar does not persecute Christians for meeting and holding services in private. Bahrain, on the other hand, is one of the more liberal Arab states—proselytizing is discouraged, but bookstores are free to sell Christian literature, and the country’s small Christian community is subject to little interference.

But legal restrictions on religious practices tell only part of the story. A country like Egypt illustrates many of the other forms that religious discrimination and outright oppression of Christians can take. Islam is the official religion of Egypt, and the country is under Sharia—but a form of Sharia that places few legal burdens on Christians and other “Peoples of the Book.” The Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice, and even proselytizing is legal. On paper, Egypt may seem to be relatively hospitable to Christians.

In practice, however, the Egyptian government constrains the rights of the Coptic Christian minority (between 6 percent and 14 percent of the population) in various ways. Building permits needed for the construction or repair of churches are often held up. In the meantime, it is common for a mosque to be built near the site of the proposed church—and Egyptian law prohibits the building of a church within 100 feet of a mosque. Christians are also systematically underrepresented in the government and the media, and Christian voters have been harassed at the polls.

The most serious violation of the rights of Christians in Egypt is the tendency of police and other authorities to look the other way when Muslim gangs—or even outright terrorists—kidnap, rape, or murder Christians. In particular, Christian girls have been abducted, raped, and “married” to their Muslim captors. Although Egypt has laws that prohibit minors from getting married without their parents’ permission, the parents of Christian girls forcibly married to Muslim men have found it very difficult to obtain justice from the authorities.

U.S. ally Turkey is in several respects quite similar to Egypt. Although not known for the sort of violent attacks against Christians found in Egypt, in Turkey, as in Egypt, Christians often find themselves refused building permits and in Turkey, too, zoning laws and other ordinances have been used to inconvenience Christians. What’s more, as a Jan. 10 article in Christianity Today reported, “[A]uthorities forbid Christians on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria, Iraq, and Iran to teach [Syriac-Aramaic]—nor can their schoolchildren learn any subject in it. Christians in Syria, by contrast, legally teach and worship in that language.”

Over 99 percent of the Turkish population is Muslim; there are estimated to be fewer than 75,000 Christians in the entire country. Its constitution is secular and guarantees freedom of religion, yet Christians are still subject to abuses. Turkey, which is applying for membership in the European Union, might otherwise seem like a model for other states in the region, a successful “Westernization” of a majority-Muslim state. That even Turkey should discriminate against what few Christians it has serves as a rebuke to those in the West, and in the Bush administration in particular, who dream of building Western-style liberal democracies in the region.

One might expect the most Western-like state of all in the Middle East, Israel, to be markedly different from its predominantly Muslim neighbors. And indeed it is—but there are a few similarities, too. Christian proselytizing is legal in Israel, in contrast to the Islamic world, but there have been moves to change this. Ultra-orthodox parties in the Knesset have several times introduced legislation to restrict missionary activity. In 1998 one such bill even had the sponsorship of a Labour M.P., but the measure was soundly defeated, as have been subsequent anti-missionary proposals. The most recent was a 2001 bill that would have set a three-month prison sentence for anyone sending unsolicited mail, faxes, or e-mail for the purposes of proselytizing.

Attempts to pass anti-missionary laws have failed, but Israeli officials have found other ways to dampen Christian activity. Often this bureaucratic harassment takes the form of officials refusing to grant or renew visas for clergy or seminary students to enter the country. For example, the Catholic news agency Zenit reported on March 24 that Israel was withholding visas from 86 priests and other religious personnel, ostensibly on security grounds. (70 of those awaiting their visas were from predominantly Arab countries.) The Israeli government has also refused to recognize the election of the Irineos I as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, on suspicion that Irineos harbors sympathies for the Palestinian Authority. The withholding of recognition has meant, among other things, that Irineos has been unable to obtains visas for guests he wishes to invite to the Holy Land.

This amounts to little more than a nuisance for Israel’s Christians; such things are small compared with the abuses of Christians that occur in even most moderate Arab countries. When political and economic freedoms are taken into account, Israel certainly does live up to its reputation as the most Western nation in the region. Even so, religion is not a matter of political indifference in Israel and in Israel too, where religion comes into play in politics, formally or informally, Christians lose out.

The history and demographic make-up of the Middle East both argue against the prospects of religiously neutral liberal democracies taking root there any time soon. U.S. attempts at nation building put the area’s Christians at grave risk, as we are seeing now in Iraq. So what can the U.S. do?

We can begin, like the Hippocratic Oath, with the injunction to “first do no harm.” Christians have survived in the Middle East for nearly 2,000 years. In most places they have reached an uneasy but stable living arrangement with their Muslim countrymen. As bad as things are for these Christians, they could be much worse. Aggressive U.S. intervention in the area has little hope of bringing an unknown religious tolerance to the region, but it can certainly inflame Islamic radicalism. Polarizing the region between Crusaders on the one hand and Jihadists on the other will mean disaster for the Christians of the Middle East. It does not matter to the likes of Osama bin Laden that Christians are as much natives of the Middle East as Muslims are and indeed have a longer tradition. Christians will still be seen as Westerners and enemies.

The U.S. may have other concerns in the Middle East beyond just the fate of its Christian minorities, but at the very least American policymakers should think carefully before acting in a way likely to cause more suffering. Certainly Western-style democracy for the people of the Middle East should not come at the expense of the lives of the region’s Christians. 

Daniel McCarthy is a writer for LewRockwell.com. 

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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