The Economist’s religion blog, “Erasmus,” has an interesting post on the sympathetic response of American Christians to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Erasmus says this is a new development: Until recently, politically active American Christians, particularly on the right, have “seemed deeply ambivalent” about Mideast Christians. Recent events may have changed things. Erasmus notes the appearance at a congressional subcommittee hearing last week by the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea, who spoke about the suffering of Mideast Christians and America’s responsibility to them.
It’s true that for the past few decades, the situation of the Mideast Christians hasn’t been a priority for American Christians. This wasn’t always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American churches agitated for aid to persecuted Christian minorities in Ottoman Turkey. More recently, though, American Christians, especially conservatives, have viewed Israelis, not Christians, as their natural allies in the region.
There are a few reasons for this. Ignorance is one. Many Americans don’t realize that there are Christians in the Middle East. In America, Christians who speak Arabic are repeatedly mistaken for Muslims. A Christian immigrant from Egypt who wears a cross once told me that Americans ask her about her mosque. Theological, cultural, and political factors play a role as well. For most American Christians, especially Evangelicals, Mideast Christians are decidedly “other.” Most are Orthodox; some are Eastern-rite Catholics; hardly any are Protestants, even mainline Protestants. In terms of worship and ecclesiology, most Mideast Christians are about as far from contemporary American Christianity as you can get and still be in the Christian fold.
Culturally, most Mideast Christians are, well, Middle Eastern. Their values with respect to family and identity are apt to differ from those of the West. In purely cultural terms, a Christian from Minnesota may feel he has more in common with a secular Jew from Tel Aviv than a Christian from Tur Abdin. Politically, Christians in Arab countries have tended to be nationalists. Those that live in Israel feel like outsiders; they complain, with some justification, that the state is indifferent to their concerns. All this differentiates Mideast Christians from American Christians, who strongly support Israel as an embattled democracy to which the West owes a moral obligation. And this is putting aside the “end times theology” that persuades some American Evangelicals to support the Jewish state–a theology, needless to say, that Christians in the Middle East do not share.
So what explains the new sympathy for Mideast Christians? Part of the explanation, Erasmus argues, is politics. Conservative Christians who didn’t object when Bush Administration policy led to the displacement of half the Christian population of Iraq are quite vocal now. There is some truth to this charge.
But, as Erasmus explains, it isn’t simply politics. Across the Middle East, the rise of Islamism has made the situation of Christians truly dire. Just in the last couple of weeks, Islamists in the Syrian opposition murdered a Catholic priest. Unfortunately, this example of anti-Christian brutality is not unusual. Two Orthodox bishops kidnapped by Islamists in Syria have yet to be found. In Egypt, the Copts suffer greatly. In Turkey, the government is seizing the land of Syriac Christians on the basis of phony claims. One could give many other examples.
It bears repeating: Christianity in the Middle East faces an existential threat. And the Obama Administration–like the Bush Administration before it–has other priorities. Reportedly, the US ambassador to Egypt recently asked the Coptic Pope, Tawadros, to discourage Christians from taking part in anti-Morsi protests. And the Administration has decided to arm the Syrian opposition–a decision that seems likely, over time, to result in arming the Syrian Islamists.
The Administration undoubtedly believes that democracy is the only long-run hope for the Middle East, and that democratically-elected Islamist governments, if that is what the region’s people wish, are the short-term price one has to pay. I suppose an argument could be made. But of course Americans aren’t the ones paying the price. Christianity in the Middle East is going to the wall. As this tragedy becomes known, largely through the work of people like Shea, American Christians are taking notice.