Monday, September 25, 2006

By Drew Christiansen, S. J.
America Magazine
September 2006 Issue
I have been anguishing over the fate of the Middle East Christians. Only three months ago we published a dire survey by Michael Hirst of problems facing Christians across the Middle East and South Asia (Am, 6/19-26). Last week two news items deepened my fears. The first reported that since the U. S. invasion in 2003 half of Iraq's 1.2 million Christians had emigrated. "What we are hearing now," lamented Bishop Andreos Abouna of Baghdad, "is the alarm bell for Christianity in Iraq" (Am 8/28-9/4).

The second story concerned a just-completed World Council of Churches mission to Lebanon and Israel. According to the Jerusalem Post (8/17), Jean-Arnold de Clermont, a Reformed pastor and president of the Conference of European Churches, returning from the WCC solidarity mission, declared, "We came back from Lebanon sharing the impression that this destruction was planned." The Reverend Clermont went on to explain, "Israel would not want the existence of a democratic Lebanon where Jews, Christians and Muslims were peacefully living side by side, because it does not want to see its neighbor state succeeding . . ."

Diplomatic Deafness

I don't agree with Clermont's reading of Israeli motives, but the effect of the Israel's damaging assault on Lebanon has certainly been to put stress on that country's unique experiment in interreligious "conviviality," the co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Druze. Israeli policymakers are notoriously unsentimental. While Labor and its allies possessed sensitivity to more cosmopolitan values, the heirs of Vladimir Jabotinsky in the Likud and Kadima-led governments look only at short-term political and strategic gains. Religion does not interest them.

Insensitivity to the place of religion in world affairs, however, is not restricted to Israeli public officials. It is shared by American diplomats, especially when it comes to Lebanon. Until the Cedar Revolution last year, U. S. foreign service personnel and intelligence officers could be positively allergic to any mention of Lebanon. They acquiesced for decades in a situation where Syria and Israel each could have its way with the country, with Syria occupying Lebanon and Israel bombing its neighbor at will.

Behind U. S. diplomatic indifference lay some bitter memories: the bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. embassy in Beirut (1983), and the kidnaping and killing of CIA bureau chief William Buckley (1984). Moreover, with Lebanon religiously divided and all the parties seeking their own advantage, distrust was an all too natural response. Finally, as in the Balkans, the growing power of Islamic militants and the belligerency of some of their Christian antagonists fed the attitude that religion be damned, all that really matters is strategic interests. Add to this the bellicose ideology of neocon political appointees, and it is no surprise that the U. S. was blind to the effects of its policies in Iraq on the Christian population or of Israel's war on Lebanon on that country's unique religious experiment in religiously pluralistic democracy.

A Sanctuary of Interreligious Harmony

The tragedy is that since the end of its civil war (1974-1989), Lebanon had been making progress. Last year an alliance of Christians, Sunni and Druze with the help of the international community had forced Syria to withdraw its troops from the country and arranged for all the militias but Hezbollah to disarm. The re-development of the country begun by the assassinated ex-premier Rafik Hariri had continued apace. The government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had created real hope that Lebanon might still be a sanctuary of interreligious harmony in an ever more radicalized Middle East. Then came the Hezbollah-Israeli war.

Hezbollah, which once aimed at making Lebanon an Islamic state, is riding high, and
Lebanon's model of interreligious cooperation is once more in question. As a result of Hezbollah's growing standing in the Arab street, militant Islam possesses a strength it has not known since the end of the Lebanese civil war 15 years ago. If one outcome of Hezbollah's "victory" turns out to be a Shia-Sunni rapprochement, then Lebanon's Christians will find themselves marginalized once again. At the very least, the cost of rebuilding and uncertainty about what the future holds may bring on new waves of emigration, accelerating the depletion of the Christian population.

It is the eleventh hour for the ancient churches of the Middle East, Threatened both by militant Islam and the great-power games in the region. Can anything be done to save them?

A Six Point Plan

First, we must remember Middle Eastern Christians are a resilient people who have endured the coming and going of empires for two millennia. Given a chance, they will rebound. That is especially true of Lebanon's Maronites who have survived 1200 years of threats and oppression.

In a very real sense, the survival of Christianity, especially the oriental Catholic
churches, depends on what happens in Lebanon. It is the home to a number of eastern
patriarchates and to the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East. The Lebanese, and especially the Maronites, exhibited the vitality of their church in 1999 when they hosted the first Congress of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of the East, drawing together hundreds of bishops from seven rites around the region and from the diaspora. The meeting, hosted by the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Pierre Cardinal Sfeir, would not have succeeded without the energy, organization, material resources and intellectual drive of the Lebanese church.

