The twilight of Middle Eastern Christianity
Hisham Melhem/Al Arabiya
Saturday, 28 February 2015
They destroy museums, they burn libraries, and yes they hunt vulnerable minorities like the Christians and Yazidis to kill, starve, rape or subjugate. In Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) while killing the present and denying the future, is waging war on history. In the span of few days we witnessed an orgy of destruction at the Mosul museum where exquisite artifacts and magnificent winged bulls from the era of the Assyrian empire were obliterated; all the while the hordes of ISIS were raiding Assyrian villages in Eastern Syria to plunder and capture human spoils of war. On one continuum spectrum of agony, splendid treasures were destroyed forever, and the descendants of those who created them were being hunted like pray. ISIS kidnapped hundreds of Assyrians including women and children.
For ISIS, eradicating the cultural legacy of the Assyrians is the natural outcome of erasing the Assyrians themselves whose only fault is that they are the Christian descendants of an ancient culture that is one of many that made Mesopotamia the repository of great civilizations. Watching the brutes of ISIS drilling holes into an Assyrian winged bull from the 7th century B.C. was like watching someone drilling a hole into our collective human heart. Many conquerors have swept through the Fertile Crescent in the last three millennia, and many of them left behind scorched earth and trails of blood and tears, but none have waged the kind of total nihilistic war on everything that preceded them or is different from them, the way ISIS does. ISIS is not only waging war on the pre-Islamic history of the Fertile Crescent, or only engaging in the ethnic cleansing of ancient peoples, and religious and ethnic minorities that preceded the advent of Arabs and Islam, ISIS is also waging war on humanity’s heritage and on the modern world, since all of us are the inheritors of the splendor of the Fertile Crescent.
The plight of the Christian communities in the Middle East is a dire warning, that unless the written and unwritten policies and practices of intimidation, discrimination against the Christians and their exclusion from Political life is confronted and ended, the fate of these indigenous and ancient groups will be similar to the fate of the old Jewish communities who lived in the major cities of the region; immigration, exodus and /or expulsion. A similar fate befell the Greek, Italian and Armenian communities that made Egypt and the Levant their homes. This rich human mosaic was at the heart of the cosmopolitanism that made Alexandria and Beirut such vibrant cultural and economic centers, and Damascus and Baghdad modern Arab capitals celebrating religious and ethnic diversity and pluralism, but that was mostly before WWII, before formal Independence, the rise of xenophobic nationalism, the military coups and the first Arab-Israeli war.
The plight of the Christian communities in the Middle East is a dire warning
I came of age in this cultural/social milieu in Beirut; I lived close to an Armenian neighborhood and managed to hold my own in conversations with elder Armenians who could not master Arabic. One of my closest boyhood friends was a Greek Cypriote. I was 12 years old, when I heard from two brothers tales of Kurdish sorrows in Iraq. We would watch not only the best and the trash of Hollywood and the Avant Guard European cinema, and even the depressingly sentimental movies of India. We also watched Egyptian slapstick comedy films, along with the works of Egypt’s best known director, the talented Youssef Chahine ( born in Alexandria to a Christian family, his father was of Lebanese descent and his mother of Greek origin, but he was decidedly Egyptian) . Lebanese Radio stations played blues and Rock and roll along with French, Greek and Turkish popular songs, and Egypt had more than its share of great divas and gifted musicians. In West Beirut, in one square mile area you could attend sophisticated productions of the works of Shakespeare, or Albert Camus and the works of many Arab Playwrights. Beirut was the publishing house of the Arab world, and the home of its exiled of the best and the brightest. That world is no more.
The second fall of Nineveh
The city of Nineveh, the ancient capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire, was destroyed by a Babylonian army in 612 B.C. never to rise again. In the Christian era, the plains of Nineveh and the city of Mosul became a major center of Eastern Christianity. The sudden fall of Nineveh last summer in the hands of ISIS created appalling scenes of thousands of Christians, and other minorities like Yezidis, Shabbak (a tiny Shiite offshoot sect) and Turkmen that made Mosul and the plains their homes for centuries, fleeing on their feet leaving behind ancestral homes, and shattered lives.
It is true that most of ISIS victims have been Muslims who resisted them or are opposed to their fanatical ways and their interpretations of Muslim history and traditions, but the fact remains that when a war is waged on small minorities because of who they are and not only because of their actions, the threat becomes truly existential. The tragedy that befell the native Christians of the Fertile Crescent, Arabs and non-Arabs, since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the rise of ISIS and other Jihadists and Takfiri groups in Syria as a reaction to the Assad regime’s use of brutal force and exploitation of sectarianism, have raised for the first time the Spector of the possible end of Christianity in the Fertile Crescent since the faith established its first Church in Antioch, a Syrian city for most of its history, at the dawn of the Christian era. The American occupation of Iraq led Islamist radicals to declare open season on Iraq’s ancient Christian communities; Bishops were assassinated, congregants were killed during Mass, and of the 65 Churches in Baghdad which served many sects 40 have been bombed or torched. (This was one of the most jarring failures of the U.S. in Iraq). A generation ago, Iraq’s Christians numbered more than a million strong; some figures were as high as 1.5 million. Church leaders and others estimated (before the depredations of ISIS) that more than 50 percent have been driven out by violence and intimidation or for economic reasons. Some believe that the actual number of Christians left in Iraq today is around 150,000. In Syria the Christians were victimized by the brutal machinations of a sectarian (Alawite) regime, and by the fanaticism of ISIS and the Sunni sectarianism of other opposition groups. The impact of the Sunni- Shiite bloodletting in Syria and Iraq which is unprecedented in the Muslim history of the region, on the Christian communities has been very profound and has contributed to a deep sense of foreboding about the future.
