Wars, extremism fray Christian-Muslim relations in Middle East

A Christian banner is seen on a street in the Nabaa-Bourj Hammoud neighborhood of Beirut. Lebanon's capital has a significant Christian population. (NCR photos/Chris Herlinger)
A Christian banner is seen on a street in the Nabaa-Bourj Hammoud neighborhood of Beirut. Lebanon's capital has a significant Christian population. (NCR photos/Chris Herlinger)

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Fr. Youssef Yaacoub dates his troubles from June 9, 2014.

That was the day the Islamic State group reached southeast Mosul, Iraq, shooting guns in the air and announcing, from a loudspeaker at a mosque, "We are here."

"We are creating a caliphate. We will rule by Sharia law," said a booming voice. "Those who don't abide by the law will be killed." That included Christians who refuse to convert to Islam.

Yaacoub and other Christians -- including three monks and two laypeople -- stayed put at the Mar Behnam convent. An initial encounter with Islamic State commanders was slightly reassuring: "Nothing will happen to you," the five men were told.

But the reassurances soon evaporated. The Islamic State group was seizing not only all buildings and property, but farms -- tons of wheat and oats that could be used for food and for monetary leverage.

Eventually, Islamic State troops took everything from the convent and made a pointed threat to Yaacoub and the others: "You don't have a right to be here."

After a period of stalemate, and things "tightening more and more" -- like a noose around the neck, Yaacoub said -- gunmen arrived at the convent on July 20, 2014, again shooting in the air. Yaacoub opened the door. A gunman peered at him and said, "You have to leave now. This building is now in the possession of the Islamic State."

Death threats ensued, followed by caveats. If the Christians paid money, or if they converted to Islam, they would not be harmed.

Over the next few hours, the threats eased a bit. No one knew exactly why. "We're letting you live," said the leader of the group. "We're being nice to you."

But the Christians would have to leave immediately. Now meant now. The men had barely any time to gather their things. They were dropped off along a highway and told, "Don't ever come back." They were stranded, Yaacoub said, with "nothing around us." They walked several miles in the midday sun in 116-degree heat.

Eventually, they came upon a Kurdish area; one of the men rustled up a white underwear shirt as a flag signaling they came in peace.

But the troubles did not end there. A Kurdish soldier greeted the men and said, "Whoever is coming from this area is ISIS."

Yaacoub told the soldier, "But I am a priest."

A phone call to Yaacoub's bishop eventually convinced the soldier that the men were not Islamic State members.

A meeting days later with the local bishop cleared matters up further. The bishop told Yaacoub, "Go, my son, to your home."

He did. But then the Islamic State militants threatened that area -- Karakosh -- and Yaacoub had to flee again.

Finding safety

Yaacoub arrived in Beirut in June 2015 a tired and weary man of 43.

He felt an "unseen hand" pushing him forward into eventual safety. "I felt this power when I was released and simply walked," Yaacoub said -- an experience that strengthened his faith, though he says his faith could have been shattered at any moment under the stress of threats and possible death.

What the experience has not done, however, is made him feel generous toward Islam and those who practice it. He feels neither trust nor comity nor bonds of brotherhood and goodwill toward Muslim neighbors and acquaintances.

It is not a feeling Yaacoub is necessarily proud of -- he says if he were not a priest, "I'd not be able to forgive them." Here, he is speaking not only of his own experiences but of killings and massacres he knows have resulted in death for both Christians and Muslims in Iraq.

Being a priest and having "the mission of evangelization," he said, "I have learned from Jesus to forgive because Jesus died for us." Yaacoub paused. "It is not easy to forgive, even if you're a priest. You're human. But you have to forgive them."

Still, he acknowledges that trusting Muslims is now difficult -- and he thinks he is not alone. For Christians -- many of whom have left Iraq and Syria under threat or lived through the experience of religious persecution -- it means feeling they can no longer trust Muslim neighbors, friends and acquaintances.

