Matt Anderson spoke about the situation of Middle Eastern Christians during our annual conference. He frames the discussion by reviewing and critiquing a recent book by theologian Mitri Raheb, The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire.
Matthew Anderson: I thought Mark had actually put me atthe end of the conference after you know the crowd had mainly thinned out soI could do the least damagebut I’m glad to see so many of you are still here, andI’m very grateful to Mark, to theInstitute on Religion & Democracy andProvidence Magazine for hosting thisconference and for giving me theopportunity to speak on such animportant subject, the subject ofChristian persecution in the Middle East. Before we move into the substance ofmy remarks, I would like to frame thingsI’m going to say by describing a tensionthat I’ve run into while teaching inuniversity classrooms mainly around thecity.Whenever we’re talking about somethingthat touches on important or sensitiveaspects of human experience andcertainly religious persecution is oneof thosemy sense is that we often find ourselves in a kind of tension. And that tension is between intellectual impulses on the one hand and in activist impulses on the other.
The intellectual impulse constantly reminds us that reality is complex and that we need to seek greater understanding of whatever the question at hand is if we’re going to treat it responsibly. The activist impulse reminds us that there’s an inescapable urgency to human life and that many cases we have to act even while acknowledging the limits of our information. I try to encourage students to be aware of both of these impulses and to respect them both, and as much as possible to try to bring them into a healthy sort of symbiotic relationship. And in ways I think this tension is reflected in modern conversations about Christian persecution. There are a number of organizations and individuals in the United States which seem more inclined toward the activist impulse, they want to generate cultural, political, and financial momentum for helping persecuted Christians around the world. Likewise, there are organizations and individuals that prioritize understanding the sometimes-complicated realities that underlie and often surround Christian persecution. Thankfully, I think many modern organizations are increasingly realizing the importance of both sides of this question and are working to bring together activism with serious scholarship, which is how I think it should be done.
I mention this because first I think it’s true, and I think it’s helpful to identify these sometimes-competing impulses and begin the process of negotiating with them. But this framework also helps to explain the focus of my talk today which I hope will be a modest contribution to our intellectual understanding of the experience of Christians living in the Middle East. I could have gone in a lot of different directions in the few minutes that we have, one common way of looking at some of these questions is to sort of go through country-by-country surveys to highlight certain incidents that have been particularly egregious, I think all that’s valuable, I’m taking a different road however for this for the few minutes we have. And I hope you’ll find it meaningful. What I want to do is work kind of and engage a recent book that was written on this subject recently the reverend Mitri Raheb an influential Palestinian theologian has published a book on precisely these questions the book is entitled the Politics of Persecution, Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire and was published a few months ago by Baylor University Press.
Mitri is a prolific and sometimes provocative scholar who is published widely on the Christian experience of Palestine and the Middle East. More generally a Lutheran, he is the president of Dar al-Kalima University in Bethlehem in the West Bank. He also served as an editor for the recently published Rowman & Littlefield Handbook on Christianity in the Middle East, which is already becoming an important academic resource, and if you’re looking for a real sort of jump into a lot of the questions that we touch on, that’s a really important resource that’s just been published. I saw on amazon it’s only 165 dollars so thankfully for some reason Georgetown had you know library a sort of electronic access to it. So, I was saved from having to make that decision. But what I want to do for a few minutes is to discuss Dr Raheb’s new book and though my discussion will not be comprehensive, I do want to take you through at least some of his important arguments and toward the end of my comments I’ll broaden out the conversation hopefully cast a bit of a wider vision on these questions.
Despite being less than 200 pages the book’s scope is ambitious as it attempts to present a narrative of Christian experience in the Middle East from the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 which of course represents the beginning of the European colonial period in the region, all the way to the Arab Spring. Throughout the book Mitri works to undermine some common narratives about the region for example that Christian persecution is mainly about a kind of eternal and inevitable hostility between a Muslim majority and a Christian minority. He argues rather that the challenges Middle Eastern Christians face relate more to geopolitical developments or are in many respects the same challenges that many others face in the region.
Toward the beginning of the book Raheb begins with a kind of historical case study in Lebanon in 1860 around 10,000 Maronite Christians were killed by members of the Druze community. The Druze community is a syncretistic religious minority in the region with some influences from Shia Islam. According to Raheb, American and European diplomats mainly described it as a massacre of quote poor Christians by quote Muslim fanatics. A closer look at the situation however reveals much more complexity among other factors the Maronites and the Druze had landed on different sides of the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the opposing Egyptian forces under the leadership of Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha. During the same period the British, the French, the Ottomans and the Egyptians were all claiming to represent certain religious and ethnic groups in Lebanon. A reality which increased sectary intentions Raheb notes that a Protestant Christian from Lebanon, Bustros Al Bustani, even represented the tragic events of 1860 in his writings as a civil war rather than a one-sided massacre of Christians by Muslims. For Raheb the case study is a useful case study on the role of foreign intervention and escalating sectarian tensions and the sometimes dramatically different ways that the same event can be interpreted.
