Madeleine Davies

‘Why do you cringe?’ – challenges from the Christians of the Middle East

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2015 at 10:12 pm

Part of my job is to report on the lives of Christians abroad. I’ve interviewed a Pakistani husband battling to save his wife, sentenced to death for blasphemy. I’ve heard an Iranian mother explain to our own MPs how she lost access to her 2-year-old child after her conversion. It’s partly as a result of these encounters that I find any suggestion that Christians face persecution in Britain offensive.

Since I started work at the Church Times, three years ago, the message from one particular part of the world has been consistent. In the lands where the Christian faith has some of its deepest roots, where worshipping communities can be traced back to the first century AD, extinction is forecast.

In Iraq, where Christians numbered up to 1.4 million in 1987, just 400,000 remained in 2013. Since then, as Islamic State has gained territory, the exodus has continued. Mosul, a city which had up to 60,000 Christians ten years ago, is now empty of Christians.

Christians made up to 30 per cent of Syria’s population in the 1920s. Today they constitute just 8 per cent. Tens of thousands have fled the cities of Aleppo and Homs. In the latter the number has plummeted from 160,000 down to 1000.

Since the fall of President Mubarak in February 2011, 200,000 Christians have left Egypt, after a surge in attacks in which Christian women were abducted and raped. In the space of a few days in August 2013 dozens of churches were torched.

The situation is desperate.

This month I sat up in the press gallery as the Archbishop of Erbil, the Rt Revd Bashar Warda, begged for help.

“We are now facing the extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture from Mesopotamia,” he said. “It is difficult to have to plead or beg for the help of the Church, the EU, the United States, Canada, to act now in such a way that there is opportunity for a Christian nucleus to remain and thrive in Iraq.”

He was asking for prayers. And for humanitarian aid. But earlier that week he had made headlines by requesting explicitly military intervention, and specifically the deployment of Western ground troops.

“As a Catholic I find it hard to say, but I want military action, there is no other way now.”

My instinct is to add my voice to this call.

Both the Pope, and the Archbishop of Canterbury have invoked the doctrine of a Just War.

But at a conference on Christians in the Middle East in London yesterday, the diversity of opinion among those being discussed was made abundantly apparent.

Here are six points that I took away

  1. Christians want what is happening to be acknowledged

Whether or not they seek our military intervention, Christians want what is happening to them to be recognised.

Dr Mariz Tadros, an Egyptian academic, believes that people “cringe at the idea of talking about Christians of the Middle East facing an existential crisis”.

She is tired of reports that shy away from making explicit what she believes is incontrovertible: “We have to say that when they are targeted it is because they are Christians.”

Is this linked to guilt about the colonial era? she wonders.

Her point is not to suggest that Christians are the only victims of the onslaught of sectarian violence sweeping the Middle East, or to suggest that what is occurring is a war between Christians and Muslims, but to challenge those who deny the particularity of attacks on Christians, to expose the “negation of religious identity”.

It is so important that we hear this call not to avert our eyes. I was left with the impression that the media has an important role to play. Column inches are powerful, meeting a deep need for recognition.

During the conference, Dr Vrej Nersessian, an Armenian and former curator of Eastern Christian Collection at the British Collection, was visibly upset by talk of Christians as a “minority”.

“It was born in the Middle East,” he insisted. “It is equal to Judaism and Islam. . .  It is not a joy to leave their country and live in Helsinki – this is not our native place. It is foreign to us.”

This is not the first time I’ve heard a Christian from the region express frustration at a lack of historicity – a failure to acknowledge that Christians are not interlopers, but have existed in these lands for centuries.

  1. The loss of Christianity from the region will have far-reaching consequences

If Christianity is extinguished in these countries, the impact on civil society will be dire.

Bishop Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, pointed out that Christians have been neutral in their humanitarian work: “They serve Christians and Muslims alike, without propaganda”

He described how Muslims had pressed him for information about the fate of Christians in Aleppo and urged them to stay.

“I am convinced that the Christians in Arab Muslim contexts have a special vocation,” he said. “We call it the acceptance of difference. We were able to live for centuries and contribute to culture. . .

“We are trying to do our best to stay and give testimony and stay open to the Muslim people, especially in charitable activities.”

There were important reminders throughout the day that Muslims have risked their lives to protect Christians.

Interestingly, Dr Tadros described how, in the 1980s, in an area of Egypt with a high level of sectarian violence, her husband’s mother had been best friends with the mother of a local militant leader. This mother had told her son: “If you touch these people, I will go to the grave damning you and the day I gave birth to you.” He had gone on to play an important role in preventing his group from attacking her husband’s family.

Her reference to a “psychological barrier” raises interesting questions about whether relationships within communities can be leveraged to protect Christians. Having said this, Dr Tadros also suggested that this barrier was being overcome by militants travelling to other communities to carry out attacks. She also put forward a strong argument that local informants are assisting them, and are given an economic incentive to do so.

  1. Must Christians choose between autocrats and Islamist governments?

At the end of his talk, Bishop Audo spoke of “embracing” two decisions by the Assad government: the recognition, prior to the conflict, of the importance of the Aramaic dialect; and the announcement, last month, of the foundation of a Christian theology faculty at the University of Damascus.

Three years ago I would have been surprised to have heard a Syrian bishop praise the Assad regime. Even last year I remember feeling stunned sitting in St James’s Piccadilly listening to an eminent Syrian church leader describe the crisis in his country as the work of “murderous mercenaries” intent on destroying a peaceful nation on the road to reform. He went on to describe a functioning Syria that bore little relation to the descriptions I had read in press reports.

