A few years ago I was in the West Bank with a Christian missionary who worked among Jews and Muslims. The Jewish converts came to his home for Sunday services that were held in both English and Hebrew. But to gather with Arab converts he had to meet them secretly on the outskirts of their town lest his mere presence put their lives in jeopardy.
“My brother became a Christian at the same time as I did,” one Palestinian told me. “But neither of us knew of the other’s conversion for many years. It would have been too dangerous, until the missionary was certain of our conviction.”
We were sitting in a clearing in the brush that was one of the converts’ meeting places. I imagined that Jesus and his disciples must have prayed in places like this, maybe even here. An Israeli Defense Forces patrol passing on the nearby road stopped to see what was going on. The missionary explained to the officer in charge, who nodded and went on his way.
“My brother and I converted because we knew we needed love in our lives,” the Palestinian continued. “I think that Jesus is going to bless the Palestinian people by spreading his gospel of love here.”
Perhaps someday, but for now the Christians of the Middle East are facing danger. Both recent converts and ancient congregations—the Assyrians in Iraq, the Copts in Egypt, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics, and more, long antedating Islam—are under fire. The land where Christianity began is being cleansed of Jesus’ followers. It is possible that we will soon see an event without precedent: the end of a living Christian witness in this region after more than 2,000 years.
So why now? And how did Christians manage to thrive here in the past?
“We survived, but not the way we wanted to,” says Habib Efram, president of the Syriac League of Lebanon, which represents some 60,000 Syriac Christians. Efram often visits the much larger Syriac Christian community in Iraq, which is under siege. “Some were forced to leave the country, and there have been massacres,” Efram tells me on the phone from Beirut.
“The Christians have always been under attack,” explains Lebanese political analyst Elie Fawaz. “Our numbers used to be much higher throughout the Middle East. We were here centuries before the Muslims, so there used to be many more Christians, until the raids and conversions to Islam.”
In Mt. Lebanon, the country’s Christian heartland, there’s a valley called Wadi Qadisha where the Maronites held off the Mamluk sultans in the 13th century. It was partly geography that ensured the survival of Lebanon’s Christian community. The Mediterranean coast provided access to European powers—the Vatican and France—that have long seen themselves as the protectors of Lebanon’s Christians; and the high mountain passes afforded a vantage point that turned hostile incursions into suicide missions as the Christians picked off intruders one by one. It is no coincidence that Hezbollah has bought and expropriated property in Lebanon’s mountains. There the party can survey not only its Israeli enemy, but its local Christian foes as well, whom Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies have targeted in a series of assassinations over the last six years.
“The Maronites are politicized,” says Fawaz. “You cannot compare them to Iraqi Christians.” That is, Lebanon’s Christians are under attack from rivals who wish to take their power, while Iraq’s and Egypt’s besieged Christian sects are powerless to defend themselves against superior numbers, and no one is willing or able to protect them.
Even rhetorical defenses of the Christians are cautious. Pope Benedict, like popes before him, chooses his words carefully when addressing the situation of Middle Eastern Christians, lest they be made to pay for perceived slights. Arab nationalists and Sunni Islamists assume that any discussion of regional minorities—whether Christians, Jews, or even Shia—by outsiders is coded language for a project to colonize the Middle East on behalf of the great powers. To be sure, the French did come to the aid of the Maronites in Lebanon in 1860 to end the war between them, the Druze, and their Ottoman overlords. And after the First World War, France held the mandate for Lebanon and rewarded what was then a Christian majority with a constitution that gave most of the power to the Maronites.
Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990 was largely a product of shifting demographics and a changing political culture. While the Christian community fought to preserve the state’s territorial integrity and avoid war with Israel, the country’s increasingly numerous Sunnis wanted to attach themselves to the great Arab cause—Palestine—and open the border with Israel to the Palestinian resistance. After the war, the Taif Agreement of 1989 gave more political say to the Sunnis and Shia. It made official what everyone knew: Lebanon’s Christians had lost.
“We don’t want foreign support,” says Habib Efram, by which he means a Western military adventure on behalf of the Christians. “We don’t want the West thinking of Christians as puppets of the West, using us for their agenda. We are from the Middle East and belong here.”
What they want, he says, is something like a Marshall Plan for Middle East Christians—“Some money to build schools and other programs.” “The United States,” he continues, “can also ensure that Christian minorities are fairly represented in their parliaments. The Copts make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and yet there are only 2 or 3 elected Coptic representatives and another few named by the government. The Copts should have at least 40 seats out of the 500-seat parliament. In Iraq, even with only 3 percent of the population the Christians should have 14members of parliament.” Instead, they have only 2.
It is a fantasy of U.S. omnipotence familiar in the region. It would take U.S. troops, of course, to ensure the safety of U.S.-backed programs; nor could a more robust representation of Christians in weak Arab assemblies—even if the United States had a way of bringing it about—prevent the murder of Christians by mobs or terrorists. Efram’s hazy plan seems the wishful thinking of a minority under fire with nowhere to turn.
Efram attributes the rise in anti-Christian violence to the virulent strain of radical Islam that began with the Muslim Brotherhood and now comes in both Sunni and Shia variants. Arab security services fight Islamist groups when it suits regime interests—and it is dangerous for regimes to be perceived as siding with Christians against the Muslim majority. Thus,every day brings a fresh outrage against Egypt’s Copts, while the Cairo government’s notoriously active, and vicious, security services sit idly by. In Iraq, some Christians even long for the reign of Saddam Hussein and his Christian deputy, Tariq Aziz, who protected them.
That notion of “protection” has a particular history. Since the Arab conquests beginning in the mid-seventh century, Christians and Jews under Muslim rule were recognized as “people of the book.” In theory, they were protected minorities, or dhimmi. But they could not enjoy equality with the Muslim, typically Sunni, majority, and the lot of dhimmis varied with the disposition of the rulers. That Saddam, for instance, “protected” Christians to some degree did not ensure that his sons would have done the same.
And as for the glory days of Middle Eastern coexistence that supposedly preceded the rise of the present extremists, the Ottomans’ slaughter of the Armenians and other Christians belies it. As long as believers are without legal rights guaranteed by governments willing and able to enforce them, the Christian presence in the region will be in peril.