How can we rescue Christians in the Middle East?

by Drew Christiansen

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The persecution and expulsion of Christians from northern Iraq by the Islamic State is the latest, most organized, highly destructive blow to hit the Christians of the Middle East in more than a century. It follows pressures by Saddam Hussein on Assyrian Christians to force them to Arabize and, later, after the disastrous American invasion of 2003, repeated attacks by Sunni militants to drive Christians from the Iraqi homeland.

Especially after the civil war in Syria, northern Iraq had been last refuge for Iraqi Christians, and now they are driven with unprecedented ferocity from that haven, as well. Not since the Nazis' war on the Jews has there been such complete depredation of a people. They walk into exile alongside other minorities with no vehicles, no baggage, no jewelry, no money, no papers. Those who remain will be slain unless they convert to Islam.

One of the most damaging effects of the George W. Bush administration and the American foreign policy establishment in Iraq was to prepare the way for the destruction of Middle Eastern Christianity. Now the Obama administration compounds the tragedy by providing little for the defense and succor of Christian refugees.

My confrere Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese has written of the policies that might be undertaken to provide protection and humanitarian aid to the Christians of Iraq and Syria. I would like to advocate another approach: a special synod for the Middle East that would draft a long-term collective plan of action for preservation of Middle Eastern Christianity in diaspora.

The 2012 synod on the Middle East dealt mainly with intra-church and long-standing ecumenical issues. Because of the volatility of the times, little was said about public policy, and no plan of collective action was undertaken. That traditional policy of discretion proved a failure. With so much now lost, it is a time to look to the construction of a future in which the rich diversity of Middle Eastern Christianity can be preserved.

Since the problem affects so many churches -- Catholic, Orthodox, Copt, Syrian, Armenian, etc. -- it would be wonderful for this to be a common effort. Though the odds are against it, Pope Francis might join Patriarch Bartholomew in convoking a comprehensive meeting. The convocation would not have to be a formal synod. It might take a different designation, like the First Congress of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of the Middle East in 1999.

The advantage of a broadly ecumenical meeting would be to include the diversity of Middle Eastern Christians, many of whom have no effective voice. The most feasible scenario, however, with the greatest prospect of success, would seem to be a synod of the Catholic churches with others as participant observers.

In addition, I would propose that governmental, international organizational and nongovernmental organization observers be invited. This would put the plight of Christians firmly on the agenda of the world community. Such secular observers would also provide expertise on possible remedies for humanitarian problems and provide input in the drafting of a plan of action.

The fate of Middle East Christians can no longer remain the province of protest and advocacy. The religious liberty lobby needs to organize in a more constructive, more consultative way to meet this "existential threat." Rescuing Middle Eastern Christianity has to have the same priority that the defense of Jews has had for the last 60 years. Indeed, it requires higher status now, because for Middle Eastern Christians, the hour of communal and cultural destruction is at hand.

The great unknown piece in an alternate Christian future is Christian-Muslim relations. The Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East and other official groups premised the continued Christian presence in the region on coexistence and conviviality in the Arab-Muslim world. Except for a couple of pockets like Jordan and Lebanon, that future no longer seems viable. Reimagining Christian-Muslim relations must be part of any collective reassessment of the future of Middle Eastern Christianity.

Response to the Islamic State's extremism and the future of Christian-Muslim relations should also be on the agenda of moderate Muslims, like the authors of the 2007 letter "A Common Word Between Us and You," who still believe in dialogue and a shared future with the Christian world.

A new initiative on the part of Muslim scholars, as difficult as it might be to organize under current circumstances, would be most welcome. Ideally, it would reject religious intolerance, affirm Muslim-Christian ties and the place of Christians in the Middle East, and uphold the common values that sustain conviviality between the faithful of the two traditions.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He served as an expert at the 1999 Congress of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of the Middle East.]

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