At the turn of the twentieth century the Christians accounted for 20 to 25 percent of the population of the Middle East. Today they are barely 2 percent. Their numbers have been declining steadily because of low birth rates, and emigration for economic reasons; but many have been forced to leave because of violence and wars, and as a result of overt discrimination, and persecution. The Christians of the Fertile Crescent are rapidly disappearing, while the largest community of Christians in the region, Egypt’s Copts continue to struggle against difficult political and economic odds in a deeply polarized society. Following the violent dispersal of organized sit-ins by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Cairo on August 14, 2013 mobs of MB supporters staged an Egyptian version of Kristallnacht, where scores of churches and Coptic owned institutions were attacked and torched. The days of violence that followed resulted in the killing and wounding of dozens of Copts. The extent of the repression was seen as the worst against Copts since the 14th century.
The Christian Arabs were very instrumental in the success of the first dynasty of Islam, (the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750 AD) which was based in Damascus, Syria where powerful Christian Arab tribes have lived before the beginning of the Muslim era. In Modern times the Christian Arabs have played a crucial role in the revival of the Arab language and letters, and were very pivotal in the great cultural and political debates in the 19th century in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut that preceded the formation of the states of the modern Middle East. Yet, for the most part, and with the exception of the Maronites of Lebanon they remained politically invisible. Their modern history was marked with occasional mass killings. In 1860, following Maronite-Druse sectarian violence in Lebanon, the Christian quarter in Damascus was totally destroyed by a rampaging mob resulting in the death and exodus of thousands. The memory of that orgy of violence lingered on for decades. Late in the 19th century Thousands of Assyrians were killed or uprooted by Ottoman Turks, then came the mass killings and forced deportations of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the First World War.
The persistence of memory
During the Great War a partially human induced famine devastated parts of Lebanon and Syria. Able-bodied Christian men, mostly from Lebanon were conscripted by the Turkish army in the infamous Seferberlik (roughly preparation or mobilization for war) to do slave labor in Anatolia. One of them, a young man named Elias Melhem, was my paternal grandfather. When he was abducted my grandmother was pregnant with my father. By the time Elias Melhem was able to escape and manages to cross Syria to his mountainous village in Northern Lebanon he was thoroughly diseased as a result of disposing corpses, and quickly succumbed to death. My father never had the chance to know his father. My father, Yousef passed away when I was 11 years old. My grandmother Martha Sassine almost lost her mind. She would take me with her on her endless and aimless walks in her Bustan, pointing at the apple trees that my father planted while she was talking to him about her solitude in a trance, with me tagging along and crying hysterically. I would never tire of looking at my grandmother’s beguiling sad eyes, and I was always thrilled when she would tell me that of all my brothers I was the one who looked very much like my father when he was young. She would sit next to me, and while combing my long hair, she would repeat the tragic tale of the abduction and forced exile of my grandfather by those “Turkish monsters.”
In those moments the tender voice would be charged with rage and the gentle sad eyes would flicker with hatred. I worshiped Martha Sassine, and her emotions became mine. I grew up holding an indescribable loathing of Turks. Those feelings were re-enforced by my Armenian friends who have heard similar or worse tales from their beloved elders. I brought Martha’s memories with me when I came to study in America. It took me a long time before I was capable of looking at the agony of my grandparents somewhat dispassionately. Later on, with the passage of time, meeting and befriending Turks and most importantly visiting the great city of Istanbul, I finally was able to recount the story of Elias Melhem without tears in my eyes; well not always. But making peace with the Turks never lessened the persistence of the memory of Martha’s agony and Elias’ tragedy.
In my lifetime I have seen tremendous pain and violence in Arab lands. Long before the gore of everyday life in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, we have seen the mass killings of Kurds in Iraq, (Saddam’s diabolical mind gave the campaign of genocide the name Al-Anfal, a Surah from the Qur’an) and the Sudanese state’s war on the people of Darfur, and the long night of Algeria’s brutal civil war in the early 1990’s, just to name a few. Just as I carried with me the memories of Martha and Elias, the descendants of the victims of violence will carry with them equally painful memories. And collective memories are the hardest to erase.
One of the salient and most disturbing aspects of the modern Middle East (this is true of Arabs, Turks, Israelis and Iranians) is the extent of atomization that we have allowed ourselves to succumb to. We only feel the pain of our own tribe, or sect or ethnicity. There was no Arab outcry when the Kurds were being gassed and Kurdistan was being ‘cleansed’ of Kurds. No outrage over the horrors being visited on the Darfuris. I did not see Muslim outrage from Arabs, Turks and Iranians, when the Christians of Iraq were being killed in their churches. No Shiite tears for Sunni Mosques being bombed and vice versa. No Israeli outcry, when the Israeli air force brings death and destructions to civilian Palestinian and Lebanese, just as no Arab sympathy when Israeli civilians are killed by Hamas or Hezbollah rockets while in busses or restaurants. We all have collective memories of pain and victimhood.
I write as a secularist who grew up in a Christian family, but with decidedly deep affection for the Arabic language and a fascination with Muslim history and the stormy yet intimate relations between the Middle East and the West. When I Watch the plight and the exodus of the Christians of the Middle East, I think of the communities that preceded them into flight; the Jews, the Greeks, and other religious and ethnic groups and how their disappearance made the Arab world more arid culturally and less hospitable politically. Egypt never recovered the loss of its Copts, Jews, Greeks, Lebanese, Syrians and Armenians. Yes, we may be witnessing the twilight of Christianity in the Levant and Mesopotamia. It is conceivable that in few years there will be no more a living Christian community in Jerusalem or Bethlehem for the first time in 2000 years, only monks and priests tending to the stones of monasteries and churches being visited by the tourists. An Arab world without its Christian communities will be more insular, more rigid, less hospitable and more desolate.