At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.
The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.
In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.
Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.
In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:
Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.
There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.
However, I want to start with the passage that I know would make many Christians from the Middle East flinch with pain, a passage about those "good old days" before the most recent times of persecution. This is long, so read carefully:
When the first Islamic armies arrived from the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century, the Assyrian Church of the East was sending missionaries to China, India and Mongolia. The shift from Christianity to Islam happened gradually. Much as the worship of Eastern cults largely gave way to Christianity, Christianity gave way to Islam. Under Islamic rule, Eastern Christians lived as protected people, dhimmi: They were subservient and had to pay the jizya, but were often allowed to observe practices forbidden by Islam, including eating pork and drinking alcohol. Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts, and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.
One hundred years ago, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I ushered in the greatest period of violence against Christians in the region. The genocide waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion, left at least two million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks dead. Nearly all were Christian. Among those who survived, many of the better educated left for the West. Others settled in Iraq and Syria, where they were protected by the military dictators who courted these often economically powerful minorities.
From 1910 to 2010, the number of Christians in the Middle East -- in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan -- continued to decline; once 14 percent of the population, Christians now make up roughly 4 percent. (In Iran and Turkey, they’re all but gone.) ...
For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee.
Thrived? Relatively speaking, this is accurate. Things did get much worse in the early 20th Century and they certainly have gotten worse in the past decade, in the wake of the wars in Iraq. But there is no way -- my Arab Christian friends would note -- to put a positive spin on the word "dhimmi." The same is true for "jizya." These are both terms now used, backed with the edge of a knife, by the Islamic State.
Let me put it this way: How would Muslims in America feel of they paid a tax to Christians in order to survive, while facing limits on outreach, efforts to build facilities and programs for their children? When mosques are burned or defaced in America, this is tragic news. Under dhimmitude, this may not have been the norm, but it was never unusual.
This only makes the reality of the Islamic State even more terrifying and the same is try for rising threats against Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. The article stresses -- as it should -- that minority and moderate forms of Islam have been treated brutally, as well.
So what is the United States doing about this? The article is frank and bipartisan. The sources will ring true for all who have followed this story closely over the past two decades:
It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents -- Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal -- to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narratives the West is accused of embracing. In 2007, when Al Qaeda was kidnapping and killing priests in Mosul, Nina Shea, who was then a U.S. commissioner for religious freedom, says she approached the secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice, who told her the United States didn’t intervene in ‘‘sectarian’’ issues. Rice now says that protecting religious freedom in Iraq was a priority both for her and for the Bush administration. But the targeted violence and mass Christian exodus remained unaddressed. ‘‘One of the blind spots of the Bush administration was the inability to grapple with this as a direct byproduct of the invasion,’’ says Timothy Shah, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.
More recently, the White House has been criticized for eschewing the term ‘‘Christian’’ altogether. The issue of Christian persecution is politically charged; the Christian right has long used the idea that Christianity is imperiled to rally its base. When ISIS massacred Egyptian Copts in Libya this winter, the State Department came under fire for referring to the victims merely as ‘‘Egyptian citizens.’’ Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says, ‘‘When ISIS is no longer said to have religious motivations nor the minorities it attacks to have religious identities, the Obama administration’s caution about religion becomes excessive.’’
What about the painful fact that Christians, in Syria for example, have had to turn to dictators for protection? The article includes key facts about that, but does not overplay them. The simple reality, as an American Orthodox bishop once put it, is that all of the major armies in this region are led by monsters. At some point, people on the ground have had to ask which monster wants to kill them, right now.
So what are the options for the future? There are zero easy answers, especially if the goal is to preserve the historic Christian presence in what remains the Holy Land. What lands can accept them? What lands are willing to even discuss this option? What if ISIS becomes a semi-permanent player in the region?
This passage surprised me:
Even if ISIS is defeated, the fate of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq remains bleak. Unless minorities are given some measure of security, those who can leave are likely to do so. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, a conservative policy center, says that the situation has grown so dire that Iraqi Christians must either be allowed full residency in Kurdistan, including the right to work, or helped to leave. Others argue that it is essential that minorities have their own autonomous region. Exile is a death knell for these communities, activists say. ‘‘We’ve been here as an ethnicity for 6,000 years and as Christians for 1,700 years,’’ says Dr. Srood Maqdasy, a member of the Kurdish Parliament. ‘‘We have our own culture, language and tradition. If we live within other communities, all of this will be dissolved within two generations.’’
The practical solution, according to many Assyrian Christians, is to establish a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain. ‘‘If the West could take in so many refugees and the U.N.H.C.R. handle an operation like that, then we wouldn’t ask for a permanent solution,’’ says Nuri Kino, of A Demand for Action. ‘‘But the most realistic option is returning home.’’
‘‘We don’t have time to wait for solutions,’’ said the Rev. Emanuel Youkhana, the head of Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq. ‘‘For the first time in 2,000 years, there are no church services in Mosul. The West comes up with one solution by granting visas to a few hundred people. What about a few hundred thousand?’’ If Iraq devolves into three regions -- Sunnis, Shia and Kurds -- there could be a fourth for minorities. ‘‘Iraq is a forced marriage between Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians, and it failed,’’ Youkhana said. ‘‘Even I, as a priest, favor divorce.’’
It will be painful, but read it all. Right now.