Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Christians Flee from Iraq to Moslem Countries

The story is the same throughout the Middle East. Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Israel they are caught between Moslems and Jews. In other countries they are caught between various Moslem groups, such as the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. And the toll of being the middle man is great, and steadily mounting. Consider for example that in the 1960s the city of Nazareth was over 75% Christian and the same can be said for Bethlehem. Today, my friend Issah, born and baptized in Bethlehem has a difficult time getting there from his home in east Jerusalem because of Israeli policies, even though they know he is a harmless Christian who works for CBS. He suffers the same harassment and discrimination as other Palestinian Christians. But bad as it is in Israel it is much worse in Iraq. Here is the link to a story posted today in the NY Times about the dilemma of Christians in Iraq:


A little history is in order. Two of the oldest forms of Christianity still exist today in Iraq-- Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians. They are still the largest Christian groups in the country, which at one time during the reign of Saddam Hussein were well over 1.5 million in number, but today the total number of Christians in Iraq is likely less than 600 thousand. One of the remarkable signs of the antiquity and continuous heritage of both the Chaldeans and the Assyrians is that they still pray in Aramaic-- the spoken language of Jesus. There are of course other sorts of Catholics, Syrian Orthodox Christians, and a precious few Protestants in Iraq as well (there is but one Anglican Church, St. George's in Baghdad). But the numbers are dwindling between the car bombs going off next to churches and the families fleeing the country.

It may seem obvious why the Christians are fleeing the country-- the country is in a war and there is chaos. But there is more to it than that. Christians are quite specific targets of Moslem militias, both Sunni and Shiite because they are viewed as being on the side of the 'Western Crusader invaders'. Yes, that's right, the Americans are viewed as representatives of Christianity, whether they are or not. This has led to tremendous violence against churches, priests, and innocent Christian citizens as well as this article so ably points out. But there is more.

The violence has increased enormously since the speech of the Pope which had an unfortunate 14th century quotation about Islam in it. Fury against the remarks of the Pope is being taken out on Christians, any Christians at all. There are of course other reasons Christians are resented or disliked. They tend to run the liquor stores in Iraq, and since strict Moslems are supposed to be tee totalers, this is seen as but one more way that Christians are trying to lead the Moslems down the garden path. Lest you be surprised at Christians running liquor stores in Iraq, I could tell you about how the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has the tax concession on lingerie and cigarettes, and so you will find billboards for Victoria Secret or Marlborough in some of the church yards there. This is way worse than bingo for money.

Where are the Christians fleeing to when they leave Iraq? They are going to Jordan, Syria, Turkey. Are we doing anything to help them? Not really-- only the neighboring Moslem countries are really taking them in. Let me see if I can get this straight--- the moderate Moslems are taking in the Christians because the allegedly more Christian nations don't want to. Hmm.....What was that Jesus once said "in as much as you have not done it unto the least of these, you have not done it unto me?"

The thing is, most Iraqis even if Christian, are fearful they would not be treated well in the West, due to their ethnicity. They have a right to be fearful as we have already made clear through the story of Omar Alrikabi on this blog. Americans definitely see color and ethnicity. And anything that looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion at this juncture. And so Christianity as a voice of moderation continues to dwindle in war-torn Iraq. At some point we have to ask-- is our American presence in Iraq doing more harm than good, especially to the moderates who still live in that country?

I do not pretend to know all the answers to the complex situation there, but this I know. The statue on Ellis Island says "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free" As a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants, we truly ought to be sympathetic to other persons who need a place to live because they are being persecuted due to their religion, and all the more so since they are Christians. Remember the Pilgrims and the Puritans? I say open the door and let them in and churches should welcome them with open arms and help find them places to live and jobs. The Church is, after all, a "worldwide fellowship throughout the whole wide earth." There is no Iraqi or American in Christ, for all are one-- to paraphrase a famous apostle (Gal. 3.28).


Andrew C. Thompson said...

Dr. Witherington -

You write, "Are we doing anything to help them? Not really-- only the neighboring Moslem countries are really taking them in. Let me see if I can get this straight - the moderate Moslems are taking in the Christians because the allegedly more Christian nations don't want to."

Perhaps it is time for the church in America to finally give up on any notion of Christendom. It pains me to think that Iraqis view any Western army within their borders - American, British, or otherwise - as representative of "Christian" culture. And since I would never want my country's army to march out under the cross as well as the flag, I cannot expect my country to show any kind of preferential treatment to my persecuted brothers and sisters of the faith in another land.

Perhaps a better hope for the church is in a movement like the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s that gave (illegal) shelter to refugees from Central American nations that were torn apart by civil wars. Brave congregations at that time defied federal law in favor of the gospel command to shelter the weak and lost. Why can't the church organize to bring Iraqi Christians to this country in much the same way?

byron said...

