Defending Christians is about defending goodness and humanity, advocates say

Displaced Iraqi Christians who fled from Islamic State militants in Mosul pray at a school acting as a refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq, Sept. 6. (CNS/Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

Washington — What does it mean to defend Christians in the Middle East? What does it mean to maintain their presence in the Holy Land?

As many minority Christians in the region -- already buffeted by decades of social marginalization and political instability and experiencing a historic bottoming out of their ranks -- now face barbaric forms of persecution in places like Iraq and Syria, the questions have taken on a newfound significance. The issue has become all the more important here in America, where the effort to raise public awareness of their plight is still in its nascency (and susceptible to political opportunism), and the nation is, again, on the brink of war.

Interviews with experts -- and the words of Middle East Christians themselves -- suggest two answers. The first has to do with the legacy of Christians in the region.

"The center of the church in its formative years was in the area we now call the Middle East," said the Catholic Near East Welfare Association's Michael La Civita. He called the Christian presence in the Middle East "absolutely vital" to the development of both Eastern and Western civilization.

"So many of the great works of our classical Greco-Roman heritage would have been lost, but they were preserved by the Eastern churches, by the monasteries," La Civita said. "The monks were scholars, they preserved books, transcribed them into Copt, Syriac and Armenian," ancient languages still spoken by Middle East Christians today. "With the advent of Islam, the various Muslim courts appropriated the services of these Christians. They gave to the Muslim Arabs geometry and astronomy, and classical philosophy, all of which then the Muslim Arabs brought back to us, through Sicily and Spain."

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Asked what the loss of the Christian presence would mean to Christianity, La Civita said: "Culturally, liturgically, it would be a great loss to the church of Christ if its Eastern roots were severed. It would be a tremendous loss -- a tremendous loss."

When it comes to the Middle East today, he said, "Christians, because they are the bureaucrats, the technocrats, the best educated, are basically the canaries in the coal mine. When they start leaving, other moderates leave too. What we've been seeing in Israel and in the Arab world is the Middle East losing its moderates -- Jewish moderates, Christian moderates, Muslim moderates -- and what will be left behind, I fear."

For centuries, Christians have constituted a small but influential minority in the Middle East. But since the turn of the 20th century, they have been leaving their homelands in droves, often to pursue economic opportunity elsewhere in the world. According to the Pew Research Center, between 1900 and 2010, the share of Middle East Christians reduced from 10 percent to 5 percent of the overall population.

In recent years, sectarian violence and war have driven even more emigration. In Iraq, it is estimated that half of the remaining Christian population has fled since 2003, the start of the second Iraq War.

"Christians had good contact with the Saddam regime, so they were able to survive for a period, until things began to break lose after the invasion," said Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, an NCR contributor and professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. "Since the invasion, the majority have fled the country. It's not just the latest with ISIS."

Like others interviewed for this story, Christiansen called the situation facing Middle East Christians dire. But in discussing the effort to defend Christians, advocates say, the proper attitude should be one that looks beyond the Christian context. Defending Christians cannot only be about Christians, they say. It must be about promoting good -- the common good -- and defending all people, Christian and non-Christian alike.

This "universalist" sentiment -- the second meaning of defending Christians, as it were -- was on full display at a conference held by a nonprofit called In Defense of Christians (IDC) Sept. 9-11 in Washington, D.C.

The IDC conference brought together six Christian patriarchs from the Middle East and a number of Catholic leaders in an effort to raise public awareness in America about the plight of Middle East Christians. The message from the patriarchs, far from being anti-Muslim, extolled the virtues of democracy, social inclusion, pluralism, religious tolerance and brotherly love.

"We have to fight extremism together," said Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II. "Living together should be conceived by Muslims and Christians alike as a divine vision and plan."

"Pluralism must be promoted," said Catholicos Aram of Cilicia, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic church. "Religious, political, ethnic and cultural diversity must be respected, and equal obligations and rights of all people as co-citizens, irrespective of their religious, confessional and ethnic belonging, must be protected and constitutionally guaranteed."

The Catholic church takes a similarly inclusive stance, viewing the issue through the lens of "religious liberty," something the pope has called "a fundamental right of man."

Asked to explain the concept, Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, apostolic nuncio to Iraq, wrote in an email: "The position of the Holy See on religious liberty is expressed in the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae of the II Vatican Council, which states that '[Religious] freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.' Therefore, it is not correct to speak of a 'Christian religious liberty,' since it is relevant for all and all over the world, not only for Christians and not only in the Middle East. The religious liberty is one of the fundamental rights of each person and it should be safeguarded everywhere and by everyone."

At the IDC conference, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, put it bluntly: "In defense of Christians. Yes, dear friends. In defense of all Christians. In defense of Jews, in defense of Muslims, in defense of humanity."

Sandri's comment drew a strong round of applause. But the feelings of unity were soured just one day later, when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another keynote speaker, told the IDC crowd, including Christians from Palestine and Lebanon, "Christians have no greater ally than Israel."

The senator's comment so angered the audience and elicited such a strong refrain of boos that Cruz was eventually forced to walk off stage. "If you do not stand with Israel and the Jews," he said before exiting, "then I will not stand with you."

In the aftermath, many accused the 2016 presidential hopeful of taking a bull-in-a-china-shop approach to an exceedingly sensitive cultural and religious situation, and of hijacking the conference for his own political gain.

Cruz himself called the incident "a shameful display of bigotry and hatred," in a statement to Breitbart News. Elsewhere, the political right rushed to defend, nay, praise the tea party senator. "What a display of spine, poise, and grace," wrote Jay Nordlinger in the National Review.

The controversy showed just how susceptible the American movement to assist Middle East Christian minorities is to political interference, and confirmed suspicions that the inclusion of polarizing right-wing political figures like Cruz or John Ashcroft -- another keynote speaker at the conference -- would only serve to hobble the effort.

Before the IDC conference, Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby, an advisory board member to IDC, told NCR, "I'm wary of the role that people like Ted Cruz or Christian evangelicals from the right who get involved in this might play, because I fear that they almost want to reduce this to a tribal conflict."

Speaking again to NCR the day following the incident, Zogby lamented the effect of Cruz's participation. "There are pages and pages of articles on Google today about the conference," he said, "and there is only one that I saw that wasn't about Ted Cruz."

Zogby continued: "I'm still debating whether he was setting up a Sister Souljah moment for himself, or whether he was flummoxed by a reaction he didn't expect. Either way, ignorance or malevolent intent, the effect was the same. ... It was just an awful, awful display."

La Civita, of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, himself a panelist at the IDC event, pulled no punches. "Ted Cruz's only crusade," he said, "Ted Cruz's only interest, is Ted Cruz."

"Many of the people in that room were victims of persecution," La Civita said. "Many of them were victims of oppression. Most of those Christians in the room were from areas that remain technically at war with Israel, and to be told that the state of Israel is your best ally, well, that's a bitter pill to swallow.

"And potentially dangerous back home," he added.

But La Civita urged journalists and others to downplay the kind of "political stunt" he thinks Cruz pulled at IDC. The stakes are too high, he says, the meaning too significant.

"This is not just about religious freedom," he said. "This is about the restoration of pluralistic societies in the Middle East. This is about nation states enabling their citizens to prosper and thrive, based not on their religious identity, but on what they can provide to the building up of the community. This is much broader than just in defense of Christians."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

This story appeared in the Sept 26-Oct 9, 2014 print issue under the headline: Defending Christians, defending humanity .

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