Christians in the Middle East

(Otober 22, 2002)


Despite the disaster of the Crusades, Christians living in the Middle East have generally managed to live or at least coexist in peace with their Muslim neighbors.  Perhaps this is because they had no other viable choice.  But on the other hand, Islam itself taught that other "People of the Book" (that is, Jews and Christians) were to be treated with respect ‑‑ as long as they were willing to go along with the political dominance of Islam.  In fact, many Christians faithfully served Muslim rulers down through the ages.  A major part of the official bureaucracy of the Turkish Ottoman empire was staffed by Greek Christians.  Much of the civil service of the Egyptian government is still made up of native Egyptian (Coptic) Christians who probably constitute at least 10% of the Egyptian population and who have historically belonged to the wealthier and better educated class. Christians still form a visible minority in Syria, so much that the state of Lebanon was carved out of Syria to be a haven for them.  Even Iraq has nearly a million Christians, one of them (Terak Aziz ‑‑ you figure this out) serving as Saddam Hussein's foreign minister.

But Middle‑Eastern Christians have also been persecuted, sometimes unmercifully, when the West tried to interfere with the political or religious ‑‑ and often they are one and the same ‑‑ order in the Middle East.  The Crusades and the Muslim reaction to them were only the beginning.  The deportation, mass starvation, and outright slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenian Christians by Turkish Muslims in 1915 and shortly thereafter is even now still denied by the Turkish government, as Turkey now declares itself a secular state.

Meanwhile, any public display of Christianity is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, a country whose ruling class has made Wahabism ‑‑ the fanatical fundamentalist brand of Islam favored by El Qaida and Osama bin Ladin ‑‑ the state religion. And in Pakistan, another haven of Islamic fundamentalism, Christian churches and charitable institutions are being increasingly targeted and Christians (both Pakistani and foreign) are being killed.  Nor has this anti‑Christian violence been confined to the Middle East.  The same has been true in the Far East, particularly in Indonesia where Christians have been persecuted for years and still are, and again, in Africa (especially Algeria) where the Christian institutions and personnel left behind by the French are considered fair game by Muslim extremists.                

I recount all this history, ancient and modern, as a warning.  The US seems perilously set on blundering into a situation which it barely understands.  And the consequences will probably prove disastrous for us. Are we (who are only about 1/20th of the world's population) prepared to invade not just Afghanistan and Iraq) but the whole Muslim world (about 1/5th. of humanity) to impose our will?  Are we prepared to stay there and protect the millions of Christians who will otherwise surely suffer as a result?  If the fate of Palestinian Christians (most of whom have had to leave their country as a result of US‑backed Israeli policies) or the plight of the Christian population of East Timor, who suffered for years while the US backed and supplied arms to their Indonesian oppressors, are any indication, we can conclude that we Americans are about to get our feet stuck in tar pit, one from which it will be almost impossible to extract ourselves without leaving behind a large pool of Christian (as well as Muslim) blood.