By Martin Accad
Three weeks ago, on September 9-11, 2014, the well-publicized conference entitled ‘In Defense of Christians’ (IDC) was held in Washington, D.C. As Arab Christians, we are grateful for this gigantic effort. There are numerous positive aspects to this initiative. A large proportion of the speakers were actually senior leaders of the Christian communities of the Middle East. Many, both on the Board of Advisers and on the Executive Leadership of IDC are Arabs living both in the US and in the Arab World. Speakers for the most part did not take an ‘us-and-them’ approach vis-à-vis Muslims, as many of them are also active in interfaith dialogue work. The fact that, by all accounts, President Obama was thoroughly briefed on the contents of the speeches, and that many other significant US leaders were in attendance, was certainly an outstanding achievement as well.
But there are also some problems with the philosophical starting point of a conference like this one, and of many others, as well as of books and other media, that call for the ‘protection of Christian minorities,’ or that discuss the ‘future of Christianity in the Middle East,’ or ones that highlight the ‘demise of Christians in the Middle East,’ and so on. Here are a few problems that come to mind:
- First, such events risk representing Christians of the Middle East as some sort of intruders in the region. The Middle East was once the cradle of Christianity. Yet in several countries of the Arab world, there are so few visible marks of Christianity that many Muslims are not even aware that their lands were once populated with Christians. Any discourse that represents Christians as needing protection from the outside risks reinforcing the skewed notion that casts them as foreigners, as some sort of ‘franchise’ of western Christianity.
- Secondly, rarely does anyone stop to ask for a definition of the word ‘minority’ as used in this context. The assumption seems to be that ‘minority’ status has to do with number only. But then it would be better to specify that we are discussing the ‘numeric minority’ status of Christians in the Middle East. Philosophically speaking, I would argue that Christians of the Middle East belong to the ‘silent majority.’ It is this silent majority, made up of Christians and Muslims (Sunni and Shii), Druze, Jews, Yazidis, Ahmadis, Baha’is, agnostics, and others, that we are a part of. This silent majority continues to be bullied and persecuted by religious fanatics of all walks of life. It is true that groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Boko Haram have brought Sunni Islam in particular to the center of this minority/majority problem. But religious fanaticism is also at the heart of certain expressions of Zionism, just as it can also drive waves of hate speech towards Muslims among some Christians around the world.
- Thirdly, with such a philosophical starting point, we are only reinforcing the representation of Christians of the Middle East as weak and insignificant. But this is a false representation. It suffices to study the consistently high impact of the Christian communities of the Middle East throughout history to see that this representation is wrong. Think of the universities, schools and hospitals that have been established by Christians and continue to be the centers of learning, healing and progress under the able leadership of Middle East Christians, and you will realize that impact and influence has nothing to do with numbers.
- Fourth, such conferences as the one organized ‘In Defense of Christians’ could reinforce the ‘minority complex’ and ‘survival mentality’ of Middle East Christians. The problem is that this ‘complex’ and ‘mentality’ neutralize Middle East Christians’ resolve to be a part of the Middle East’s future. It is this feeling of being weak, of needing protection, of being persecuted (however true these may be), that drive us Middle East Christians to emigrate and barely to strive for ‘survival’ rather than thrive and continue to lead in the region.
- And finally, this ‘minority’ approach tends to pit Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others even more against each other. By continuing to insist that Christians are a ‘persecuted minority’ and by continuing to paint the ‘persecutor’ generally as being simply Muslim, both Christians and Muslims of the Middle East are becoming increasingly convinced that this is the true and only picture of reality. But Muslims have been persecuted by their own states and their security apparatuses, as well as by Muslim fanatical groups of differing doctrinal beliefs for centuries. How, then, does it help to reinforce the idea simply that ‘Muslims are persecuting Christians’? As balanced as the speeches of the Middle East Christian leaders were at the In Defense of Christians conference, the absence of Muslim leaders, both as speakers and as organizers and leaders of the IDC is conspicuous, and at some level it hurts the initiative’s credibility.
What is needed at this point in the Middle East’s tragic history is a summit which would aim to provoke a paradigm shift in the popular discourse. Such a gathering would take a title like: ‘Christians at the Heart of the Middle East’s Future,’ or ‘A Faith-Driven Majority against Minority Religious Bigots,’ or something in those lines.
- Such a summit should justifiably keep its focus on the Christians of the Middle East, since they are a major at-risk group at the moment, but it would invite speeches both from Christian, Muslim and other leaders.
- In addition to advocacy, this summit would call on ‘western powers’ to step down their militarization of conflicts in the Middle East. What is needed in these tragic days is not the arming of so-called ‘minority’ or ‘opposition’ groups. Haven’t most conflicts that we are living today been triggered by this strategy of arming a supposedly ‘aligned’ group against another supposed ‘rogue’ group? What is needed at this point more than ever is a demilitarization and de-escalation of the conflict. If western powers want to bomb anything, they should bomb arms depots on all sides of the conflict!
- Finally, this summit should call for a reassignment of these obscene militarization budgets to aggressive strategies of education, community development, state building, and the eradication of systemic corruption across the Middle East.
In conclusion, YES! As Christians of the Middle East, we are being persecuted. We are being driven out of our homes and many churches are being burnt down. We are being pushed to emigrate out of the region. We are becoming less and less hopeful about our children’s ability to live peacefully in this part of the world. But the enemy is not simply ‘Islam.’ Conferences, media, pressure groups, preachers, teachers and writers who keep reinforcing this simplistic message are not helping us. They are not defending us, protecting us, or ensuring the prevention of our demise.
This question requires a major paradigm shift in everyone’s thinking with regards to who belongs to the ‘majority’ and who belongs to the ‘minority.’ As Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other people of faith, those of us who simply want to be loving human beings and who desire to harness our love for the building of peace, we are the ‘majority’ and we need to become more vocal. But let’s be honest, it is easier to make great rhetorical speeches about love than to actually practice it, particularly towards those who do not share our political, economic and religious opinions, let alone those who physically harm us and are objectively our enemies. This is not going to happen simply by following a code of ethic, whether human or religious.
But in the person of Jesus we have far more than a moralizing teacher on love. I am not speaking about ‘Christianity’ here, but about the person of Jesus, who is shared by both Christians and Muslims, and some would argue also by Jews and other people of faith. Jesus manifested the height of God’s love for us while we were still God’s ‘enemies.’ As the apostle Paul puts it: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8 [NIV]). And rather importantly in my mind, the fact that Jesus was killed was hardly incidental. His willingness to lay down his life through death was flatly the culmination of his willingness to lay down his life through his life as well. He lived entirely for others, including for God’s enemies, and he died entirely for others as well, including God’s enemies, which includes us. As people of faith, if we want to get anywhere with our good intentions to love others, then certainly we have a great example to follow in the person of Jesus.
As Middle East Christians, we say to the world: This is a battle between people who love God and people who hate him! Stop arming anyone, whether those you consider your enemies or those you consider your friends! If you want to support us, then support us in our mission of educating, developing communities, building states of accountability and transparency, fighting systemic corruption, and building civil societies!