Middle Eastern Christians have suffered soft, state-sponsored discrimination since the Ottomans ruled and that discrimination has been reinforced over generations by poor, underfunded education systems throughout the region. More recently this evil brew has been stirred into feverish, bigoted campaigns of hate spread by Saudi-funded Wahhabi preachers.
This last decade the whole thing exploded into massacres and mass exodus — a catastrophe recently recognized by the European Parliament and the United States Congress as an unfolding genocide.
The dam burst with the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and the millions of refugees who have flowed through and from the region ever since.
A veteran Danish journalist can’t understand why this isn’t news.
“Discrimination and persecution of Christians in the Middle East is not a clinical, irrational sickness. It is not a phobia. It is a deeply rooted judicial and administrative discrimination that Christians have been subjected to for centuries,” writes Klaus Wivel in the conclusion to his recently translated book The Last Supper.
Wivel’s book first appeared in Danish in 2013. It took more than two years and a global refugee crisis to prick the interest of an English-language publisher, New Vessel Press, which released the book in May.
Wivel — an atheist — finds lack of interest in the Christian exodus puzzling.
“Despite the fact that thousands and thousands of Christians have left, and are increasingly pushed out, especially from Iraq, why are we not focused on this?” Wivel asked in a Catholic Register interview by phone from Copenhagen.
He’s not alone in wondering. In Toronto for the Knights of Columbus 134th Supreme Convention Aug. 2 to 4, Knights CEO Carl Anderson openly questioned the priorities of western governments and media.
“We preserve cities as heritage sites. Surely we have to preserve people as heritage sites,” Anderson said. “For Yazidis, for Christian communities, yes there is a moral obligation . . . Do you want to help preserve these indigenous communities that have existed in the region for over 2,000 years? If the answer is yes, that we feel a moral obligation . . .” Anderson leaves the reporters in the room to complete his thought.
The United States has a particular duty to the Christians displaced first by the 2003 invasion and then by U.S.-backed Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region from Tunisia to Syria, said Iraqi Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda.
“They were the ones who invaded the country and changed the whole regime. They have a moral responsibility,” Warda said.
Western governments have been reluctant to name the persecution felt by Christians for fear of doing even more harm to Christian minorities, said Wivel.
“There’s been a conscious decision not to make this appear as if it’s a crusade — as if we are involved in the Middle East for Christian reasons,” he said. “They didn’t want it to seem as if we were there to protect Christians. They fear, I think with some justification, that if we talk about this too forcefully the Christians would be perceived as a fifth column and they would be attacked for that reason.”
For western and particularly European media, talking about Muslim persecution of Christians has the appearance of accusing Muslim minorities in the West, many of whom left the Middle East to escape some of the same problems Middle Eastern Christians face. Immigrant Muslims who already face discrimination and accusations from demagogic politicians shouldn’t have to answer for crimes against Christians in places where they no longer live, said Wivel. But reporters should not self-censor either.
“I understand the reason, but I think it’s a very bad reason,” he said. “We have to write about problems that are here. This is obviously a very big problem.”
Neither the media nor western governments have succeeded in protecting Christian minorities by not talking about them.
“The fact is that, even though we did not talk about this, the Christians were driven out of Iraq. Our silence did not help the Christians, especially in Iraq,” Wivel said.
As things now stand, journalists can write the obituary for a defunct Christian minority of Iraq, Wivel said. Christians, who before 2003 were four per cent of Iraq’s population, make up 40 per cent of the refugees living in countries surrounding Iraq. A pre-2003 population of 1.4 million Iraqi Christians is down to under 300,000 mostly elderly and poor people who simply can’t flee, according to a 300-page report the Knights of Columbus prepared for the U.S. State Department in May.
Even if Iraqi government forces, with the help of U.S. and other forces, manage to retake Mosul in coming months, most Iraqi Christians aren’t going home.
“They felt, and this is true, that some of their Sunni Muslim neighbours actually helped out Islamic State — to point out where the Christians and the Yazidis lived,” said Wivel.
In Syria, continued survival of diverse Christian communities will depend on the outcome of the war. But survival under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad means Christians will be sheltering under the protection of a murderous war criminal and dictator.
Sizeable Christian communities, both in the region and in the diaspora, are constantly throwing their support behind military dictators — General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Saddam Hussein when he ruled in Iraq and Assad in Syria.
“The Christians have sided with the military regimes because that’s where they think they will get the most protection,” Wivel said. “They would rather live with a military regime than with Islamists. I think that’s the math that they’re doing. There isn’t a third option here, unfortunately.”
“A dictator who would try to succeed in governing his country is much better than what you say is this democratic system like the western (system),” Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan told reporters in Toronto Aug. 3. “When you don’t have this kind of firm, strong government you will be quickly led to chaos. And chaos is the biggest enemy to minorities in the Middle East.”
Not all Middle Eastern bishops are looking to relatively secular, military strongmen. Warda believes a new consensus must be forged globally and in the Middle East.
“Daesh (also known as Islamic State) is not a Middle East problem,” Warda said. “It is a global phenomenon. You cannot defeat Daesh without the Muslims. You have to get the Muslims involved in this war. You have to. There’s no way out.”
But is the West afraid to promote a democratic politics that doesn’t ignore religious reality? From Copenhagen, Wivel sees that Europe has no appetite or capacity to talk about religion.
“Europe is becoming more and more secular,” he said. “It’s not something I decry. I myself am a secular person. We are less and less interested in Christianity in Europe. That strangely enough goes for the church as well, especially where I come from. The church is not very Christian here in this country. I will offend a lot of Christians saying that, but I think that’s true when it comes to my country.”
But if we can’t talk about religious identity even in the church, if we no longer know what it means to live a shared Christian identity, how do we talk about the Middle East?
“You know I am a non-believer and I write that in the book. I think in Denmark and Scandinavia this is seen as giving the book some kind of credibility — because I don’t have a Christian agenda for the book,” said Wivel.
But in The Last Supper Wivel is not an anthropologist dryly observing the final days of some tiny lost tribe. He’s witnessing the collective amnesia of the Christian West as the faith which has sustained our civilization, our democracy, our shared values is cut off at the roots.