Australia is no better (and probably worse). Our national anthem has the line 'For those who've come across the seas/We've boundless plans to share", but then an immigration policy that fills many/most of us with shame. Until recently, we had mandatory detention even for young children, who would spend years behind bars treated like criminals for "coming across the seas".

B-W said...

Yes, that's right, the Americans are viewed as representatives of Christianity, whether they are or not.

Don't you mean "the Christians are viewed as representatives of America, whether they are or not"?

Randy McMurphy said...

I quickly reviewed your link to the NYT article. I found no reference there to rejection of Iraqis attempting to immigrate to the US. Nor am I aware of any news stories regarding such circumstances. From where do you see reports to substantiate such a claim? Outside of the Dearborn Michigan area I am not aware of a large, geographically centralized ex-pat Iraqi community. Were I to find myself in need of leaving my homeland (and heaven knows I often feel at great odds with the mass culture of the US) I certainly would not be thinking first of heading to Singapore, Hong Kong or Malaysia. There are other nationalities into whom I could much more comfortably and quickly integrate. I expect the potential for finding other Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians to be higher in neighboring countries than the US. The factual basis for disparaging the US Church for this alleged failing doesn't seem to be in evidence.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Randy:

You haven't been paying attention. Go back and read the stories about Omar Alrikabi on my blog. He can tell you all about the hurdles placed in the way of Iraqis immigrating to this country.

And to B-W-- nope I mean exactly what I said. Moslems see American as Christians and as representatives of Christian culture and Christianity, whether they are or not.


K. Rex Butts said...

Thanks for the article.

I am very sympathetic to the Anabaptist tradition of non-violence. Having read both John Howard Yoder and Lee Camp, as well as being taught about Jesus by Lee Camp when I was not a Christian, I find the case for non-violence very convincing. However, I am aware of many sincere devoted disciples of Jesus who believe the "Just-War" theory is ethically plausible (including one of my theology professors in seminary). But outside of academia, there seems to be little thought given in the church (that exists in the U.S.) as to what is the proper moral/ethic -- non-violence or justified violence. In fact, assuming the "just-war" theory to be correct, it seems that many Christians have just supported war and military/political conflicts without considering for one second whether the violence is justified. Am I correct in my observations?

If I am correct (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), then theologians as well as pastors MUST help the church once again wrestle with the use and support of violence and help the church give consideration to both positions of just-war and pacifism. And for those in the church who will accept the just-war position, theologians and pastors MUST equipp them with the ability to decide when violence is justified and when it is not.

It is my opinion that the wholesale and uncritical endorsement to the nation/state use of violence as a whole contributes to the loss of ethos in the church. Of the many things Jesus was when he lived on earth, he was Truth and spoke truth to the world while never allowing his teaching or the Kingdom to become the servant of the nation/state. The church must recover this aspect of Jesus once again.

Sandalstraps said...

While much of the conflation of American and Christian is caused by carelessness and stereotyping, I must admit that we American Christians participate in the problem, too. Christianity is too often becoming a kind of political platform. And if our elected representatives - and even our executive - is elected in part on the promise that they will govern from their faith, their actions - whether they reflect our understanding of the faith or not - will necessarily be taken as acts of Christian faith.

As the war in Iraq is the product of a presidential administration headed by a born-again evangelical Christian, and took power in part by targeting Christian voters and mobilizing them, you can make the case that the war is in part a sort of Christian product. To do this, of course, you have to distinguish between the Gospels and what has been called "the gospel of history" - that is, they way in which Christian faith has been manifested in history. But given the sorts of Christian triumphalism - even militant Christian triumphalism - which has soiled the name of Christ through history, and given the religious commitments of our president and the religious platform that he ran on; surely we can see how even the most moderate and fair-minded of Middle Eastern Muslims could see the American invasion of Iraq as a Christian act.

Of course, to do that is to oversimplify and misidentify the nature of the invasion. But to imply that that mistake is simply garbage thinking is to fail to see how we - as Christians and Americans - have participated in the problem.

I can find little to no justification for violence in the Gospels - though, unlike Dr. Witherington, I am no expert. In early Christian history - pre-Constantine, pre-Empire - I can find little to no justification for the gross violence of war. But now, among my fellow American Christians, I see too much blind devotion to a president who has conflicting political and religious interests, and too little work to spread the peace of Christ.

The current war has always, even in its most charitable presentations, failed to rise to the level demanded of a just war. And it of course, by virtue of its nature as a war, fails to comply with the ethics of pacifism. As these are the only morally responsible choices for Christians, I wonder why this conflict has enjoyed such support from the American Christian community.

Percival said...

