No preferential treatment, but please don’t ignore Christian minorities any longer

One might have expected it: After the joint call of the chairpersons of the three Christian political youth organisations to take a stand for persecuted Christians, two officials of the PAX peace movement (which less than a year ago, on opportunistic grounds, dropped the word ‘Christi’ and the reference to the Inter-church peace network IKV) argue in the Dutch newspaper, Trouw, that we have to stand up for all minorities under threat, and not just for Christians. 

Of course that is correct, but in practice the assertion that we should not only seek out Christian minorities means that Western governments, peace and human rights organisations are ignoring their appeal for help. This time too, the media are replete with stories about the Yezidis who have fled into the mountains for the advancing ISIS; it is the suffering of this particular religious minority that prompted the American president, Obama, to intervene in Iraq, not the expulsion of tens of thousands of Christians from Mosul and its surroundings one and a half month earlier.

The PAX officials explain this reticence in their article by reference to the oft-heard argument that overt support from the West, seen as Christian, would constitute an additional threat because they would then be seen as a fifth column of the West. We do see this phenomenon, but that is not a consequence of the support provided by the West to the Christian minorities in the Middle East (in fact it isn’t provided), but of the wars which the West itself wages in the Middle East, or of the assistance it provides to other warring parties in the region.

Prior to the disastrous Iraq war of 2003, Iraqi Christians and Christians in the remaining Middle East called on their (supposed) co-religionists not to launch this war, as it would have dramatic consequences for Christians and all other sections of the Iraqi population. This compelling appeal to the West was ignored and on the part of IKV there were scathing remarks about the Christian background of the Iraqi foreign secretary and later prime minister under Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz. The Iraqi Christians were put down as collaborators with the regime and their warnings were dismissed. The same reproach was made to the Syrian churches when they, in the early stages of the Arab Spring, pointed at the jihadist groups which fought alongside the armed Syrian opposition, claiming they constituted a threat to the Christians and other minorities in Syria and yet were being supported by the West, morally and indirectly, materially as well.

The PAX officials argue towards the end of their article that an ‘inclusive approach’ is necessary to link up with ‘the complex process of identity and state building in Iraq and the Arab region’. But in the cases of Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2011, their organisation and Western policy in general did not adopt an inclusive approach at all. Instead they lent their ear to Iraqi and Syrian exiles, and in the case of Iraq, to the Kurds in the north who were busy with their own ‘process of identity and state building’. Other voices, including those of the Christians in both countries, were simply not noticed or were dismissed as irrelevant.

Yet both in Syria and Iraq Christians constituted a fully integrated section of the population within states that had been formed under secular auspices. With their secular and Islamic compatriots they resisted what they saw as Western imperialist politics in the Middle East. The West chose other groups in the population as a ‘fifth column’, just as it is currently helping the Kurds in particular to defend themselves against ISIS in Iraq. Instead of protecting the Christians who had fled Mosul to seek refuge in the Ninive plain, the Kurdish fighters retreated from this area without putting up any resistance, just as the Iraqi army had done one and a half month earlier in Mosul. Hence is it not the Christians asking for help, who are feeding the growing sectarianism in the Middle East, but the Western interventions in the region.

It is true that in large parts of Iraq the Christians today are being seen as a fifth column of the West, but that is not because the West would one-sidedly come to their aid but precisely because the West systematically ignores their warnings and calls for help, whilst persistently justifying itself by pointing to the danger of turning the Christians into a fifth column.

Aziz Beth Aho
Chair, Aramaic Movement for Human Rights

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