#14 The Christians of the Middle East in Past and Current Crises

Syriac Christians in Tur Abdin (c)MvdB


The first impetus to organizing this meeting came when reading Keith David Watenpaugh’s book Bread from Stones while I and many others watched with horror and bewilderment the refugee crisis as it spiraled into chaos in 2015 (at least, as I don’t need to remind you, as far as the European public was concerned – before the summer of 2015 the crisis was perceived by many in Europe as taking place ‘somewhere else’) but in many places, including Lebanon, it already was making a decisive impact long before that.

The many parallels between the current crisis and its particular impact on minorities and that of the First World War struck me, as did the parallels between the all too meagre, uncoordinated and unsuccessful – though often very well-meant – efforts to address it. Organizing this on the eve of the worldwide Armenian genocide commemorations of April 24, is therefore particularly appropriate.

It was Geert van Dartel who suggested that it would perhaps be a good idea to combine ideas for a small conference with the Dutch campaign Hoop voor de kerk in Irak en Syrië in which churches and Christians organizations tried not only to ask attention for the effects of the crisis on the region’s Christians, but also tried to make clear that the despite what happened, the Christian history of the region is not necessarily coming to an end. The campaign’s main point, therefore, is to see what can be done to enable Christians to stay in the region. Sunday April 24, the Catholic Church in the Netherlands celebrates its ‘Sunday for the Eastern Churches’, in which the inter-Christian solidarity between Christians in East and West is a central theme.

However, it cannot be denied that these contributing elements (the meagre check record of Western intervention during and after World War I and the wish to support Christian presence in the Middle East) not necessarily sit easily together. Indeed, the history of the First World War shows is that humanitarian action and commitment, also over the borders or religion, language and region, are born in the crucible of horror and violence. At the same time, this history seems to suggest that also the well-meant interventions in the end did not necessarily do much good for those involved. Western intervention, whether motivated by explicitly Christian motives, by secular humanitarian motives or by geopolitical concerns, never is neutral and always will be perceived by those in the Middle East as taking sides for one group or another.

Before exploring this further, especially with regard to Christian advocacy, let me add a few notes on the position of the Middle Eastern Christians in the current crisis. First and foremost, they suffer together with all parts of the population, especially in the areas dominated by the Syrian regime and in areas that are in the frontline between the Syrian army and the varied oppositional movements, from bombardments on civilian targets, from food and power shortages and from violent threats from many sides. Christians suffer from the unsafe conditions in many parts of Iraq, even if Christians have largely moved away from the areas in which they were targeted most, like Baghdad. They also suffer in particular in areas dominated by IS or related groups, together with non-Muslim or heterodox Muslim communities, to such an extent that the attempts to expulse them violently from their homes in northeastern Syria and the Mosul-Nineveh area has been labeled genocide by the American Senate and British House of Parliament. In this, it was not merely violent expulsion and destruction of churches and homes, but especially the break of trust when the neighbors would support IS and turn against them, that affected them most.

Christians have suffered particularly from abductions, partly in an attempt to make easy money from vulnerable groups suspected of connections in high (and wealthy) places, partly to put further pressure on Christians and other minorities to make them leave the region. After much negotiation and considerable payments, practically all of those captured in the Jazeera-Khabur area in the spring of 2015, were released in recent months. Many others though, especially from the Qaryatain area near Homs, are still in captivity. Most prominently, we remember the two bishops from Aleppo, Mor Gregorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, who were taken capture exactly three years ago on April 22, 2013. There have been indications that they are still alive, and thus there is hope for their safe return, but nothing is certain. Other clergy were killed, like the Franciscan father Francois Murad, the Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt in Homs, and probably also F. Paolo Dall’ Oglio, with the explicit intent to send the message that Christians are not welcome in these neighborhoods or regions.

Christians are also among the many Syrians and Iraqis who fled their villages and cities to go to safer places in neighboring countries. Within Iraq, Christians fled to Erbil and Dohuk, where makeshift camps and private, often church, initiatives provide homes to many refugees. Others ended up in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – the last country in particular has received a large number of Christian refugees. Most of the Christian refugees preferred to use their own connections and funds, when available, and shun the large refugee camps in the region. Many attempted to acquire official visa for Western countries (often via family connections), However, they too made use of the smugglers to get out of the Middle East and find a way into Europe.

All of this has contributed to the general feeling of the impending end of Christianity in the Middle East. Since I transitioned to IVOC last year June, many people have been asking me what the point would be to focus on the Christians of the Middle East when soon there would be no one left.

Usually I would answer by summarizing what I referred to above: the vast majority of Christians that were forced to leave their homes over the last couple of years are still in the region. Despite the fact that the vast majority of them would like to leave for other places, many will be forced to build up a new life in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. However difficult that will be, considering the resilience, creativity and entrepreneurship that Christians have displayed over the previous centuries, it is likely that many will succeed. Others will, in the near of further away future, return to their villages and towns, and will start to rebuild what has been destroyed: homes, churches and communities. Unless the situation changes again very drastically in the coming years (the stability of Turkey, for instance, is a real concern), Christianity in the region is still there, and though severely weakened in some places, is yet fairly strong in others, and as such will not easily be completely removed.