Thank you Dr. Witherington for caring about Iraqis. Often, I find Westerners' discussion of the issue moralistic navel-gazing, more concerned about being morally correct than actually loving the people. I also think you are right it everything you said in this post. However, as Richard Wurmbrand pointed out, when we look at suffering, there are two Christian responses - we can try to relieve the suffering or we can enter into it. We are often not very good at the second. Christian arabs have suffered for many years in the Middle East (2000 or so). That's one reason most Arabs in the US are Christians rather than Muslims. There are now about a million Christian Lebanese living outside of Lebanon. Bethlehem, Nazareth, Amman, Asyut, and now Baghdad are being evacuated of Arab Christians. But as a call from the Middle East I want to ask, Can't we keep some here? We need the hidden 'salt' and the public cross to remain here.
Most Christian Arabs are not believers and some are downright evil and nasty, but most are at least helping Muslims see that there are other ways of life. Christian Arabs are generally respected for their honesty, faithfulness, openness, peacefulness, and forward-thinking. These are qualities we need here in the Middle East. I understand the reasons for the Christian Arab diaspora, but I, perhaps selfishly, would like them to stay here.

Matt said...

Dear Dr. Witherington,

This is a little bit behind time-wise, but I feel it's worth mentioning nonetheless. One clarification which may be worth offering is that the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, Arab and otherwise (including Armenians as well as Syriac-speaking "Assyrians" and "Chaldeans"), has been going on for a number of decades and for a variety of reasons. Many of these have, in fact, emigrated to the US (see for example the US Immigration services web page on Iraq here) as well as another article on how many Iraqi Christians have migrated to Jordan, with a number of them looking to move on from there to the West; see "Immigration of Iraqi Chaldeans Abroad Passes through Jordan". I'm wondering what sources are available regarding discrimination Iraqi and other Arab Christians are facing as a matter of official policy.

On the other hand, as Omar has so touchingly shared from his own experience, both on his blog and in his powerful chapel address, discrimination and attitudes are something which particularly Arab and non-Arab Muslim Americans are facing on an increasing basis. Some of what he described was on one level attributable to the sheer insensitivity which children can hit one another with, especially if someone is in any way "different"; I spent my early teens having to listen to classmates tell me Holocaust jokes to see my reaction. What is particularly frustrating in Omar's case is that he had to face this growing up in a largely Evangelical sub-culture.



Omar said...

There is always more to the story than we know.

While strict Muslims don't drink, I can promise you that there are PLENTY of Muslims who do... remember that Christians may own the liqure store in Iraq, but it is Muslims who give them the business that keeps them open.

Second, at this point there violence is so bad that it cannot be said that Muslims are simply targeting Christians... they are targeting each other. Suni kill Shia; Shia kill Suni; Shia kill Shia; Suni kill Suni. There is an element of this that is like the troubles in North Ireland: It has less to do with actual religion and more to do with a vaccume of power.

And yes, you are right in that most Muslims in the Middle East equate "Christian" with "Western Imperialism." So then we can look at the anger and violence over the Pope's comments in a little bit different light: The Pope represents a top leader in the Christian faith. The Christian faith is seen as representing America and the West, which over the last 60+ years has a long and documented history of violence towards the Middle East. So then, I think some of the anger was based on the notion of "how dare the leader of a violent and oppressive faith criticize us and pretend they are peaceful." I may not agree with the response, but I think they may have somewhat of a gripe.

All of this to say that I have trouble when it gets boiled down to "how are the Christians doing" vs. "How is humanity doing." There is quite enough culpability and sin to go around to all sides, and as I said before, the Church is the side which should know better.

annamma said...

Dr Witherington,
I have reading your blog for sometime and have found it great.

I have a comment. If all Christians leave Iraq, who will be there to provide true Christian persepctive? Yes, of course it is tough, but I think there is also a need for Iraqi Christians to stay back, and work for their people.

I know you want to help them, but helping does not consist only of giving them a place in America. Helping them also includes encouraging them to obey God in their circumstances...and it may well be that the Iraqi Christians who stay back in their country in her time of need will bring about the breakthrough in reaching Iraq for Christ. That may well be what God wants them to do, tough as it is. We need to encourage them to consider that, too.

I speak as an Asian Christian, who has been watching Christians from my country leaving in droves to the West over some reason or the other. It doesn't help the cause of evangelism or transformation of our societies here.

B-W said...

And to B-W-- nope I mean exactly what I said. Moslems see American as Christians and as representatives of Christian culture and Christianity, whether they are or not.

Since the context of that very comment, that Christians (not Americans) are targets of Muslim militias, it seems as though it should be the other way around. They're "on the side of" Americans, who are viewed as "Christian" I don't dispute.

B-W said...

Reading this again, I feel the need for a follow-up. I understand that Iraqis view Americans as Christians (whether we are or not). I was just left with the impression in that paragraph that the Christians being killed were being killed because, as Christians, they were viewed as representatives (allies, in any case) of American (the "Christian" nation).

Does that make my confusion more clear?