An upcoming Holy Land festival this weekend, and a documentary on Iraqi Christians I caught on TV last night, have given rise to a somewhat chastising post this morning, for which I hope the reader will forgive me – even though, as we say on Twitter, I apologize for nothing.
The presence of Christians in the Middle East is a fact which much of the mainstream media in this country, and even certain supposedly humanitarian groups, often chooses to ignore. Their mere existence muddles the narrative. It is much easier to assume that everyone who speaks Arabic is a Muslim, and that all Muslims are potential terrorists, than it is to recognize that not only are people individuals, but that there are Catholics and other Christians in places like Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, many of whom have been suffering greatly in recent years.
This situation has so deteriorated, even at this moment with the recent actions of ISIS or whatever they decide to call themselves this week, that hundreds of thousands of Christians have left their homelands in the Middle East to seek safety in other countries. Yet when they arrive at their destinations, they are often scorned and ostracized by the very people they were hoping would welcome them. This is unworthy of the West, particularly among those of us who happen to call ourselves Christians.
When I was in college, one of my closest friends was a Kurdish-American, a young lady whose family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein and immigrated to the U.S. Back then the problem everyone was discussing with regard to Iraq was the fallout from what we refer to as “The” Gulf War in 1990, in which Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait. Although the issues surrounding Iraq were certainly considered at the time, to a large extent they were overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ensuing aftermath. Thus the suffering of the Kurdish people under the rule of Saddam Hussein was not as widely covered in the press back then, so that much of what I learnt about them at the time came from what my Kurdish friend told me, and the people she brought to campus for discussions and debates.
So it was interesting, given the non-stop coverage of the rapid takeover of Iraq in recent weeks by the latest brand of radicalized Islamic militants, to come across a program last evening which highlighted not only the suffering of Christians in Iraq in recent years, but also how so many of them have found a new home in Kurdish territory. Even as church bells fell silent in the city of Mosul for the first Sunday in over 1600 years, Christians in the Kurdish-controlled north of the country were comparatively free to go about their business, knowing that the Kurds would protect them. This is no small development, in the history of the region.
The Catholic diocese in the largest Kurdish city of Erbil for example, has grown from around 1,500 families before the invasion of Iraq, or roughly the size of a suburban parish in many parts of the U.S., to over 25,000 families today. More and more Christians have left Baghdad and other cities, moving north in search of a haven where they can practice their faith without emigrating to other countries. I was stunned to see footage not only of brand-new Christian primary schools being built, and discussions about a new high school, but churches filled with worshippers. There was even a sit-down reception and dinner between the local Catholic and Orthodox prelates and their Muslim and Yazidi counterparts, where everyone seemed to be getting along just fine, and enjoying one another’s company.
All that being said, I won’t insult the reader’s intelligence by pretending to be an expert on the complexities of religion, history, and politics in the region. For example, I’m sure that there are still many issues faced by Iraqi Christians even amidst the relative safety of the Kurdish people, which could be shared anecdotally; certainly that debate could be carried out in the comment section of this post. And given my own limited grasp of the subject, if you are looking for more informed analysis about issues faced by Christians in the Middle East, you should be following people like my friends researcher Phillip Smyth, or filmmaker Jordan Allott over at In Altium Productions, who are far more knowledgeable about such things.
What the Christian crisis in Iraq and elsewhere in the region does however, is spotlight something rather ugly, and often ignored by the mainstream media. Caught in the middle of much of the sectarian fighting in the region are Christian minorities who are too poor to get much press. Our ignorance of them is particularly unworthy of Christians in this country, many of whom are the descendants of those who also had to flee their ancestral homes because of religious persecution. Shouldn’t we be doing more to embrace and welcome our fellow Christians from the lands of Christ, the Apostles, and the Early Church, rather than just lumping them all into a politically convenient category of “other”? If we (rightly) blame the mainstream media for a dearth of reporting on this issue, what are we doing to aid these people once they arrive on these shores?
One way those of you in the Washington area can learn more about Christianity in the Middle East is by attending this weekend’s first annual Holy Land Festival at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, this Saturday from 11am to 5pm [Metro: Brookland]. It will highlight the Christian people, places, and customs of our brothers and sisters from this part of the world, something which too few of us are aware of, and too little is done to protect and preserve. I will be there to enjoy the food, presentations, and finally getting to meet Diana von Glahn in person, and hope to see many of my readers, as well.
Yet even if you cannot make it, I encourage you to take this opportunity to start educating yourself about the issue. The media will not educate you themselves, for it is not in their interest to do so. As usual, the buck stops with those of us who claim to be Christians, keeping in mind Christ’s prayer that we might all be one, as He and the Father are one.
Iraqi Catholics mourn outside of their parish Church of the Holy Family in Kirkuk, bombed by ISIS