At the same time, such an answer does not do justice to the extent of the crisis that has been enfolding itself over the last couple of years. I have no doubt that also when the war in Syria will come to an end sometime this year, if some fragile peace arrangement will hold, if Christians will decide to stay on rather than go through the endless procedures of trying to acquire visa for Western countries, also when all of that happens, then too the current crisis will have altered Christianity in the Middle East dramatically. Ancient Christian centers like Mosul and the Nineveh region will have lost most of its people and many of its churches and monasteries, the Khabur region which used to be center of Christianity will look very differently, in Syria and Iraq rural Christian communities perhaps will have disappeared completely, and a major Christian hub like Aleppo will have lost much of its vitality and socio-cultural and economic impact. Many Christians from the major urban areas of Syria and Iraq will have left the region, especially those who have most to lose, the ones who are younger, better educated and wealthier.

It would be shortsighted, however, to attribute this massive numerical and intellectual drain merely to the crisis as such. Though Syria’s and Iraq’s civil wars have provided a major impetus to flight and migration, and especially IS and other Islamist groups have done extensive damage to life, livelihood and mutual trust, the root causes of the fragility of Christian presence in the region go back much further, indeed, at least to the First World War when Armenian, Greek and Syriac/Assyro-Chaldean Christianity were the first victims of the nationalisms of the new century.

The political answers to the crisis of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire included the institution of the Arab states, along boundaries which thought they in some places had precursors in older regional boundaries within the Ottoman Empire, had rather different effects on the life of the population when they became boundaries between neighboring states with potentially conflicting national ideologies. This was even more the case when groups like the Kurds, living in areas where the boundaries always had been permeable, were divided over different nation states while seeing their own stately ambitions thwarted.

For the Christians, these new states and the accompanying boundaries first of all meant the end of ambitions of autonomy, especially for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. This in turn led to their minoritization in areas where they ended up as refugees in the post-war context: not merely being a numerical minority, but also a minority that politically was excluded from the main tenets of the state, even if they were allowed to contribute culturally and socially.
For Christians who felt part of the new Arab identity, and who, indeed contributed much to create that feeling of common Arab nationhood, at first the new Arab states seemed conducive to their further integration into and participation in the state. This was true not only for large parts of the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities, but also for the Chaldeans in Iraq, and, to some extent, for the Jewish community of Baghdad. (On this topic, see our forthcoming volume Modernity, Minority, and the Public Sphere: Jews and Christians in the Middle East)

At the same time, however, such participation also during the high tide of Arab nationalism always remained insecure: it was based more on the ideal of Arab unity than on a widely shared feeling of common Arab identity. As became clear over the twentieth century, Arab unity was predicated as much on Islam as on a shared non-religious, Arab identity. Jews and Christians, whether participating for pragmatic or ideological reasons, in fact were considered fully part of it only by a few. And thus, especially in the last quarter of the twentieth century, a steady trickle of Christian migration started to take place, with peaks whenever there was violence and civil strife, also when not directly aimed at Christians. In addition to demographic factors (Christian families had considerably lower numbers of children than Muslim families), this made for the relative decline of Christians in the twentieth century from about 20% of the population before World War I, to less than 5% before the current crisis. The current crisis, therefore, did not drastically change the picture: it increased the basic insecurity that Christians have felt for most of last century, bringing into broad daylight the consequences of the failure to develop truly inclusive societies built on something other than either language or religion. While IS, therefore, has played a large role in putting fear in the hearts of the Christians, the current crisis exposes the underlying dynamics of exclusion that will not easily be mended, even if the war in the region would come to an end soon.

This brings us back to the question that I started with, what this all might mean for those who would like to support the Christian presence in the region and who would like to contribute to just and equal societies where minorities of all kinds not merely have a place to live, but may create and sustain a way of life contributing to their own communities as much as to society as a whole.

As I indicated above, there are no easy answers to this question. Western military intervention clearly has its limits and so far has mostly failed to contribute to stability and minority survival. Active support of minority rights in negotiations might help, but at the same time may backlash to Christians and others when Western military, economic and political pressures upon the region diminish. Inter-Christian aid helps Christian survival in difficult times, but at the same time has facilitated and even encouraged migration to the West.

In conclusion for now, and as a start for the discussion later on, I would say that one of the most important contributions that NGO’s, whether Christian or not, could make, is that in addition to whatever specific aim one project or another has, building trust over the boundaries of groups should be a priority. Helping to build relationships between various Christian groups (that often have a lot of issues among themselves), helping to build relationships between minority groups (like has taken place to some extent between Yezidis and Christians), and between minority and majority groups. If any was broken over the last century, it was trust – if anything needs to be mended, it is just that. Clearly, to start building and rebuilding trust, much more is needed than merely forging new relationships. Doing justice and punishing those who committed crimes (of humanity), is just as important.

It also includes accepting the reality that for many Middle Eastern Christians, the future is outside the Middle East. Supporting these communities, helping them to overcome the traumatic experiences of displacement and persecution, helping to settle and integrate in new societies while simultaneously recreating viable and creative communities of Middle Eastern Christianity, is just as important. Rebuilding trust is as much part of it as it is in the Middle East. Not only because Muslim-Christian relations are under pressure in Europe as much as in the Middle East, but also because mutual trust is needed to be able to participate fully in the new societies.

What the future holds is impossible to predict. In some places in the Middle East, new centers will emerge, new life and new initiatives will flourish and bloom. In Europe and elsewhere, a transnational Christianity of Middle Eastern origins will find creative ways to shape their communities and pass on their traditions. Considering the Christian resilience over the last century, that might very well be the case. But as I wrote elsewhere (“The Unexpected Popularity of the Study of Middle Eastern Christianity”), in response to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, it is ‘faith in fragility’ that is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Christians of the Middle East, as much true there as it is in other parts of the world.

Introductory notes, Nijmegen, Friday 22/4/16, Heleen Murre-van den Berg, director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies


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