Ecumenism of Blood: Persecution’s Fruit?

December 2015By Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting is Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana.

Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy.  By George J. Marlin. St. Augustine’s Press. 272 pages. $30.



The twenty-first century isn’t what many expected. Secularists hoped for their usual bland utopia, with things like religious-based violence left behind in the primitive past. Christians hoped, after the bloody nightmare of the twentieth century, that Russia would be converted and a time of peace would be given to the world. Instead, it looks like Hilaire Belloc was right after all: that Islam would prove to be a major — if not the major — threat to Christianity in our age. The West’s response to the problem of Islam has been an oddly mixed one. Enormous financial and military efforts have gone hand in hand with a seemingly cultivated ignorance that continues to hang over the subject. News stories from the Middle East are either fawningly sensationalistic or criminally oblivious to the plight of those suffering.

George J. Marlin’s Christian Persecutions in the Middle East is a standout attempt to dispel ignorance. The current president of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a pontifical institute that supports persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere, Marlin has a unique vantage point to provide eyewitness and firsthand information about the matter. He offers a veritable handbook — and I don’t use the word handbook lightly — for the book is an intriguing mixture of things: part monograph, part dialogue, part anthology of useful sources. The comprehensive input ranges from the anonymous witness of Middle Eastern Christians to the insights of high-level clergy, Catholic and otherwise.

Marlin reminds us of something so many have forgotten: As much as we assume Christianity’s home is Europe, particularly Rome, the reality is that, in its first few centuries, Christianity was far more Middle Eastern than European. The first extensive Christian communities were in Syria and Egypt, and humble Armenia can boast of having been the world’s first Christian kingdom. Furthermore, even though Constantine would convert to Christianity and provide the first step to the Roman Empire’s becoming a Christian entity, he would also move the capital from Rome to the newly founded city of Constantinople, thereby ensuring that there would be an Eastern-focused Christianity for a long time.

A robust form of Christianity — indeed, several forms — flourished for centuries in areas now commonly regarded as Islamic. Marlin gives a good rundown of what the descendants of those historic communities look like nowadays, with brief but informative examinations of the origins and current situations of various Christian churches: stand-alone (the Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian Apostolic Church, and Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches), Eastern Orthodox (the Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), and Eastern-Rite Catholic (the Melkites, Maronites, and Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, and Syrian Catholic Churches).

What happened to these communities? In a word, Islam. In slightly under a century, Islam went from one man’s cave-born inspiration to one of the most successful sets of conquests in human history. Marlin’s treatment of this process, and the nature and features of Islam, is brief and serviceable.

Marlin also surveys the European response to Islam’s rapid spread, providing a little information on the crusades and the process of nineteenth-century imperialism that placed various areas under European control. The break-up of empires during World Wars I and II left behind a messy situation: The various possessions in the Middle East were dominated but received little development and preparation to stand on their own, as India did. Imperialism was “exported” to these lands, as were traditions of political violence from the French Revolution and nineteenth-century Slavic anarchism, all of which found a ready home in the Middle East. The French may have invented the idea of terrorism, but Islam, in the sect of the Assassins, had pioneered and long employed it.

After providing this history, Marlin looks at major countries of the Middle East, focusing on their recent or current political situations and the way they treat their Christian populations (spoiler alert: badly). Former major power Turkey, a secular democracy and NATO member, was responsible for the first major act of genocide in the twentieth century. Egypt is home to the failed “Arab Spring,” with a Christian minority population suffering because of it. Lebanon, formerly the most religiously balanced nation in the Middle East, is still recovering from a fifteen-year civil war and the rise of Hezbollah. Syria, another place of former relative toleration of Christians, is now a home to ISIS and brutal persecutions. Iraq, where the situation for Christians was not good under Saddam Hussein, has grown worse after the U.S. invasion and the advent of ISIS. Iran, since the days of Ayatollah Khomeini, is one of the more radical and Christian-hostile nations of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, is a place with no native Christian presence but a substantial foreign one — mostly Filipino gastarbeiters — and is home of the radical Wahhabi sect. Saudi Arabia is responsible for over $85 billion of Islamic proselytizing and propaganda worldwide. In Sudan, Islamic aggression against non-Muslims fueled a civil war that has resulted in the partition of the country and more war. Simply put, the overall status of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East is not good. Marlin provides many first-hand accounts of abuse — the kind the media often ignore — culled from reports of on-the-spot ACN workers providing religious and humanitarian aid. The stories are not gratuitous or sensationalistic, but neither do they make for easy reading.

The last portion of the book contains a potpourri of individual perspectives on the situation. Included is the text of a roundtable discussion on the subject of Christianity in the Middle East by a panel of experts: two archbishops, two bishops, and two Jesuits — all of whom are Middle Eastern-born or Middle Eastern-employed or both. This discussion provides an informed, authoritative, and Catholic perspective on the subject that is difficult to find elsewhere. The book closes with a few short pieces called “Voices on Christianity and Islam” by prominent Christian figures from the Middle East, and with a short anthology of important documents on the matter, including a commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and a welcome copy of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg lecture (which, frankly, ought to be required reading for any intelligent twenty-first-century Christian).

