Betrayal of the Arab Christians
In 2011 in the Danish weekly Weekendavisen, journalist Klaus Wivel published an open letter to the foreign minister from the Socialists People’s Party in Denmark to ask what the newly elected government planned to do about the mistreatment of Christians in the Arab Middle East. When no one responded, he decided to travel there himself and report back. The result is a journalistic travelogue from the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq that captures the plight of the remaining Christians in this troubled part of the world, including the literal birthplace of the Christian faith. For obvious reasons, the main focus of the book is on the contemporary Arab world and, of course, Islam. At the same time, the story he tells is also a powerful critique of progressive liberalism in the West.
In Danish, the main title of the book (which is still seeking a much deserved English-language publisher) is Den Sidste Nadver, which is the Danish term for the Last Supper. The word nadver, however, also means the Eucharist, and den hellige nadver refers to the Holy Communion. The correct translation, therefore, is not obvious. All across the Middle East churches are shutting down as Christians flee to Europe or North and South America; hence a translation as “the last communion” seems appropriate. At the same time, as the author remarked recently over coffee in midtown Manhattan, “the Last Supper” carries with it the obvious connotation of betrayal. A central question that animates Wivel is why those in the West, who profess a belief in such universal values as freedom and equality, have not done more to defend the human rights of this severely beleaguered minority.
Wivel begins his story in an olive grove in the West Bank, where he takes communion from a Catholic priest, though we are informed that Wivel is not Catholic, or even religious. He wants to be polite. Half of the people attending are local residents, but the other half come from abroad, where most Christians from the region now live. According to Wivel, the population of the nearby town of Beit Jala includes approximately seven thousand Arab Christians. But that pales in comparison to the approximately one hundred thousand Christians, emigrants and their descendants, who live somewhere else. While approximately 10 percent of the people in Palestine were Christian after World War I, today that figure is just 2 percent and falling. Many people tell him that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem will soon be nothing more than tourist attractions as the local congregations dwindle and die out.
According to Wivel, there is no single explanation for the plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories. A war-torn region will always create refugees. But why so many Christians? Through the people that he profiles and the stories that they tell, Wivel tries to answer that question. Thus we are told, for example, that if an infant is left on the steps of a church, a Christian family will not be allowed to adopt. Instead the child will be raised a Muslim. He cites frequent examples of land confiscation. We are also introduced to a failed teenage suicide bomber, now released from prison, who is considered a hero in his community. Unprosecuted crimes and discrimination in government employment are also cited. When he leaves Gaza, he wonders how to describe the situation there: “Pogrom is too strong, harassment too weak. Persecution is too vehement, discrimination too trivial.” What is not in question is that Christians are rapidly disappearing from a region where they have lived for two thousand years.
The next stop is Egypt, where Christians are suffering a similar fate. The first person Wivel profiles is a young blogger, a non-believing Christian who was forced to seek exile in Germany. Quoting Willy Brandt, once an exile himself, he says “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” This youthful optimism, Wivel leads us to conclude, may not be well founded. Exact figures on the numbers of Coptic Christians who have fled Egypt are not readily available, but we are told that while there were two Coptic churches in the United States in 1970, today there are 202. Likewise, there are forty-seven in Australia and fifty-one in Canada. Even Fiji and Taiwan now make the list. Wivel describes numerous attacks on churches, as well as law enforcement brutalities, and he also cites high-profile cases where Christian girls were kidnapped and taken as wives. We are also given a tour of the city of garbage, outside Cairo, where many Christians live. Lastly, we learn that one reason for the growing intolerance is that Sadat and then Mubarak allowed the Salafists to gain control over the schools and education.
At one point Wivel writes, “I find it very difficult to comprehend why it would not be a classically secular and left-wing project to focus on the abuses that are occurring. Instead, there appears to be a blind spot, an internal struggle between principles and prejudices.” Indeed. Thus, we meet a Dutch professor who runs something called the Center for Arab-West Understanding. Wivel quotes him providing an explanation of sorts for the plight of Christians. “Yes, church burnings occur. But if we study what happens, often it involves a Christian man, who is in a relationship with a Muslim woman. Thus, it is not just a sectarian attack on a church. Not that this justifies burning churches, of course.” Wivel also says that in the winter of 2013 the head of Human Rights Watch called on Western countries to show “courtesy” to the Mursi regime and later denounced its overthrow. Amnesty International, we are told, has also begun to downplay the issue of religious persecution.
