Harry Hagopian

What is solidarity with Christians in the Middle East?

We need to view Islamic State victims not as minorities but as fully-fledged citizens of a given country

Iraqi Christians who fled the violence in the village of Qaraqush, about 30 kilometres east of the northern province of Nineveh, rest upon their arrival at the Saint-Joseph church in the Kurdish city of Arbil, in Iraq

Yesterday, I took part in an ecumenical gathering at Lambeth Palace, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a joint initiative with the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The setting was quite informal and the hall was full of familiar and not-so-familiar faces. The participants represented the Orthodox and Catholic churches of the Middle East ministering in the UK as well as a number of Anglican bishops from different key dioceses across England, such as Southwark, Coventry and London. Alongside them were representatives from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales, a number of ecumenically-minded and church-related organisations as well as participants from both the Royal Household of the Prince of Wales at Clarence House and the House of Lords.


This meeting of prayerful solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East also suggested in its sub-title that it was both rejoicing in the faith of Middle Eastern Christians and sharing in their collective pain. Almost prophetic words when one day earlier, the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon had issued an urgent – and powerful – appeal at the highest denominational level. It was signed by 30 pastors and declared “a state of emergency” in the face of the “annihilation” of Christians in the East.


So how does one stand in solidarity with Christians in a region – especially in Iraq and Syria these days – that is being buffeted by a new form of terror dubbed “The Islamic State” (IS)? And how does one “rejoice in the faith and share in the collective pain” of those indigenous, and largely Arab, Christians across those biblical lands?


The first thing about solidarity is that Christian hierarchs must stop their navel-gazing introspection and look at themselves more broadly in the context of other communities. Conversely, the West should also desist from looking at them as minorities but rather as citizens who are fully-fledged members of a given country.


Those rushing to offer asylum to MENA Christians should pause long enough to realise that many of those Christian men and women do not wish to leave their homes and homelands. Instead, what they really seek is security and protection from the execrable crimes committed against them in the name of an extremist ideology. They want to continue living in their homes, as their forefathers have done for two millennia. Besides, can we afford to make so much fuss over asylum for 50, 100 or even 1,000 Christians? What about the tens of thousands of destitute men and women stranded in numerous no-man’s lands?


We must remind ourselves that the Sunnis are not our enemies. Most of them did not create the IS: their dictator regimes are in part also responsible for this aberration. In fact, large numbers of Sunnis do not subscribe to this regressive and three-pronged form of Wahhabism and are fearful of the IS. They are our friends, our allies and neighbours, and the media-savvy bluster over old-friends-who-became-new-foes alas masquerades as the truth. The problems in Iraq and Syria must be viewed in the context of the sufferings of men, women and children across the whole region. Besides, solidarity is with other men and women, not against them.


Finally, the most urgent key word for me today is “humanitarian aid.” The needs are immense where refugees go at times without food, drink, shelter or money: Prayers and political manifestos or ambitious isolationism alone will not provide security. Nor will they sate hunger, quench thirst or put roofs over heads or money in pockets.


Today, despite the gravity of the MENA situation, I reject the fear-mongering arguments that presage a clash of civilizations. I also reject the efforts being deployed to form an alliance of minorities that would militate against those pernicious forces and succour those in need of assistance and protection. Rather, the quintessential answer to this existential challenge is for Christians – like those in Lambeth today – to work together and strengthen [not weaken] the Christian-Muslim partnership that remains indispensable to countering such a ruthless enemy. What is interesting to me is that the recent crimes committed by the Islamic State – from kidnappings and rape to beheadings – have already provoked a welcome interest in a form of citizenship that oversteps confessional factionalism.


Politicians are by definition partisan and so I do not expect more from them. But as I listened intently to some of the scripted opinions at Lambeth Palace today, I wondered what was going through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mind. Was he getting all gung-ho, or was he perhaps recalling what Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount? Was he recalling the parable of the Good Samaritan on the way to Jericho or even Jesus’s conversation with the woman at the well?


What is solidarity with Christians in the Middle East? Quoting from the Book of Revelation, the Archbishop suggested patience and endurance. In my own book, solidarity also implies ensuring that the causes of the terror be addressed and not merely its symptoms – and this is the duty of both Christians and Muslims.


Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political analyst, and ecumenical advisor based in London.

Prayers and political manifestos or ambitious isolationism alone will not provide security. (AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

I reject the fear-mongering arguments that presage a clash of civilizations."