Throughout the book Raheb highlights successive geopolitical developments which in various ways impacted the place of Christians in the Middle East and I’ll just run through some of his primary arguments about these developments here some of these are fairly detailed and presume a kind of grasp of modern Middle Eastern history. But I’m hopeful you can follow and at least get some of the basic ideas, and I should be clear that I’m trying to represent Raheb’s arguments, I’ll offer a few of my own comments towards the end. So what are the geopolitical developments that he describes that have relevance to the story of Christians in the Middle East? First, the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the prospect of European domination and World War I were important factors in creating the conditions of the Armenian genocide. I think it’s important to note here that Raheb is quite clear about what happened during the genocide. He writes that while the European powers were busy fighting each other in the spring of 1915, the Turkish authorities began to deport Armenian Christians to the Middle East and that their properties were confiscated, Armenian women were violated, and in the end between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed, as well as many Assyrian and Greek Christians. By the end, over 90 percent of the Christians who had lived in the region of Turkey were killed or deported. So, the book does not in any way minimize this tragedy but does underline that it should be understood within the context of a crumbling empire in a global military conflict.
Two, after World War I the two major colonial powers operating in the region Britain and France often implemented policies that highlighted sectarian identities. For example, in the case of Syria, the French divided the country into four districts, two with Sunni majorities, one Alawite district and one Druze’s district. In addition, the British and friends justified their colonial presence in part by claiming to protect Christians and other religious minorities. Therefore, many in the west became increasingly comfortable and used to the political rhetoric of protecting minorities as a way of explaining the presence of western powers in the Middle East.
Three, in the case of Israel-Palestine, Raheb notes that the percentage of Christians in Palestine dropped from 8% to 2.8% in the period after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the first Israel-Arab war. Raheb argues further that the voice of Palestinian Christians has been largely marginalized within western discourse ever since that time. Four, the rise of Pan-Arabism, or Arab nationalism in the 1940s and 1950s which emphasized that the region shared a common heritage, a common Arab identity and heritage also had unexpected and negative consequences for Christians. For one, Arab nationalism had a way of homogenizing the Middle East and making it less diverse. Assyrian Greek and Armenian Christians for example had to work harder to be recognized in an Arab nationalist environment. In a similar way after the war of 1948 Jewish populations in almost all Arab countries were forced to flee to Israel which again made the region more monolithic which is not a positive development for minorities
Five, Arab nationalism was accompanied largely by socialist economic policies including economic nationalization which involved Arab governments taking over and nationalizing many private entities, institutions, and land. Many citizens lost resources to the government through this process but Arab Christians who often had closer relationships with western companies and projects appear to have been impacted disproportionately by these policies. Six, like many other scholars Raheb sees the defeat of the Arab Tates in the 1967 war with Israel as a transitional moment in modern Middle Eastern history. In the aftermath of this defeat the region began to turn away from the more secular orientation of Arab nationalism toward Islamic and Islamist conceptions of identity. Around the same time the Saudi monarchy powered by oil wealth began to aggressively promote its strict and intolerant vision of Islam. In 1979 the Iranian revolution further demonstrated the political power of resurgent Islam. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 elicited modern Jihadist movements across the region. Thus, in Raheb’s account the 1970s were a transitional decade that returned Islam and questions of religious identity to the center of politics and culture. And these developments as a seventh geopolitical development, these developments set the stage for regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran during the last four decades. This rivalry has continued to intensify politically and religiously and has frequently manifested in proxy conflicts around the region. For example, in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria all of which have made life harder for minorities.
Raheb also highlights the impact of direct militant military intervention in the region on Christians. Of the 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003 there are around 250,000 living there today, an enormous drop in the Christian population. The destabilization of Iraq after the american invasion helped to create a context for the rise of jihadist movements like the Islamic state and lethal assaults on the minorities of the region including Christians.
So that’s a lot of information, I think that was eight or nine geopolitical factors and while my discussion today has not been comprehensive, I hope it gives you a sense of some of the central arguments made in the book. One of the primary reasons that Raheb wrote this book is to offer another perspective on the Christians of the Middle East. Rather than portraying them as cowering minorities waiting for aid from the west, he argues that the Christian story in the modern Middle East is about their resilience and creativity in responding to successive waves of regional tectonic shifts. Whether from the reconfigurations after World War I to European colonialism, Arab nationalism, the place of Israel, Islamic resurgence, the Saudi Iran rivalry, or direct American military intervention, and civil war.
