(June 10, 2019 / JNS) I was discussing the sad plight of the Christians of the Middle East recently with a Lebanese friend, who recited the familiar refrain of the near extinction of the Christian communities of the Middle East. The basic reason, he insisted, was the Church teaching on “turning the other cheek.”
In the face of militant Islam of the Arab expansionist era, he said, the aggressive Muslims overwhelmed passive Christian communities. These communities, relegated to dhimmi status, then gradually assimilated or emigrated to non-Muslim lands.
As the story goes, the Battle of Yarmouk between the army of the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim forces of the Rashidun Caliphate presaged the fate of the Christian Byzantine Empire and from there on, Islamic success brought more successes, with many Christian communities switching sides at critical times.
The ill-fated Crusades, the ostensible goal of which was to retake the holy land from Islam, exemplified the basic deadly dichotomy of Christian East and West. Mutinous “soldiers” of the fourth crusade (1204) attacked and sacked Constantinople, the Christian capital of the Byzantine Empire. The lands of the longest lasting empire in history were divided up among the victors.
The destruction of Constantinople by Christians of the West really defines the basic weakness of Christianity of both West and East; they were always divided and at each other’s throats. The separation of the Eastern and Western churches in 1054 came about principally over the issue of leadership, but the Western Church began to view the Eastern Church as idolatrous, providing a veneer of religious justification for the sack of Constantinople.
After that the Christian community began to splinter into many communities, at times persecuting one another. An example of this was the Greek Byzantine persecution of the adherents of the Latin Church driven into the mountains of Lebanon, now known as Maronites.
In the modern era I observed up close the disintegration of the Christian communities and their pathetic efforts to survive in a world in which they are, at best, only tolerated. In every surge of Islamic fervor, such as the brutal Islamic State expulsion of Christians, they have been subject to depredations.
One would think that the Christian communities, driven apart by complex and often obscure, inscrutable theological arguments, would band together to maintain their survival, but they do not and never have. Moreover they tend not to feel any commonality with other non-Christian minorities in the Islamic world, such as the Jews, Yezidis and Sabeans, and have fought bloody wars with the Druze.
To my initial surprise I found that many Eastern Christians had an antipathy to Judaism similar to that of the Muslims. This is, at least partially, a result of the often fruitless but totally understandable attempts of the Christian clergy to curry favor in their Muslim communities by finding some commonality.
An egregious example of this was the 2010 attacks in Baghdad against a number of Chaldean Catholic churches, for which the church leaders blamed Zionists. This sort of pathetic attempt to avoid blaming Muslim extremists only makes them seem weaker and somewhat ridiculous.
It was Ibn Khaldun who wrote that subjugated people under the yoke of tyranny tend to acquire characteristics of “insincerity and trickery.” So it has become for Christians in the Arab world.
In Lebanon’s bloody civil war, described by the media as being between Christians and Muslims, Armenian Christians and Greek Orthodox avoided taking part. At the end of the war, the Maronites were reduced to killing each other. This war revealed another cleavage in the Christian community; an ethnic division added to the religious one, as Lebanon’s Greek Orthodox consider themselves Arabs while the Egyptian Copts, the Armenians and the Maronites do not.
Two other factors have also diminished the Christian communities of the Arab world. One is the proclivity to seek the protection of despots as shelter against Muslim hostility. Thus Christian communities have supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad in Syria and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Of course, when these tyrants go down, enmity toward the Christians increases.
Second is that the Western powers have manipulated the Christians of the Middle East for their own purposes. The British used the Assyrian Christians in Iraq as an auxiliary force to maintain themselves in power, with tragic consequences for the Assyrians as the British lost control. In the Levant the French sought to maintain a Maronite state to secure their empire after WWI, but then greedily included the heavily Muslim Bekaa valley as part of Lebanon, which has resulted in the Christians losing their controlling status in Lebanon.
Furthermore, Western Protestant missionaries came to the East not to convert Muslims, but to convert Eastern Christians to Protestantism, adding another dimension to their disunity. Today as their numbers continue to dwindle, the secular West has essentially lost interest in the plight of the Christians in the Near East.
Nothing so illustrates the disunity of the Christians more than the state of the most sacred of Christian sites, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Six Christian denominations claim residence, but are unable to agree on who should maintain the key and open the Church; Church elders depend on two Muslim families to do so.
Norvell DeAtkine, a retired U.S. Army colonel with nine years’ residence in the Arab world dealing with their militaries, including Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, and has spent about 40 years studying the region. He still instructs army personnel assigned to the Middle East.