As the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have become increasingly sectarian over the last few years, feeding off one another’s dynamics and international rhetoric and involvement, stories about the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians have become more and more common in the English-language media. I first started studying Middle Eastern forms of Christianity during college and was astounded at how hard it was to find anyone talking or writing about the topic except for scholars of medieval apology texts or activist groups such as International Christian Concern, which have long viewed Christianity as under threat worldwide. Other than on the part of voices like these, the Middle East tended to be identified solely with Arabs and Islam.
As of June 2013, though, Sen. Rand Paul was condemning aid to Syrian opposition forces as “taxpayer dollars…being used to enable a war on Christianity in the Middle East.” In February 2014, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association’s radio arm argued that only Syrian Christians “fleeing Muslim persecution in their native land” should be afforded refugee status by the American administration, since the United States is a Christian country and Syrian Muslims have no interest in assimilation. The US Senate is still deliberating whether to approve a special ambassador for religious freedom in the Middle East and Central Asia, despite the fact that the State Department already has an (empty) office for an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
It must be noted that many of these concerns are based in reality. Syrian and Iraqi Christians are regularly the victims of violence and sectarian rhetoric, and they have been emigrating for generations because of lack of economic opportunity. As the situations in Syria and Iraq have worsened, so have such problems. People who, under normal circumstances, are open to interfaith friendships and dialogue often change their minds when their families are threatened, killed, or raped by people from other religious groups, and so the cycle continues. Christian leaders in Syria have been kidnapped, from Father Paolo Dall’Oglio of Deir Mar Musa, who is still missing, to the thirteen nuns of Ma’aloula who were released in a prisoner swap this month. As the US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in their April 2013 special report, Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria, religious minorities “have tried to stay neutral in the conflict, but opposition forces increasingly see their non-alignment…as support for the al-Assad regime.”
As a Christian myself, I especially enjoyed visiting Christian historical and religious sites around Syria while studying there in 2011: I met with Armenian and Assyrian Christian leaders in Aleppo, spent my spring break at the guest house in Deir Mar Musa, and felt the thrill of entering the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus where the head of St. John the Baptist is said to have been kept. While the sound of the call to prayer evokes for me a sense of community and peace and stirs up happy memories, reading the words “Light of the World” painted in Arabic on the side of a mountain in Ma’aloula or participating in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic strike much deeper chords within me. When I hear about attacks on or kidnappings of Christians in Syria and Iraq, something very primal in me says, “Those are my people!”
Despite this deeply-felt connection, though, I remember that I am not only a Christian, but also a human. I am a human, and so I recognize that no one’s life should be worth more than another’s. I am a human and a Christian of the sort that believes God stands in solidarity with and weeps for all of God’s children who are hurting or killed, regardless of their religious affiliation. I am a human and a Christian of that sort and I am a friend to people of many religions and backgrounds, including Syrian Muslims who cared for me when I was in need and did so from a combination of religious duty and personal love. They are my people, too. I am a human, a Christian of that sort, a friend, and a student who reads about the Muslims, both Sunni and Alawi, who are devastated by this conflict, as well as Druze, Yazidi, and, yes, Christians. Those huge figures of death and displacement cannot be discounted, nor can the political and religious ever be truly disentangled in this conflict.
While I will continue to pay close attention to issues of religious diversity in the Middle East– that’s why I went to graduate school, after all!– I would caution myself and other Christians not to let ourselves view sectarianism as the primary issue and especially not to let ourselves overlook the suffering of people of other religions just because of their affiliation. It does not do to forget the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who shows us how to love a neighbor like our selves? Not the pious or the religiously authoritative but the person viewed as a half-breed, schismatic interloper who reached across sectarian lines to show mercy.
Image courtesy of the author.