And I will offer a couple of comments on that on these ideas. In many respects I think this is an important book one that provides a fuller and more complex picture of the Christian story in the modern Middle East. I think the book effectively critiques and challenges simplistic accounts of that story. At the same time, I do have some concerns with the book that relate especially to its concluding chapter. While throughout Raheb offers sharp critique of western engagement and perception of the Middle East, in the conclusion of the book this rhetoric escalates dramatically. The first lines of his epilogue assert the following, “Christian persecution is a western construct that says more about the west than about the Christians of the Middle East. It’s a perception rather than an actual description and the politics that underlie it should not be underestimated” according to Raheb the western discourse about Christian persecution the Middle East serves to make the west feel superior as a civilized continent. In addition, the discourse serves domestic political agendas in the United States and is an important tool in American foreign policy.
Now these are sharp words, my original reaction after reading the book and then reading the epilogue was really that it felt almost like a non-sequitur. And I mean this for a couple of different reasons, one is I felt that nothing that really of substance that had been argued previously in the book about these geopolitical developments necessarily were mutually exclusive to the idea that Christians are persecuted in the Middle East. A lot of these developments to my mind easily you know explain aspects of what’s happened with Christianity in the Middle East, but certainly they don’t mutually, or they don’t exclude somehow the idea that there are significant phenomena that we could classify as persecution. As far as his critiques of what you know Christians or westerners are doing with this discourse, I think even if we can acknowledge that this discourse has certain domestic political ramifications even if we acknowledge that it has a role in American foreign policy that at times could be used better, which I think many of us could, again that doesn’t obscure the fact that there is a lot of evidence that there is Christian persecution in the Middle East.
It’s hard exactly to know how to respond to this but I suppose what I would say is that the geopolitical developments that Raheb describes I think create a context in which life is difficult for Christians in the Middle East and also in which in certain situations real bouts of Christian persecution can flare up. So again, I don’t think that we need to look at these as mutually exclusive. I would also point out that despite the fact that Raheb is a Palestinian theologian who is living in the region and committed to living in the region I think we need to be clear that his views I think arguably do not represent a lot of Christian leaders in the Middle East. I’ve met very few Christians living for multiple years in Jordan and Egypt that would feel comfortable with the conclusion of this book. So that makes me wonder what exactly is going on here in a way part of me feels like Raheb kind of got sucked into this sort of polarized American political moment that we live in and decided to you know take some shots kind of in an, a domestic kind of American political set of questions.
I think we all recognize that we’ve been living in a polarized sort of political moment, and you know all of a sudden people are fighting about all kinds of things in really serious ways, and part of me feels like again that the end of the book is sort of a non-sequitur. At the end of the day, the demographic trends are pretty clear in the Middle East. Even Raheb himself notes that there were
during the ottoman empire, close to 20 of the population of the region identified as Christian, to that drops to 10 percent in the Middle East by the early 20th century and is now down to 2% or 3% today. That’s a massive demographic loss and I think certainly we can say that persecution is playing a role in that. We can acknowledge as Raheb tries to argue that many of the difficult circumstances Christians are facing economically, politically, are things that others in the region share but there is this degree in which, and this has been really spiking I think over the last two decades, in which you have you know a huge series of dramatic attacks against Christians in Iraq, Syria, Egypt which I’m most familiar with.
So in conclusion, what I would suggest is that I think Raheb gives us some important information here I think he does provide a wider narrative a wider lens on the experience of Christians in the Middle East, but I don’t think it should be taken as representative of all Arab Christians and their views, that’s one important point. That’s one thing when you get involved in this conversation you’ll have to negotiate with is the diverse perspectives that people in the region bring a Palestinian perspective is not an Egyptian perspective, which is not an Algerian perspective, which is not a Lebanese perspective. I was talking with a Syrian Orthodox priest earlier this week and he was from the city of Homs in Syria which those of you who follow the news will know that was basically bombed as smithereens in the Syrian civil war. And we were talking about another Syrian priest he said listen I want you to know I grew up with that man and I like him, we’re brothers and friends and everything, but you’re going to hear a different perspective from him okay. Both of them grew up in Homs, both of them were Syrian Orthodox priests but that kind of diversity is something that needs to be negotiated with as well. And finally, I think that there’s just too much raw evidence, raw data that when analyzed properly, suggests the very painful circumstances that can be described as persecution for Christians in the Middle East and that the idea that it’s a simply a western construct I think is a serious overstatement that I can only object to. So, I think I’ll stop there and hopefully maybe I’ve raised a few questions, but I think I’ll stop there for my own talk.
