May 9 2014, 3:59pm CDT | by Forbes
A chorus of deafening silence has greeted the May 7 public declaration of solidarity by American churches for Christians in the Middle East. Except for this item in Fox News(http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/05/07/american-christians-pledge-solidarity-with-persecuted-christians-in-egypt-iraq/) , the grand gesture seems not to have caught the media’s attention in the US or elsewhere. Why is there so little sustained concern for Eastern Christians, especially considering the horrors they’ve endured in their ancient homelands in recent years? Conversions at gunpoint, rape, murder, church-burnings, forcible marriages to Jihadists, abductions, torture, massive intimidation and expulsion. Why so little response? The answers are buried deep in the historical tangle of east-west geopolitics.
The eternal polarities between East and West Christianity have suddenly become strategically relevant again. They endure, after all these centuries. They’ve been exacerbated anew. They explain why Mideast Christians are suffering without our help. The situation gives the West’s opponents huge advantages in today’s revived great power struggles. Earlier this year Syria’s Christians called on President Obama to end his support for anti-Assad rebels (http://swampland.time.com/2014/01/30/syrian-christian-leaders-call-on-us-to-end-support-for-anti-assad-rebels/) . If you triangulate Putin’s rise as champion of Orthodox Christianity and the plight of Christians in the Mideast and the role of the US in the mix, you get a startlingly fresh focus on recent geostrategic events.
This is a hugely sensitive topic area, which might explain why it gets so little coverage – and will likely get me into all sorts of trouble. But no one else is going near it. It’s a signal weakness of American media that it tends to look away from painful truths which might confuse the allegiance of its readers. The age-old Mideastern feuds now back in play between sects and faiths will seem remote to Americans but not to anyone else in a region where now again geography equals destiny. To some degree, the last century’s ‘isms’cloaked a lot of ancient divisions but they’re back and our new millenium’s ‘ism’ – namely globalism – seems paradoxically to make it worse.
One should first note the scandalous mystery of why minimal attention gets paid to the Armenian tragedy unfolding in Syria. For a century, the city of Aleppo flourished as a haven for Christian-Armenian communities. Now, it has become a total warzone. You can imagine: caught between pressure from the Assad regime to remain loyal and pressure from anti-Assad rebels many of whom are extreme Islamists, Armenians have been fleeing in thousands to Armenia and Lebanon and Iran. The astute reader will instantly discern, from the geography just mentioned, why U.S. newsmedia finds the Armenian predicament so easy to bypass. Syria, Iran, Lebanon – these are not places that America feels comfortable about. Nor are they friendly to Israel. As for the country of Armenia itself, it has had to serve as Moscow’s bulwark in the Caucasus against anti-Moscow pro-West countries like Georgia and oil-rich Azerbaijan. That’s not something Armenians asked for. But the Kremlin’s habit of stirring enmities in the region, then marching in to pacify them, has repeatedly forced Yerevan into Moscow’s embrace. The Kremlin plays such imperial gambits in its sleep, having done so since Czarist times.
The recent plight of other Mideast Christian communities largely echo the Armenian experience. Greek Orthodox, Syriac, Chaldean, Copt and others are suffering unprecedented adversity – maybe the worst since the Crusades. Considering the West’s irruption into the Mideast in the new millennium you’d think the area’s Christians would be having a golden age. But the fact is, the two poles of Christianity, east and west, never much liked each other doctrinally, never trusted each other or co-ordinated to any great effect. It seems preposterous to say, but the repercussions of the notorious Fourth Crusade by Western Christians almost a millennium ago are more than ever with us. Western crusaders occupied Greek Byzantium, destroyed its power, and helped usher in the Ottomans, ultimately giving Russia the role of protector of Eastern Christians. As Ottoman power waned from, say, 1800 to WW1, Moscow acted as surety to Eastern Orthodoxy while Europe and America spent their civil society resources on missionary activity aimed at their regional coreligionists. That too did not endear them to local church fathers.
If you think it’s all forgotten history, think again. The 1990s Bosnia war essentially featured the three post-Byzantine forces in the Balkans – Serbia (Russia) vs Balkan Muslims (Ottomans) vs Croatia (Western European Christianity). The equation there has changed little since medieval times. East-West Christian enmity never went away. President Bush’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq quickly led to severe Muslim reprisals against Iraqi Christians. He had apparently neglected to prioritize their security in his calculations, which didn’t seem to irk his host of evangelist supporters back home. You can imagine how much alienation all that led to once again between the two tributaries of the faith. Almost half the population of Iraqi churches emigrated from lands they’d occupied since biblical times. America’s push for freedom in Arab countries ended up leaving Christians lethally exposed. In Egypt, the overthrow of long-time ally Mubarak – with the consent of the Obama administration – led swiftly to the torching of Coptic churches. The Copts are not especially grateful to America.
Conversely, evangelical America in the modern era never liked the political choices of their Eastern cousins. In the main, the antipathy revolves around the advent of Israel but the issue has earlier roots. Arab nationalism, began as largely a phenomenon driven by Christians in rebellion against Ottoman rule. They were the ones who conceived of separate Arab national identities as preceding and superseding pan-Islam under the Caliphate. They believed in the entity of Syria rooted in Alexandrian times, or of ancient Mesopotamia as Iraq or of Egyptian identity going back to the Pharaohs. They, with Western educations, were the first to embrace the trendy modern secular isms. They were the first ideologues of the Arab iteration of socialism, fascism, communism and the like, indeed what became Baathism. Arab nationalism also fed Palestinian nationalism. Christians were very prominent among the earliest international Palestinian terrorists from the notorious George Habash to members of Black September who killed Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. (The operation was named “Ikrit and Biram” after two Palestinian villages brutally purged by Israeli forces during the country’s birth pangs in the 1940s). Israelis have no sympathy for Arab Christians (here’s an example of what I mean (http://www.debbieschlussel.com/43630/hamas-fatahs-christian-terrorists-meet-chris-al-bandak-of-the-shalit-trade/). All of which is to explain why American Christians in general, and evangelicals devoted to Israel in particular, have had trouble identifying with their counterparts in the Mideast.
And look at the Middle East now. Putin and Assad have maneuvered to become the explicit protectors of Eastern Christianity in situ. Moscow is back as their shield and Orthodoxy’s patron. He didn’t sidle up to the Russian church in recent years purely for domestic reasons. He knew the unforgotten historical alignments just below the surface from Moscow out through the Balkans, through the Caucasus, past Turkey to the Holy Land. All he needed was a spate of Sunni jihadist assaults on Christians for which he could blame the West’s chaotic freedom-mongering. His Shiite crescent from Tehran through Assad to Hezbollah can and do now posture as the champions of local Christians. As the US and Europe are too tangled up in ideological confusion and contradictory goals to step into the breach, we furnish Moscow with easy triumphs in this area as in so many others.
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