Each semester, I teach a course called “Eastern Christianity and the Encounter with Islam.” And next year I have a book with a similar title, Eastern Christian Encounters with Islam, being published by Routledge. One reason I started teaching this course in 2008 was because of the vast ignorance about Eastern Christianity in any form, and the even greater ignorance about the 1,400-year history of Eastern Christians living alongside Muslims in places such as Syria, Egypt, the Levant, Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula.
Another motivation, moreover, was the urgency I felt to draw attention to the appalling, enraging, and deeply saddening exodus of Eastern Christians out of Iraq following the 2003 war, which the late Pope John Paul II so rightly opposed. Since the war, Iraq’s ancient population of Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Christians, and others has declined drastically—by well over 50 percent. Many of those Christians have been killed, but many more have been driven from their homes by the rise of fanatical Islamic groups. The latest such group is ISIS, an exceptionally nasty alliance of murderous thugs who have all but decimated the Christian population in Mosul—a population that has been in that northern Iraqi city for nearly 2,000 years.
When I begin teaching the long history of indigenous Christian populations in today’s Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and the Arabian Peninsula, I am invariably greeted with complete amazement that such peoples exist. The concept, in particular, of such a creature as an Arab Christian is especially incomprehensible to most of my students. All Arabs are Muslims, right? Arabic is only used in the Quran, right?
The idea that Arabic is the language of anything other than the Quran, and not also one of the myriad languages early Christians spoke (see Acts 2:11), as well as one of the myriad languages into which the Bible has been translated and still read today by Arab Christians (whose New Testament uses the same word for God as Muslims use: Allah) is a bridge too far for far too many American Christians. But, to be fair, even among scholars knowledge of Eastern Christianity has been low until the start of this century, and knowledge even among specialists of Assyrian, Chaldean, Arabic, and Coptic Christians (inter alia) has been even lower.
It is a welcome development, then, that two scholarly acquaintances of mine, Samuel Noble and Alexander Treiger, have just published a new book, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World, 700 – 1700: An Anthology of Sources (Northern Illinois University Press, 2014). I interviewed Sam and Sasha, and they mentioned just how much of the ancient literature of Arabic Christianity remains untranslated and unknown today. There is a long, rich, and important history of Arab Christianity, as well as of Arab Christian-Muslim relations, that is, in many respects, coming to an end before our very eyes.
It is very sad, and a bit ironic, that the world is finally waking up to the reality of these communities just as they are being violently extinguished or otherwise extirpated from their homelands. These incredibly patient, long-suffering groups, who have seen many invasions and lived under many regimes, almost all of them ugly and exploitative in some form at some point, are now on the verge of extinction. As the Iraq-based Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako recently put it, even at his worst the maniacal tyrant Genghis Khan was not as murderous and bloodthirsty as ISIS and similar groups today.
And what are we doing about it, now that we are at least minimally aware of the existence and persecution of Christian minorities in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region? This is not an idle or optional question: much of this suffering has been caused by American interference in the region since 2003, and so America must face up squarely to the question of responsibility. While, as I always say to my (predominantly female) students, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Bashar Al-Assad were nobody’s idea of men to bring home to mom, at the very least we have to credit those dictators for keeping a lot of the crazies under control and allowing Christians to live not perfectly but certainly far more peaceably than they have since the removal of the first two. (Christians could surely here borrow Henry Kissinger’s famous phrase: “They may be SOBs, but they’re our SOBs!”) Today, things are worse all around for Christians thanks to our ostensibly well-intentioned efforts in the region.
So, to repeat, what are we going to do about it? I do not think that the US government is going to do anything, which is a badge of shame and a blood-stain on its reputation.
I direct my question in particular at American Christians, and especially Catholics. We, as members of the largest religious body in the world, should surely be able to command more attention than we do, and bring more pressure than we do on events around us. We could, and should, bring pressure to bear on Washington in a variety of forms, but we can more easily, and perhaps more profitably, bring discipline to bear on ourselves. Last year Pope Francis garnered headlines by calling for a day of prayer and fasting for Christians in Syria. Let us use this ancient and powerful spiritual weapon on a weekly basis. Eastern Christians have long fasted on both Wednesdays (the day of Christ’s betrayal) and Fridays (the day of his death).
Perhaps, starting next week, Christians in the West should adopt this twice weekly fast for the express purpose of begging God, as the Byzantine liturgy for the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) states, to “save Your people, O Lord, and bless Your inheritance, granting victory to Your faithful people against enemies and protecting Your Church by Your Cross.”
[Editor: The headline, written by CWR editors, previously referred to “Arab Christians,” but has been corrected to “Middle Eastern Christians,” as Arab Christians are distinct from Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Christians, and other Christian groups in the Middle East.]
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