Middle Eastern Christians and anti-Semitism

Statements by Arab clerics reveal that blood libels are still very much alive.

Our Lady of Salvation Baghdad blast_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Our Lady of Salvation Baghdad blast_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
I was recently told by my aunt in Baghdad that there was a widespread belief among Iraqis that some external force was behind the protests and uprisings across the Middle East. What outside conspiracy, I wondered, could be responsible for the Arab Spring? Not to worry, however; George Saliba – the Syriac Orthodox Church’s bishop in Lebanon – offers us a simple answer. In an interview with Al-Dunya TV on July 24, Saliba declared that “the source... behind all these movements, all these civil wars, and all these evils” in the Arab world is nothing other than Zionism, “deeply rooted in Judaism.” The Jews, he says, are responsible for financing and inciting the turmoil in accordance with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
These remarks are not an isolated case among Middle Eastern Christians. The anti-Semitic trend has become especially apparent in the aftermath of Iraq’s assault last October on the Syriac Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, leaving 58 dead and 67 wounded in the worst attack on the Iraqi Christian community since 2003.
Two months after the atrocity, for example, the Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregory III Laham characterized the terrorist attacks on Iraq’s Christians as part of “a Zionist conspiracy against Islam.”
He further affirmed, “All this behavior has nothing to do with Islam... but it is actually a conspiracy planned by Zionism...
and it aims at undermining and giving a bad image of Islam.”
He then said the massacre “is also a conspiracy against Arabs and the predominantly Muslim Arab world that aims at depicting Arabs and Muslims in Arab countries as terrorist and fundamentalist murderers in order to deny them their rights, and especially those of the Palestinians.”
While the patriarch has warned of the dangers of Christian emigration and the formation of a “society uniquely Muslim,” he attributed the risk of “demographic extinction” solely to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Similarly, in an interview with NBN TV on November 9, 2010, Iraqi priest Father Suheil Qasha claimed that the Jews consider all gentiles to be beasts, and asserted that the “real danger” to Middle Eastern Christians came from Zionism. He went on to state that those who perpetrated the attack on the church in Baghdad were certainly not Muslims, but probably those trained and supervised “by global Zionism.”
Anti-Semitism extends to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which, serving around 10 percent of Egypt’s population, is the largest single church in the Middle East and North Africa. As liberal Egyptian blogger Samuel Tadros points out, a certain Father Marcos Aziz Khalil wrote in the newspaper Nahdet Masr: “The Jews saw that the Church is their No. 1 enemy, and that without [the] priesthood the Church loses its most important component . Thus the Masonic movement was the secret Zionist hand to create revolution against the clergy.”
AT THIS point, many would no doubt be inclined to explain away this anti-Semitism by pointing to the anti- Jewish sentiments that are mainstream among the Muslim populations of the region. Living in such an environment – the reasoning goes – Christians would naturally be careful not to denounce deeply held convictions among their Muslim neighbors for fear of provoking persecution.
However, the cancer of hostility toward Jews among Middle Eastern Christians goes much deeper than that.
Indeed, it is telling that other non-Muslim minorities that have suffered discrimination and violence at the hands of Islamists – including the Yezidis, Mandeans and Bahá’íshave never blamed Jews or Zionism for their persecution; their religions have not featured anti-Semitic doctrines.
The case of the Bahá’í community is especially important because, with the religion’s global center located in Haifa, charges of collaboration with Israel can easily be leveled against Bahá’ís. Yet the Universal House of Justice has never complained of a Jewish/Zionist conspiracy against the Bahá’í communities in Iran and the wider region. Rather, it has always rightly identified the problem as enforcement of traditional Islamic law on the treatment of non-Muslims and apostasy, along with the supremacist attitudes fostered by the promotion of Shari’a.
Ultimately the malaise of anti-Semitism among Middle Eastern Christians is entrenched in charges of deicide (i.e., of killing Jesus) against the Jewish people as a whole. As Saliba put it, Jewish conspiracies are “only natural” because the Jews repaid Christ for his miracles by crucifying him. In particular, Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church lambasted the Western churches for exonerating Jews for Christ’s death, in a televised interview on April 8, 2007. He argued that Jews were “Christ-killers” because “the New Testament says they are.”
It is clear that in general, the Eastern churches have yet to move beyond the noxious anti-Semitic motifs repudiated by the Vatican in its Nostra Aetate declaration issued in 1965, after the Second Vatican Council. If anti-Semitism in the Middle East and North Africa is to be eradicated, the burden of theological reform will evidently not be a task for Muslims alone.
The writer is an intern at the Middle East Forum and a student at Oxford University. His website is www.aymennjawad.org.