Since then I’ve come to understand why some Syrian Christians are nostalgic for the pre-crisis regime. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to reconcile the narrative painted by Syrian church leaders with that given not only by refugees who have fled the regime’s violence, but by independent human rights organisations, and journalists.

Must Christians choose between supporting autocratic regimes whose tight grip extends to those groups that threaten minorities, and new governments that might seek their extinction?

Dr Tadros gave a helpful overview of the role of Christians in the uprisings in Egypt. A “significant proportion” of those revolting in 2011 were Christians, she said. Among them were youths protesting against the bombing of a church, who went on to claim the revolution as theirs.

“The problem was not the revolts, but what came afterwards. . . the level of discrimination and intensity of assault on Christians has worsened.”

She is highly critical of the distinction drawn by the West between moderates and radicals. She would prefer the line to be drawn between “persons of Muslim faith and those who wish to establish a State premised on Islamic government”.

It has been “disastrous”, she argues to engage with moderates in the hope that they will be able to pacify radicals.

  1. In Iraq, the panic is palpable

For me, the most distressing testimony of the day came from Dr Suha Rassam, an Iraqi doctor who has written a history of Christianity in her country.

“It has reached the point of near-genocide,” she told us.

She described Christians fleeing Mosul in their thousands, escaping torture and murder, now to be found sleeping in church halls.

I put Archbishop Warda’s call for ground troops to her.

“For Christians time is running out,” she said. “The clock is ticking and unless we get action being taken, not many will be left. . . At his church he received suddenly 7000 families in a day and had to deal with them on the spot . . . He is on the frontline and he is seeing people leaving because he cannot do more

She went on: “When [Western] forces destroyed Saddam they did it in a week, so why is this…It is doing nothing and we have a very cruel regime. They are in not only Iraq and Syria but may be even in Europe.”

Skeptical about the prospect of peace talks, she argues that “there is no way we can dialogue with these people. How do we get rid of them? We need to act quickly otherwise all the Christians of Iraq will be lost. We are asking for immediate help whether political or military”.

  1. Questions are being asked about who is benefiting from the crisis

Dr Rassam would prefer a political solution to a military one, but her anger is directed at those fuelling the fire raging through her country. This was one point on which all three speakers agreed.

“Who is providing weapons?” she asked. “It is the responsibility of the international community to cut the blood supply to Daesh.”

For both Dr Rassam, and Bishop Audo, the trail leads back to Saudi Arabia.

“I have the impression that in the region fundamentalist groups want to put out all the Christians from the region,” he said. “We have to say from the countries like Saudi Arabia if they can get all the Christians out of the Middle East for them it is a historical victory.

“We have to ask ourselves, as Christians, who organised this war? This Arab Spring? For the service of which economic interests? Which security interests? And [we need to] find the right answer.”

6. Christians disagree on the question of asylum

The Archbishop of Canterbury is among those who have cautioned against citing asylum as the solution to the threat of extinction – warning of the dangers of emptying the region of Christians.

I was struck by Dr Tadros’s response to those church leaders in the region who want Christians to stay.

“I strongly disagree with the idea that if we let them go they will not come back,” she said. “It’s a very male-biased representation of what is going on. [We are hearing from] non-married religious leaders, not the mothers of young daughters at risk of being kidnapped, or of sons feeling almost suicidal.”

She describes the response of the UK asylum system to Christians seeking asylum as “atrocious” and “ridiculous”.

“There needs to be pressure on Western governments to say ‘Open your borders allow these people to come.’ They are dying of hunger and cold on the borders of Lebanon & Jordan.”

She went on: “We should not assume that people who leave their countries will lose their heritage. We should not assume that the minute you leave you have a collective amnesia.”

A lesson from history

Although he was scheduled to speak on the history, theology and ecclesiology of the Armenian Christian tradition, Dr Nersessian devoted most of his time to an account of the genocide that took place in 1915.  There was a terrible sense, in the room, of his pain, and of the continuity apparently at play.

Genocide, he pointed out, was not only a loss of blood, but of culture. As Dr Tadros put it: “the loss of heritage of the stories, the pictures, the songs, artefacts, icons and relics”.

He is watching as his language dies out among those of Armenian descent now living in the West. And all the while he fights for recognition that what happened in 1915 was a genocide.

“For me to live in the 20th century in a Western country and have people arguing of whether it was a genocide is naive and unnecessary because it hurts our memory,” he said. “Every nation in the world has a memory and to deny it was a genocide is to deny the young people of today a memory. You are telling them that it did not happen. . .

“I am a little pessimistic,” he apologised. “But it is difficult to bear the brunt of a million people massacred. We have been crippled for the last 100 years by thinking about genocide. How can we make the world acknowledge it?”

It is the same cry made by Christians in Iraq today – a plea for recognition; for an accurate description of the horrors befalling them to make it into our headlines, and stay there, defying those in power to ignore it.

Postscript: Somebody at the conference, I’m sorry I didn’t note their name, made the point that we can make a point of asking questions at May 2015 hustings about the protection of Christians in the Middle East. 

The Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, has led efforts by Bishops in the House of Lords to question the Government about the status of Christians in the Middle East. In answers, ministers have stressed the importance of a political settlement and said that the Government is “determined to support the moderate opposition, who are working for an inclusive political settlement, and are committed to protect all of Syria’s communities and resist, extremists and authoritarian regimes”. They have also emphasised the UK’s commitment to funding both humanitarian aid and the collection of documentary evidence of human rights abuses.


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