Cardinal Sfeir was also the leading critic of Syrian domination of Lebanon and the
country's most outspoken advocate for full Lebanese independence. Even before the Cedar Revolution, his prophetic witness made possible the Christian, Sunni, Druze alliance. Recovery may demand patient effort over many years, but Lebanon's Christians should not be counted out.Second, the most important thing outsiders can help provide, especially for Lebanon and Palestine, is peace. No partial settlement will do. It is time to return to the kind of comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Arabs attempted at Madrid in 1991 and endorsed by the foreign ministers meeting in London last month. When I consulted experts on reconciliation and religion and diplomacy, one thing on which they all could agree is
that peace-in Lebanon, in Israel and Palestine-is the sine qua non of any program to save
Christianity in the Middle East. There is also a growing consensus among international
affairs specialists within and outside the region, and even in Israel, that this is the
time for a comprehensive, regional settlement between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.
In the other major conflict in Iraq, however, I fear finding a path to peace will prove
even more difficult. There other ways must be found.

Third, in Iraq, as difficult as it may seem, efforts at sectarian reconciliation among
Muslim (Sunni and Shia) leaders should be tried. Arab and Muslim foundations should
encourage reconciliation processes with the help of experienced civil society groups,
like Religions for Peace, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, the U. S.
Institute for Peace, and the Center for Strategic Studies. Catholic peacemaking groups
like Focolari, the Community of Sant'Egidio, Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for
International Peace Studies and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network could also support
this effort. At first leaders may have to come together outside the country, but then
meetings might be convened in more secure areas of Iraq, and in time at the grassroots.
Military and police work alone will not pacify Iraq. Deeper groundwork must be laid for

Fourth, together the churches must enter into dialogue with both Muslim and Jewish
leaders and with the region's political establishment about common concerns as well as
the impact of particular policies and trends on Middle East Christians. Pope John Paul II
had significant success in persuading Muslims that the invasion of Iraq was not a western
Crusade against Islam. Events have overtaken the good feelings he created. Time has come
for a new initiative.

During the fighting in Lebanon Pope Benedict showed real leadership in combining
religious and diplomatic initiatives. He has demonstrated the clarity of mind and
firmness of purpose required to undertake a new venture in dialogue, but it ought to be
done in collaboration with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, and
the heads of the autocephalous oriental churches. (Incidentally, the Vatican also needs
to overcome the anti-Islamic spin being given modest corrections in its Islamic policy by
George Weigel, Michele Pera, John Allen and others.)

Fifth, U. S. church groups, like the USCCB, the National Council of Churches, and
Churches for Middle East Peace, in a campaign of public education, should push for
Congressional hearings and provide briefings for public officials on the impact of the
war on terror and U. S. Middle East policy on the ancient churches of the East. In
addition, the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has attended to
the issue of the condition of Christians in the Islamic world but some years ago, at the
instigation of then-chairman Elliott Abrams, buried a previously approved report on
Israel, ought to examine the multiple factors leading to the decline of Christians in the
region: Miltant Islam, of course, but the war on terror, U. S. Mideast policy and
Israel's treatment of Christians as well.

Finally, the Holy See, the USCCB and others already engaged in the education of U. S.
diplomats under the U. S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)ought to engage the
State Department in as many fora as possible on the unanticipated consequences of U. S.
policy and of diplomatic antipathy to religion on the Christians of the Middle East.
These sessions should include explorations of steps that can be taken to correct the
current adverse state of affairs.

How Shrewd the Children of Light?

"The children of this world," says Luke's gospel, "are more astute in dealing with their
own kind than the children of light." So it has been in the Middle East these last years,
where the violent once more have their way. Warning against passivity and complacency on
the part of Christians in the waning days of the Second World War, Reinhold Niebuhr urged
believers to take up the tools of politics, though without the malice of the children of
darkness. The hour is late to preserve Christianity in the lands that were once its
cradle. Every tool of engagement, dialogue and persuasion is needed in its defense. These
recommendations may seem unrealistic or untimely, but look where realism and conventional
thinking have taken the world. What is clear is that nothing short of an all out campaign
by the Christian world to protect the Christians of the Orient has a chance of saving
them. And with such an effort, perhaps a smoother path may be paved for Muslims and Jews,
as well as Christians, on the way to peace.

The impetus for these proposals came from the widespread insensitivity to the Christian
stake in today's Middle East and the utter lack of ideas I found among experts on
peacemaking for addressing the problem. If you agree with these points, please pass them
along to your political leaders, experts in international affairs and NGO leaders . If
you have proposals of your own, please share them with us at
We'll publish a selection of the best of them in a future issue.

Drew Christiansen, S. J. is editor in chief of America. His earlier thoughts on the
impact of the war on terror on Middle Eastern Christians appeared in the March 5, 2005
edition of La Civilta Catolica, the bi-monthly Italian Jesuit journal. His two-part
survey of the situation of Middle Eastern Christians appeared in the March 4 and March
11, 2005 issues of the National Catholic Reporter.


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