Next, Wivel turns his attention to Lebanon, where he begins his narrative with the story of Charles Malik, the Lebanese Ambassador to the United Nations, who played a key role in the conference chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt to draft the International Declaration on Human Rights. In particular, Wivel focuses on Malik’s efforts to reach agreement on Article 18, which guarantees freedom of religion and especially the right to change one’s religion. Malik insisted on this right, we are told, “because throughout history Lebanon had been a refuge for Christians who had converted from Islam.” Also ratifying article 18, Wivel notes, were Egypt and Pakistan. Was this period of tolerance an aberration, he wonders, or an indication of what might have been?
In a Starbucks on the outskirts of Beirut, Wivel meets with Malik’s son Habib, who offers his perspective. The son says that pogroms against Jews and Christians started breaking out in the nineteenth century with the introduction of Enlightenment ideas from the West. But instead of fighting for those ideals, he argues, too many Christians in the Middle East developed an equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome. In the event, many threw in their lot with pan-Arabism and Baathism, the latter inspired in large part by the philosopher Michel Aflaq, himself a Christian. In this context, Wivel says, the one thing that Pan-Arabists and Islamists could agree on was that human rights were somehow Western. Compounding the problem, he asserts, is that during this time, “Cultural relativism grew luxuriant in the flower pots of European and American academia.” Thus Edward Said’s Orientalism claimed that negative portrayals of the Arab world were basically racist or imperialist, while Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations seemed to accept that “individuals in the West have their kind of rights and those in the East another.” Caustically, Wivel asks, “Do Christians in the Middle East have less need than others to avoid discrimination? Was the UN wrong in 1948?”
Wivel saves the worst for last: Iraq. Before the multilateral invasion to topple Saddam, approximately 4 percent of people in Iraq were Christian. The current estimate is 0.9 percent. The decline represents 40 percent of all refugees. In Baghdad, 75 percent of the Christians have fled. Nationwide, seventy-two churches have been bombed or attacked. Like other parts of the Arab world, the expulsion of the Jews presaged this form of ethnic cleansing. At the time of World War I, Wivel notes, one-third of Baghdad was Jewish. Today, according to an Anglican priest in that city, only six Jews remain. According to one poll, 84 percent of Christians believe that soon, there will be no Christians left. Or as one embittered resident says, “In five to ten years, there will be no more Christians to murder.”
While the aftermath of the invasion has been a calamity for Iraqi Christians, Wivel stresses that Christians also faced severe persecution under Saddam. Thus we learn from the Archbishop of Ankawa that Christian schools were shut down and Jesuit teachers expelled from the universities. In the late 1990s the government forbade parents giving their children a Christian name. “We were prisoners in our own land,” the archbishop says. “In effect, Christians were made to pay the price for the fact that the West is also Christian, even though Christianity came to the West later than it came to the Middle East.” At one point, after interviewing a Christian who was forced to put up posters that attacked the Pope after his speech at Regensburg, Wivel writes that Christians “are used as hostages against the West to stop criticism of Islam. Shut up, or the Christians will suffer. That is the message.”
So what should we make of this? In particular, what should we make of Wivel’s bewilderment that those on the Left do not view the fate of Arab Christians through the prism of human rights? A recently published book, as well as another that helped influence it, might provide an answer. In the more recent book, The Revolt against the Masses, American historian Fred Siegel shows that the liberal elite does not have a good track record when it comes to thinking about right and wrong. He emphasizes flirtations with fascism and communism, as well as support for eugenics. He also mentions that Adlai Stevenson chose a segregationist as his running mate when he ran for president in 1952. In the earlier book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, British critic John Carey shows that literary modernism, a forerunner in many ways of contemporary progressivism, was often tainted with antisemitism and misogyny. From this perspective, then, the failure of liberal elites to apply their self-professed values to the status of Christians in the Middle East should not be surprising. Just because you believe that you are on the side of equal rights does not mean that you actually are. Support for the basic rights of Arab Christians, it seems clear, will have to come from elsewhere
Eamon Moynihan, a financial consultant, lives in New York City.
Posted: June 22, 2014
A Gentleman of Letters