The Middle East is on fire, and the Sykes-Picot map demarcating boundary-lines of that region’s nation-states since 1920 is going up in smoke. An Islamic State caliphate now stands astride the former international frontier between Iraq and Syria and jihadis are drawing new borders in blood. Those starry-eyed effusions of democratic optimism unleashed by the Arab Spring have long since been supplanted by despair over the vicious sectarian war engulfing the Levant, Mesopotamia and the Maghreb.
And amidst all this violent chaos it’s the Middle East’s religious minority communities that have suffered most. Territories that have fallen under the sway of the Islamic State have witnessed a decapitation spree unmatched in sadistic ferocity since the days of Robespierre. Captured Christian and Yazidi men are ritually beheaded on-camera in obscene jihadi snuff films while captive women are cast into sexual slavery. This past February, Isis publicised a video featuring the choreographed decapitation of 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach. And when Palmyra fell last month, wholesale massacre ensued. Britain’s Daily Mail reported the bodies of over 400 civilians – mostly women and children – lay strewn around the streets. Now, Isis has captured Ramadi, a mere 110 kilometres from Baghdad.
The condition of Christian communities in the region is also looking grim even where Isis is not currently on the march. Since overthrowing a Muslim Brotherhood government two years ago, President Fatah al-Sisi has made a genuine effort to improve the status of Egypt’s Copts. But archaic patterns of socio-economic oppression at the hands of a traditionalist majority Muslim population have proved deeply entrenched.The most recent US State Department Human Rights report on Egypt relates ‘repeated instances of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians’, detailing how a primary school teacher was dragged into court and convicted for the crime of ‘insulting Islam when teaching History of Religion’. Farther north, Lebanon’s Maronites have been pushed into an uneasy embrace with Hezbollah on the ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ principle. Fearful they’re next on the target list of Isis, Maronite Christians have sought the dubious protection of Shia jihadis as a defence against Sunni jihadis.
It should thus come as no surprise that Christian communities throughout the Middle East are haemorrhaging in population. Almost 80 per cent of Iraqi Christians have fled that benighted country. And of Syria’s pre-civil war two million-strong Christian population, barely one-tenth remains. Last November a Greek Orthodox priest appeared in Geneva, not to hear confession, but to give it. Father Gabriel Naddaf – an Israeli Arab from Nazereth – appeared before the UN Human Rights Council to bear witness to the beleaguered status of his co-religionists: ‘Christians in the Middle East are marginalized’, he warned in Arabic, ‘their rights denied, their property stolen, their honour violated, their men killed, and their children displaced.’
But the Greek Orthodox cleric then went on to set a political cat amongst the pigeons, speaking truth-to-power within the confines of a body notorious for intemperate hostility towards Israel:
‘Mr President, we realize there’s only one safe place where Christians are not persecuted. One place where they are protected; enjoying freedom of worship and expression; living in peace and not subjected to killing and genocide. It is Israel, the country in which I live. The Jewish state is the only place where Christians of the Holy Land live in safety.’
Needless to say, Father Naddaf’s words failed to make much of an impression on a UN body populated by such paragons of virtue as Saudi Arabia and Marxist Cuba. His testimony also swam against the tide of a false religio-political narrative that casts Israel as the villain to be blamed for the decline of Middle Eastern Christianity.
The most active disseminators of this counter-factual inversion of reality are found within progressive churches of the ‘religious Left’. At the epicentre of this vilification campaign stands the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Jerusalem-based institution that serves as the primary wellspring from whence Christian anti-Israel venom is drawn. At the helm of Sabeel is a Palestinian Anglican priest, Naim Ateek, whose vitriol towards Israel is extreme. Ateek employs the trappings of Christian doctrine to adorn his absolutist Palestinian nationalism, dismissing any Jewish claim to national self-determination with a declaration that ‘Zionism is a false theology.’ He also casts blame for Palestinian terrorism not on the jihadi barbarians who carry out suicide bombings but on the innocent Jews who die from them.
Rather than employing a strategy of deflection to assail Israel, Ateek would be well advised to look at the state of Christianity a bit closer to home. Article 4 of the Palestinian Basic Law proclaims: ‘The principles of Islamic Sharia shall be a principal source of legislation’. And throughout the West Bank and Gaza this doctrine of Muslim supremacy is enforced through brutality and intimidation. The First Baptist Church of Bethlehem has been firebombed on fourteen occasions over the past decade. In Gaza, the Convent of the Sisters of the Rosary was looted by a Muslim mob and the leader of the local Baptist congregation kidnapped and shot.
Open Doors International has monitored anti-Christian persecution throughout the world since 1955. In its 2015 report, they note: ‘increased pressure on the Christian community in the Palestinian Territories, especially in Gaza, with the number of Christians diminishing and the influence of radical Islam growing.’
The numbers speak for themselves. While Christians throughout the Arab world vote with their feet to escape persecution and death, the Christian population of Israel has quintupled from 34,000 in 1949 to over 161,000 today.
The crude anti-Zionist mythology peddled by the religious Left should never obscure the reality that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christianity not only survives, but thrives.
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