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Middle East Issues





The West Must Not Ignore the Plight of Christians in the Muslim World


Note: The following was published as a guest editorial by the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) on Sept. 27, 2013.
 
Let's face it. The plight of the Christians in the Middle East has not gotten the attention it deserves from political elites in Europe and North America. For example, more than 1 million Iraqi Christians (or Assyrians), whose families have been living in Iraq for centuries, have been forced to flee from their homeland in the face of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamists who have blown up churches, kidnapped and murdered clergy, fathers mothers and children (report).

This violence has not gone unnoticed, but for the most part, the people who wield political power in the West aren't talking about how to stop the violence against the Assyrian people or find a save haven for them.

You would think political leaders --- especially those in the U.S. --- would at least try to address the problem. The attacks against the Assyrian people have taken place under the noses of thousands of American troops who liberated Iraq from the grips of a cruel dictator and where U.S. influence should, at least in theory, be the strongest. A similar situation has played itself out in Egypt, a country that has received billions of dollars from American taxpayers since the late 1970s. At least 100,000 Copts have fled their homeland since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the violence against this community has only escalated with the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

It's not as if we in the West do not know about Islamist violence against Christians in Muslim-majority (and even in some Muslim-minority) countries throughout the world. Islamist attacks on Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Kenya and Pakistan have all made the headlines. The images of the violence have shown up in our Twitter feeds and in our newsfeeds on Facebook.

People lament, a bit inaccurately, that it's not getting any coverage --- it has. The problem is not that the violence is not being documented, but that it's not being portrayed as what Lebanese Christian Lee Habeeb accurately recently called an Islamist war on Christians. Habeeb nails it when he writes that media elites "refuse to frame the mass murder and mass persecution as what they are: a war."

As a result of this failure by journalistic elites, there is little policy-level discussion about what can actually be done to protect Christians and other minorities in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Nor is anyone asking what can be done to protect Christians in Nigeria, Uganda and Pakistan from violence perpetrated by against them by Islamists in their countries.

The coverage of individual attacks arouses a great deal of hand wringing, but very little talk of solutions -- even when they are offered. When Assyrian Christians in Iraq called for the creation of a special province where minorities could ban together in their homeland, it got hardly any traction in the West. People simply didn't talk about the Nineveh Plains proposal even though it was one of the few concrete responses to the potential destruction of Christianity in the region of its birth.

The reason elites have not responded in a concrete manner to the destruction of Christian communities in Iraq, Egypt and Syria is that they have not been forced to do so by public opinion in the countries they lead. There simply has not been a groundswell of outrage over the plight of Christians being murdered by Muslim radicals who are killing them in the name of a compassionate, merciful and loving God.

Some of the blame needs to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinian Christian community in the West Bank and East Jerusalem who have sucked all the oxygen out of the room when it comes to talking about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Over the past few decades, leaders such as Naim Ateek, Mitri Raheb, Munib Younan, the Awad family, Michel Sabbah, Bernard Sabella and more recently, Fouad Twal, the current Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, have, to varying degrees, promoted the notion that Israel and its supporters are the greatest source of suffering in the Middle East and that the Jewish state is to blame for the decline of Christianity faces in the region.

Where there is no vision, the people perish and this instance, it is not Christians in the West Bank who are perishing. When it comes to the Middle East, it's the Christians in everywhere but the West Bank who are perishing. Even the pro-Palestinian Diyar Institute admits the population of Christians in the West Bank has increased over the past fifty years. And still, Palestinian Christians have portrayed themselves as victims of ethnic cleansing in the minds of Christians in the West.

The successful campaign of misinformation perpetrated by Palestinian Christian leaders has left Westerners unable to perceive the anti-Christian hostility that has been just under the surface in Muslim-majority societies for centuries. Human rights and peace activists have had a tough time talking about the connection between Muslim doctrine and violence against non-Muslims, but when it comes to Zionism, the Jews and their state, they love to talk.

The blame also needs to be placed on Christian leaders and institutions in the West who have cooperated with the efforts of these Dhimmi Palestinian Christians to broadcast their message into the West.

The list is a long one and would include many of the current and former leaders of mainline Protestant churches in the United States, American mega-church leaders and institutions such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, some, but not all of the leaders in the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher and other Catholic charities. Another offender is Churches for Middle East Peace, which aside from a random Facebook posting has largely ignored suffering in the region that can't be blamed on Israel.

Sojourners, a magazine that caters to progressive Christians in the United States, has also participated in this campaign deception and in England, Embrace the Middle East, also has a lot to answer for.

Because of the failure of these and other institutions to address the problem of Islamist violence against Christians, the potential destruction of Christianity in the Middle East has become a "right-wing," "Zionist," or "neocon" concern. People who talk openly about these issues are portrayed as Islamophobes, as if people have no reason to be afraid of Islamic doctrines and rules that result in ethnic cleansing and Muslim supremacism when they are practiced.

Let's say it aloud: Christians in the Middle East are afraid of Islam. Their fear is rooted in experience and suffering, centuries of suffering.

And since their fear is reasonable, then so is the fear of the people who witness and empathize with the outrages they endure. To assert otherwise is to throw what gives humanity the smallest shot at progress -- our ability to learn from history -- into the trash, along with our moral imagination and empathy.

Until there is a groundswell of outrage over the suffering endured by Christians and others in Muslim-majority countries, elites in Europe and the United States will ignore the problem. Every once in a while they will offer up condign statements about the impending tragedy, but they will do nothing. They will not forcefully demand that leaders in Iraq and Egypt protect religious minorities and they will not punish these leaders if they fail to do so.

There was a time, when elites responded to human suffering. During the 19th century there was a hugely successful political movement -- Abolitionism -- that ultimately helped bring an end to legalized slavery in the West (but apparently, not everywhere).

In the U.S., Abolitionism got its moral force and fervor from personal slave narratives that provided a detailed description of what life was like for blacks living under slavery. One of most influential of these narratives was written by Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave from Maryland, who documented the hypocrisy of his former master who, despite being an avowed Methodist, treated him cruelly.

The story of the suffering Douglass endured as a slave and his flight to freedom became a central narrative in the anti-Slavery movement in the United States. After reading this text, and many others like it, including Uncle Tom's Cabin, a fictionalized account of slave life written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Americans knew in intimate detail just how evil slavery was as an institution. They understood it from the victim's point of view. It was no longer an abstract evil, but an intimate outrage. Politicians had to respond.

What does this have to do with Christians in Muslim-majority countries? Everything. Up until now, most of the information about the status of Christians in Muslim countries has been written in sociological and historical terms. Such writings give people the information they need to talk about the problem in abstract terms, but do little to move people to act. For that, we need to hear the modern-day equivalent of 19th century slave narratives -- Dhimmi narratives if you will.

To put it simply as possible is time for Christians who have endured life under Muslim oppression to start telling their stories, just as Frederick Douglass and others (such as Sojourner Truth) did in the 1800s. It is time for them to come forward, recount the suffering they have endured under the shadow of Dhimmitude and expose the physical, emotional and spiritual violence they have endured at the hands of their Islamist oppressors.

We need the Frederick Douglasses and Sojourner Truths of our age to step forward and tell of the suffering they have endured at the hand of Islamists loud and clear. Until there is a mass movement, rooted in the personal suffering of Christians living in Muslim countries, political elites in the West and in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia will do nothing but talk in worried tones about the problem of Christian persecution.

The Christian diaspora in North America and Europe has a story to tell.

We must hear it, for their sake, and ours.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for theCommittee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America(CAMERA).

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