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To be or not to be in the Middle East

20 February 2015

There is no simple solution to the dilemma facing Arab Christians, says Gerald Butt

CONSIDER this as a test of spiritual faith and moral obligation: you are an Iraqi priest in California, having fled from the violence in your own country. Your senior Bishop orders you to return. What do you do?

This is precisely the dilemma facing Fr Noel Gorgis. His friends, and his congregation of Iraqi exiles in San Diego, fear he will be killed or kidnapped if he goes back. But the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad, the Most Revd Louis Raphael Zako, insists that to stay abroad and put personal safety above the needs of the Church is to violate a priest's oath.

The hideous conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and the monstrous atrocities committed there, leave little space for reason. All parties to the bloodletting, as well as their victims, fashion or distort logic to support their arguments and justify their actions. Arab Christians' decisions whether to remain in their homes and risk their lives, or flee to safety, cannot be imposed by edict, either religious or secular. For this is not a clear-cut war: rather, it is a messy conflict, with shifting allegiances, and few well-defined objectives. Christians are unwilling pawns in the game.

Every Christian would agree with the sentiments of Patriarch Zako's order to his priest in the United States: if all the clergy leave the Middle East, along with their congregations, then a time will come when Christianity will have evaporated from the region where it was born. But ordering a priest to return to a country where his life could be threatened is not necessarily going to save Eastern Christianity.

For there is a deeper issue, which was evident even before the jihadist surges in Syria and Iraq. The increasingly sectarian and ethnic nature of Arab politics, combined with the emergence of Islam as a political and military force, has left Christians either marginalised or persecuted. The murder of 21 Copts by Islamic State fighters in Libya last weekend is among the most horrifying examples of such persecution.

HOW this negativity towards Christianity can be eliminated is hard to see. For there is no sign of powerful and credible secular movements taking shape, in which Christians could act in partnership with Muslims, as they did in the era of Arab nationalism in the first half of the 20th century. Furthermore, the longer Christians in the Middle East are ignored or forced into exile, the harder it will be to claim their right to be an indigenous religion, on an equal footing with Islam.

However much liberal Arab Muslims may insist that Christians are a vital part of the religious mosaic of the Middle East, Christianity as a whole is still perceived as having largely Western associations. The Pope's palace is in Rome, not Ramallah.

In the short term, therefore, many more Arab Christians are likely to face dilemmas over whether to stay, leave, or return. But the depressing conclusion is that, even if Islamic State is defeated overnight, there is no certainty that a political and social environment will emerge that guarantees Arab Christians a safe and secure future in the Middle East. So asking Fr Gorgis to risk, or sacrifice, his life will make no difference at all to the broader picture.

Gerald Butt is Middle East Correspondent for the
Church Times.

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