Certain conclusions can be drawn from Marlin’s work. First, it is important to remember that neither Christianity nor Islam are monolithic entities, particularly in the Middle East. Rather, there are important ideological, national, ethnic, and institutional divisions within each faith that make matters in the Middle East complex and confusing. Outside parties seeking to understand the situation must be aware of this.

Second, this book is an effective counter to the refrain, “But Islam is a religion of peace, so extremist Muslims aren’t real Muslims. Problem solved!” This idea is worse than wrong; it is actively dangerous. Multiple authors in this text are at pains to point out that, however much we might not like it, Islam has always had a very violent component to it, and Islamists (Marlin’s preferred word for extremists or jihadists) are no less “real Muslims” for stressing it.

Third, it is important to remember that Middle Eastern Christians are just as much Arabs as their Muslim neighbors. They have long resented being treated as second-class citizens in their own countries, and over the centuries have responded by cultivating an influence in art, letters, culture, and politics far beyond their numbers or position. Indeed, the so-called Arab Spring was largely their instigation (and its consequences are now their problem).

Fourth, the notion that democracy is a universal good desired by everyone, everywhere, takes a major beating when one honestly looks at reality in the Middle East. Despite advocacy movements for democracy and against dictatorship, the fact is that every completed election has resulted in more Islamists coming to power and Christians losing what little representation, if any, they might have had. Nobody wants to admit it, but Middle Eastern Christians have fared better under autocratic-but-tolerant rulers (as in Syria, before its recent civil war) or in unfair political orders (as in Lebanon, before its civil war) than with “democracy.”

Fifth, emigration is actually a problem, not a solution. No reasonable person can blame the large numbers of Middle Eastern Christians who have fled for their lives to places like Europe, the U.S., and Australia, but that process has created its own set of problems, and not just for the struggling Christian communities left behind. The experts in Marlin’s book are almost unanimous in their belief that a lack of Christian presence in the Middle East will make things far, far worse for Muslims. Besides the valuable peacemaking services Christians have always provided, the lack of regular interactions with a “familiar but alien” group will make Islamic radicals even more intolerant and will drastically increase the level of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in the region.

Finally, the aforementioned experts generally agree that the whole messy situation is primarily one that Muslims need to handle themselves. While endangered Christian communities welcome Western help and support, they also realize that Western intervention, especially of a military kind, can be a problem. What is going on right now is a fight within Islam itself, as that religion struggles to determine what it is and wants to be — and as it grapples with its relationship to modernity. No external entity can make those decisions. The hope is that a more moderate Islam, less fundamentalist and more tolerant of non-Muslims, will win out in the end. Time will tell.

Christian Persecutions in the Middle East also provides partial answers to follow-up questions. For any reader who, numbed by the horrors presented in the book, asks, “What can I do?” a useful answer comes from Timothy Cardinal Dolan in a 2013 address to the U.S. bishops. He gives a four-part plan: First, pray, not just individually but communally. All those after-Mass prayers we used to pray for the conversion of Russia seem to have borne fruit. It’s time to start praying like that for the Middle East. Second, remember the plight of our fellow Christians in the Middle East, and raise awareness of it. The one common complaint of suffering Christians is that no one seems to know, or care, about them and their agonies. If they should be wiped off the face of the earth, would anybody even notice? Third, lend special support to bodies such as ACN, which strive to provide basic necessities to displaced and suffering Middle Eastern Christians. Fourth, hold our political leaders to account; they have been willing in the past to tie foreign aid and trade to maintenance of basic human-rights standards. They could do so again.

Another question the agonized reader may ask is “Why is God letting this happen?” The answer isn’t clear, but there are small indicators of possible answers. The surviving remnant communities are coming together as never before, and in their agonies they are experiencing a level of community, faith, and holiness they had never known. This is the “ecumenism of blood” of which the popes have spoken.

Also, emigrant or exile communities of Christians provide their new homes with an example of a people who have faced death for their faith, and that is sure to have a significant impact on lax faith in the West. This reviewer was surprised to discover an article in the Daily Telegraph which claimed that ten percent of all practicing Christians in Australia are displaced Middle Eastern emigrants and refugees. I cannot imagine that the influence of so many heroic souls will be insignificant.

Finally, there are scattered accounts of moderate Muslims who face the violent ferocity of the Islamists, recoil from it in shock and disgust, turn instead to a God who loves them, and find Him not in Islam but in Christianity. Perhaps destruction of the old Christian communities of the Middle East is a prelude to the beginning of new ones.



DOSSIER: Islam



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