"Muslims trust Christians but Muslims know that the Christians don't trust them," Yaacoub said.

When you multiply experiences like Yaacoub's by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, it does not take long to figure out that relations between Christians and Muslims in places where refugees of both faiths have landed -- in countries like Lebanon and Jordan -- are frayed.

Experiences and perceptions, prejudices and grievances all enter into the mix, and Christians feel especially aggrieved right now.

To Yaacoub, there is something troubling within the Islamic tradition that has allowed this to happen, and his belief is shared by many Christians who have had similar experiences. He muses that perhaps the only hope is for Christians to leave the Middle East.

The numbers are not encouraging: The Economist magazine reported that over a century's time, the proportion of Christians in the Middle Eastern population decreased from 14 percent in 1910 to just 4 percent today.

Even grimmer are the specific statistics of countries disrupted by war: Iraq's Christian population is now only a third of what it was a decade ago, CNN reported. There are only about 500,000 Christians in Iraq now, down from 1.5 million a decade ago. And in Syria, a onetime Christian population of 1.1 million is now about 500,000 -- 600,000 either "fled or died," CNN reported.

"As Christians, I don't think we have confidence in this region," Yaacoub said. There is probably no future for the Christians here, he said. "It's why I feel like a stranger."

Marlene Constantin, a project manager at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association/Pontifical Mission, hopes that is not the case. She still has faith that Christianity will endure in the Middle East, and that the religion's 2,000 years in the region will prove durable. "Yes," she said, "I do have faith about that."

The hope that Christianity will remain durable here is partly due to Christians feeling the region needs them. Sana Samiah, a humanitarian worker for the Greek Catholic church in the city of Zahle, Lebanon, said Christians -- many of whom are middle-class professionals -- are a bridge between Arabic and Western culture. Also contributing to that bridge are Catholic educational institutions, many run by women religious.

"Without support, the Christians will leave and that will be a loss for the whole region," she said, arguing that religiously moderate Muslims want the Christians to stay. "They know the value of the Christians staying in the region."

Feeling unwelcome

Still, feeling like a stranger is a common experience these days in the Middle East. In the midst of millions of refugees trying to create new lives and identities in new countries, religious affiliation has come to mean much more than it did in the past.

To hear people of both faiths tell it, religion was once rarely on people's minds -- religious identity among minority Christians and majority Muslims was a secondary issue.

Whether that was true can be debated. But a decade of wars in Iraq and Syria that have pushed millions into neighboring countries means that who you are religiously is now a primary form of identity and meaning.

It is another outcome of the legacy of war.

"War has changed the mentality of everyone," said Sleiman El Khoury a Syrian humanitarian worker who now works in Beirut for Jesuit Refugee Service. In the context of the Syrian crisis, that means "if you're a Christian you are perceived as pro-al-Assad [Syrian President Bashar Assad]. If you're a Muslim, you're perceived as a terrorist."

His Jesuit Refugee Service colleague, Sharleen Issa, who like El Khoury is Christian, has a similar view. "The war reminded you of your religion," she said. "Before [the start of the war in] 2012, people didn't pay much attention to religion in Syria."

Walking together on Beirut's busy streets one afternoon, El Khoury interjected: "The root of the problem is politics."

Issa agreed. "The war made these things appear. Earlier, it was considered impolite to even ask about religion."

No longer. The grievances about religion are now out in the open -- though many refugees, sensitive to the need to be careful about what they say publicly, given their legal status, are sometimes reluctant to be quoted by name on the topic.

This is certainly the case among Christians; among Muslims, it is common to hear people say that people of the two faiths are cordial to each other.

"I have different friends -- Kurdish, Christian. All are one," said Syrian refugee Hanan Hretan, a Muslim.

One Christian refugee from Syria, who did not want to be identified publicly on the issue of religion, said members of her family witnessed a Muslim militiaman rape a Christian girl during the military takeover of a predominantly Christian area. That experience proved searing, the refugee said, and she will not allow her daughter to interact with Muslim men.

