The long tradition of the presence of Christians in the Middle East is nearly at an end
And thus it comes to an end, the long history of the presence of Christians in the Middle East. William Dalrymple writes on this topic over at the Guardian, where his article reprises the thesis of his justly famous book From the Holy Mountain.
In that book he chronicled the parlous state of Christian communities in the Middle East. That was in 1997, when he spoke of the clock standing at five minutes to midnight. Now, barely two decades later, complete darkness has fallen. For this is not simply about Mosul, and the horrors perpetrated there: Mosul is an extreme case, but all over the Middle East Christians are leaving, and who can blame them, and very soon none will be left.
As with the Jews, who once formed flourishing communities all over the region, and who have left behind some sumptuous empty synagogues to prove it, so with the Christians, who will leave empty churches behind them either to be converted into mosques or to be visited merely as tourist attractions, like, for example, the famous synagogue at Djerba. Just as it is possible to visit all the places where Jews once lived but live no more, so too it will be the case that one will be able to travel the entire Middle East, from Istanbul to upper Egypt, and see the relics of Christianity. This process of ‘deChristianisation’ has lasted for more than a century and is now clearly irreversible.
How and why has this happened? It has happened largely as a result of war, and more particularly because the Christians have consistently been on the losing side in wars. The Greeks were defeated by the Turks; the Christians in Lebanon lost their civil war; Christians in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq have been on the losing side. In Egypt, for the time being, they have a friendly government in that of General al-Sisi, but how long will that last for? In Asia Minor they were destroyed by the forces of secular Turkish nationalism; in other countries by the resurgence of Sunni extremism; in Palestine they have been crushed between two rival nationalisms. As Dalrymple says, their disappearance from the scene marks the death knell of any hope for Arab secularism. The Arab world will soon be an entirely Muslim one, though it will hardly be peaceful, as the various strands of Islam fight it out amongst themselves. But the idea of religious toleration and respect for minorities seems dead: instead it will be a battle to the death.
All this is very depressing, and the West is not free from blame. The West connived at ‘populations exchanges’ in Anatolia after the First World War, or ethnic cleansing, to give it a more honest name. The West has never come clean over the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians in 1915, preferring fudge to truth. The West has been best friends with the world’s least tolerant state, Saudi Arabia. The West has demonised various other rulers, who were secularists, and who did at least protect Christians, unlike the Saudis. When it comes to finding allies in the Middle East, the West has been a spectacularly bad picker. Now ISIS rules in Mosul, and our governments are pretending that this is not happening.
So, what happens next? One thing is certain: the loss of the Christian populations of the Middle East represents a major talent haemorrhage for all these countries. This is talent that places like Iraq cannot afford to lose. Is there anyone in ISIS-land who actually produces anything useful, who adds something to the economy? I doubt it. Let’s remember that the world’s richest man is a Middle East Christian by origin. Similar talents, as I write this, are headed out of the ancient lands of the Fertile Crescent, and heading for the new promised land of America. We shall hear about them in years to come.
And the lands they leave? They will continue, sadly, much as before: mired in poverty and strife, presided over at best by military strongmen, at worst by corrupt and venal dictators, as coup succeeds coup and civil war succeeds civil war. These lands, where international borders even now seem to be breaking down, will perhaps come to resemble the lands once outside the Roman Empire, the domain of barbarism and warring tribes. Indeed, hasn’t this happened already? ISIS is doing its bloody work, and no one seems able to stop them. Lawlessness is the new law.
What can we do for our Christian brethren from the Middle East now? One thing can help them. Just as the democracies in the 1930s failed with regard to the Jews in providing them with visas (with a few notable exceptions) let us now pressurise our governments to let in all those who are victims of religious persecution. They are good people. Our lands will benefit from their presence. Let us not make the mistakes if the 1930s again.
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