Questioner: Thank you very much for your talk. My name is Dan and for a short time I had the privilege of living in Galilee, so this subject is very close to my heart. Probably a little bit generalized and kind of a two-part question but it’s the two most vibrant communities I’ve encountered in the Middle East are the Cops and the Maronites, but they seem to have a very different just general history of enduring to this point. The cops seem to be a little bit more lower class, more just more enduring of suffering than the american. Americans seem to be a little bit more feisty at times in their relations of Muslims. What unites them in their survival and like what are their differences and also this would be a whole other question how have the cops endured so vibrantly while all the other North African churches really were snuffed out it seems much quicker than the snuffed out all the cops have been doing for a thousand years?
Matthew Anderson: Right, those are both great questions. I think you know part of the difference between Maronites, and cops would certainly have to do with the political situation in Lebanon where Maronites have had a significant more political authority than the cops have ever had. And I think that explains some of their, as you describe their feistiness, on some of these questions. The yeah, the Coptic Church I mean there are probably other things as well I mean I know the Coptic Church better than I know the Maronite church you know I mean for example I don’t know the degree to which monasticism is an important a component of Maronite Christianity as it is in Coptic Christianity. Monasticism right is its own kind of almost politics as well right, I mean it’s not just a spiritual practice it’s also about you know where a church is looking. And monasticism has been I think it’s fair to say there’s kind of been a revival in the Coptic church in the 20th century of this these concepts and increasingly you know I think it’s true to say that the monasteries of Coptic Christianity are in many ways at their heart. I don’t know if one could say that about the mayor knights perhaps, I honestly don’t know.
You know why you are speaking about North Africa and right. Yeah, I don’t have an easy answer to that question, I mean right I mean part of that would come down to understanding something about the Islamic conquests some you know more about the Islamic part of that would come down to understanding more about the degree and to which the sort of Hellenistic or the Greco-Roman period what impact that had on North Africa. but it just right because obviously we know there’s some famous theologian’s Christian theologians from north Africa, I think that’s an open question that I don’t feel particularly equipped to answer as to why. I mean I think part of it would have to do potentially with the ancient nature of Egyptian civilization and the Coptic use of symbols and languages from that. I mean perhaps there’s some story there about sort of the longevity of a culture or something like that I mean I but I don’t have a whole lot of way of comparing why exactly that body of Christians lasted in a way that most others in North Africa don’t, I’d have to look more deeply at that. Yes.
Questioner: Hi my name is Katherine I’m from Liberty University, and I know several Islamic countries don’t allow conversion from Islam to Christianity they only allow Christian to be to Islam. and all persecution is bad persecution, but I was wondering is there any evidence you’ve come across that the persecution faced by converts is more severe than those born into Christianity?
Matthew Anderson: Yes, that’s a great question. And yes, that is a really important point to consider. Yes, converting to Christianity is a deeply controversial thing to do in virtually all the countries of the Middle East. And in fact, I was speaking with a friend of mine recently who lived for the last 30 years in Lebanon and is very, very deeply I mean I trust his judgment on these questions very significantly and he would say that Christians are not persecuted in Lebanon in any significant way, except if there’s a conversion from Islam to Christianity. He says that will provoke sometimes very strong reactions. So that gives you a sense of how a country like Lebanon, which in many respects is actually remarkably free and the kind of discourse it allows politically, even religiously, and that Christians you know are not in his view in any kind of way systematically persecuted, but the conversion point will generate a serious significant blow back. Not always, maybe, but in many cases. This and you’re right I mean in Egypt, I think it’s fair to say that you know the situation is sort of slanted such that if people want to convert to Islam they can do that. in some cases to be fair, it does get complicated even for Christians converting to Islam. There’s a famous story of a woman who was converting from Coptic Christianity to Islam I’m trying to trying to Wafaa Constantine in the 2000s and basically the Coptic Church stepped in and sequestered her in a monastery and as far as we know she’s still living in the monastery. I’m not aware of any updates on our case but that’s an example of which the Egyptian Government in that case was saying well this does look you know problematic and controversial but most of the time that that conversion from Christianity to Islam is a lot easier and can be you know much more, yeah, there’s a lot easier.
Well, thank you so much for your time. I hope I’ve raised a few questions and laid a few ideas out there for you to consider, these are obviously incredibly important issues that I continue to wrestle with and continue to learn. that’s part of it is you know these are complex questions and require a lot of effort and humility I think as one tries to put pieces together. But I very much appreciate your attention, and Mark thank you again for the opportunity.