Iraqi refugee Sanaa Abdallah Yaacoub, whose family fled Iraq after an Islamic State takeover, said that among Christians, there is an overall wariness and even fear of Muslims right now. But she added that the Islamic State group is, of course, an extremist faction. "Muslims can be peaceful," she said. "Not all are ISIS, there are those who pray to God and are peaceful."

Others are more adamant on that point. "ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. It's taking the name of Islam," said Sr. Judith Haroun, general superior of the Antonine Sisters, a Lebanese Maronite Catholic congregation. "This is fanaticism; it's not Islam. We've lived with Muslims for years."

Still, mistrust hangs in the air, even for Lebanese who are welcoming refugees. "We sympathize with them," said Sabah Rizk, who like Yaacoub is a patient at a medical clinic in Beirut run by a consortium of Catholic sisters. The influx of refugees "is putting pressure on us all."

The new religious dynamics -- Rizk is Christian -- add to the problems, she said. "It's not fear exactly, but mistrust, yes."

Of course, not only Christians feel aggrieved. In Beirut, a city with a large Christian population, things are not always easy for Muslim women wearing the hijab. Appearing in public -- on the streets to shop, say -- can sometimes mean dealing with taunts and slurs. One refugee from Syria, who did not want to be identified publicly, has heard the whispers and taunts of "Daesh," an Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State, more than once on the street, she said.

It does not make her feel welcome or comfortable in Beirut.

Wary of the future

Nayla Tabbara, director of the Beirut-based Adyan Institute, said that perceptions of "victimhood" are common in both Sunni and Shiite traditions now, but can be found among those of many religious traditions. Adyan, an interreligious studies institute, promotes dialogue and receives financial support from Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic groups.

Breaking cycles of distrust are not easy. But Tabbara cautioned that religious traditions also have within them the potential to promote building and healing, and not sow defeat, anger or retribution.

"I remember a letter from an Iraqi who had been displaced, and commenting on how easy it is to fall into fear and victimhood," Tabbara said. "But this Iraqi realized that the Gospels call on us to build. Forgiveness and reconciliation are on the path. Ultimately, it is to think about life, not death, to build and not destroy."

Certainly, she said, in war and conflict, "people go into their own shell and become very sectarian." That is understandable. Tabbara, who is Muslim, said it is not her role or the role of other Muslims to tell Christians who have experienced hardship at the hand of Muslims that they need to forgive Muslims.

"It's our place, first, to talk to our own," she said. "When people have suffered, it is not our place to tell them that they should forgive others."

Finding common humanity across religious lines is needed, she said, but people do not have to put aside their religious identities. What is needed, she said, are affirmations of religious identity that are life-giving, generous to all and respectful of other traditions.

The responsibility of those working for peace is "to provide the tools to change the religious discourse. We need to reform the discourse."

Kamal Abdelnour, a project manager with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association/Pontifical Mission, understands the current discourse and the heated nature of the moment right now. But he notes that, in terms of numbers, the Islamic State group is harming more Muslims than Christians.

He takes a long view: Extremist groups eventually die out, and this period of tension "will pass."

Islam, Abdelnour says, "is not a bad religion. It's a good religion. We Christians have lived with Muslims for 1,400 years without problems. Eventually, things will change for the best."

Still, he acknowledges the grave difficulties now. "It will end at some point," Abdelnour said of current tension between those of different faiths and the extremism that has fueled it. "But at what price? How many cities will be destroyed? How many lives will be lost?"

Fr. Youssef Yaacoub does not disagree with any of this. But he remains wary about the future -- at least the immediate future. Asked if there is any hope for reconciliation between peoples of the two faiths, he remains neutral.

"All I will say," he said, "is that it's a very difficult situation right now."

[Chris Herlinger is an international correspondent for Global Sisters Report.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 20-June 2, 2016 print issue under the headline: Two religions in tension.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters