In the days between September 20 and October 12, 2008, fifteen young Christians were murdered in cold blood on the streets of Mosul, Iraq. A manhunt was launched. None of the offenders were ever brought to justice.
Killings and lootings in Christian neighborhoods continue unabated, with impunity, in Iraq, in Egypt, and elsewhere, everywhere Near Eastern Christians came into view. Nothing unusual! On July 18, 2014, in a statement reading like a ninth century religious edict, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (IS) delivered a 24-hour ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul, commanding them to “convert to Islam, submit to the [discriminatory] laws of dhimma, or meet the sword.”
Soon thereafter the Arabic letter nuun (“N” for Nasraani or Nazarene), a demeaning scarlet-letter connoting dhimmitude like the yellow-star inscribed “Jude” that became the symbol of Nazi persecution of Jews, began cropping up on the outer walls and doorways of Christian properties. Private homes, businesses, and places of worship were now designated halal (ritually legitimate for confiscation and looting as part of the religious spoils of war), designating them waqf (inalienable religious endowments of the Muslim Umma community.) The squaring of this circle is at hand; the destruction of Near Eastern Christendom is well under way and making forboding progress. A mass exodus of Iraqi “Nazarenes” is indeed in full swing in our time.
This was the order of things in times past. For centuries in the Middle East, the cross got trampled in the dust of Abraham. Christian quarters disappeared, neighborhoods counted their dead, clergy gave last rites, and panic gripped those precious few left behind in quiet desperation.
The plight of Near Eastern Christians does not make for catchy headlines. It is not worthy of second, third, or even last-page news in the mainstream press.
Newswire stories often get copied verbatim in a perfunctory manner by national outlets, usually drawing from French and other European services, like AFP or Reuters, before they get buried behind more newsworthy dispatches. There is clearly a hierarchy in the media’s treatment of some Middle East violence; some Middle Eastern victims merit (and get) airtime during primetime. That is, they do as long as the words “Muslim” or “Islam” figure in the victims’ names and there is a non-Muslim perpetrator. Near Eastern Christians, uncouth “cross-wearing” primitives, are not a top priority for the Western world’s outrage or moral sensibility.
Their anguish is not sufficiently telegenic. The victims are after all “too Christian” in a world plagued by cultural relativism and false conceptions of the Middle East as a homogenous Arab or Muslim preserve, where political correctness demands that only Arabs and Muslims serve as righteous victims and only non-Muslims, the perennial offender.
The Middle East’s Christians are indigenous remnants of distinct ancient civilizations.
Their modern-day sagas of dispossession and persecution have been a phenomenon fourteen centuries in the making. Their tormentors often proudly brandish symbols and edicts of Islam. An honest recognition of this legacy may be imperative to a sound understanding of the turmoil plaguing the region in our time, but seasoned commentators, venerable Middle East experts, and serious academics continue to deal with the plight of Near Eastern Christians in cursory fashion, often concluding with mind-numbing claims that the shrinking numbers of Middle Eastern Christians is the outcome of modern ills ranging from economic hardships, to American intrusions, to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and sometimes to the putative precursor of Western colonialism, the eleventh century Crusades.
Gone from this appealing narrative are the seventh century Arab-Muslim conquests of the Middle East and the subjugation, expulsions, massacres, and mass population movements that they inflicted on residents of the area. Indeed, the destruction of Near Eastern Christians is hardly a modern phenomenon — although the viciousness of IS and other likeminded Islamists in our time might give, in some quarters, the aura of a novel anomaly. And so the silent exodus continues disguised, underhanded, unnoticed.
AS OF this writing, the United Nations Security Council has already convened three times to condemn the onslaught against Gaza with full throated voices.
Yet, not a single expression of outrage has come from any official quarters – no denunciation of the ethnic cleansing of the ancient Christian communities of Iraq. But the onus is not on the international community alone. This is a tragedy besetting all Muslims and Arabs of good conscience as well. Some Muslims and Arabs have indeed called out to their own, pressing for introspection, scrutiny, and accountability. On July 21, 2014, in a searing, soul-searching cri de coeur in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas, Ahmad al-Sarraf issued a decent man’s indictment of the crimes being committed in the name of his faith against the battered Christians of the Near East. In an inflammatory, yet tongue-in-cheek editorial, titled ‘Begone, O Christians,’ Sarraf courageously noted – in a facetious diatribe lampooning the IS playbook – that Muslims could not care less that Near Eastern Christians are indigenous peoples of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine.
He demanded that they be expelled anyway, “so that Muslims would no longer be put to shame when their eyes meet the searching gaze of Christians wondering what had gone awry with Islam!” “Yes, begone already,” concluded Sarraf, “And take with you your mercy! For, with al-Nusra, ISIS and al-Qaeda and the rest of them on our side — the gangs of Muslim Brothers and their latest finest products — we are scarcely in need of [the Christians’] mercy and compassion.
Let the bloodletting commence! Let the violence reign supreme! Let the hearts get ripped out of their chest-cavities, and let human livers get eaten raw! Let the tongues be torn out! Let the necks get hacked off, and the knees get shattered! For, we shall eagerly return to the medicine of old, to our herbal remedies and our old musty books of alchemy and witchcraft! […] Yes, begone, O Christians, and leave us be to our desert creed! For, we crave the glint of our swords, the heat of our sands, and the energy of our mules! We scarcely need you, your civilization, or your scientific and literary contributions, for, we have our own capital in abundance; our own gangs of murderers and bloodthirsty butchers and executioners. Scram, you Christians, and spare us your civilization! We are replacing your culture with that of the gravediggers,” wrote Sarraft.
Near Eastern Christians have been regarded as the “native Americans” of the Middle East by many, “the ones who were there first.” They constituted twenty percent of the region’s population at the turn of the last century, a decent percentage by any measure given the millennial history of Islam as hegemon in that part of the world. Yet in our second decade of the twenty-first century, the numbers of Near Eastern Christians had dwindled to a mere five percent.
In the past hundred years, prejudice against them was no longer the veiled affliction of a bigoted few; it had become the banner of those who allegedly speak for Islam.
The agonizing fate of Iraq’s Christians today may be a latest flare-up of hostilities.
But it is symptomatic of a longstanding epidemic that has, for fourteen centuries, pitted the youngest of the “Children of Abraham” against their elders. Ironically enough, those Iraqi Christians, trampled as they are in the dust of Abraham, are being oppressed in the supposed birthplace of Abraham, no less by an ISIS Caliph fashioned as “Ibrahim,” the Arabic rendering of Abraham.
Maybe the pendulum of the world’s moral outrage may swing in favor of Iraq’s Christians before it is too late. Or maybe, in Luke the Evangelist’s words, “the stones will cry out” if the world opts to remain silent. But until then, the latest chapter in the saga of destruction of Near Eastern Christendom goes on unabated. And Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Copts, Maronites, Armenians and others, precious few remaining specimens of the world’s oldest civilizations, quietly shuffle into extinction in mournful anonymity and oblivion.
The writer is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is founding Editor-in-Chief of The Levantine Review and author of Language, Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010 and 2011.)