Harry Hagopian

Can faith truly do politics in MENA?

It is a myth that the well-being of Christians in the MENA region depends on their alliance with the dictatorial regimes

The In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington DC, 8 September (image via wordpress.com)

Rather famously, Joseph Stalin once asked an advisor dismissively: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” This quotation, referring to Pius XII, later also featured in “The Gathering Storm”, the first volume of Sir Winston Churchill’s The Second World War.


I recalled this infamous quotation earlier in the week as I followed an inaugural summit organised by In Defence of Christians, whose president is the Lebanese-American Toufic Baaklani, and which met at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington DC. It attracted the good, the high and the mighty and purported that it “provides a voice for Christians in the Middle East” to “discover how you can make a difference.”


According to the stated objective, the primary purpose of this summit was to bring all members of the Christian Diaspora together in a newfound sense of unity. Quite a mammoth task, but whether Orthodox or Catholic, Evangelical, Coptic, Maronite, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean or Assyrian, all Middle Eastern Christians were called on to join together in solidarity to strengthen their advocacy efforts and reach out to US policy makers, elected officials, and the American public. In essence, it was meant to be a laudable attempt to congregate peoples of good will in defense of the defenseless, and to become a voice for those who are voiceless.


I admit wholeheartedly that such a gathering, even though ostentatiously labelled a “summit” simply because of the presence of five Middle Eastern patriarchs in its midst, is a good thing. The US and much of the West often gets it wrong on MENA despite years of history, colonialism and messy politics. After all, who could decry such a lofty goal?


But let me probe a tad further into this event. For those ecumenical or political aficionados who followed it, they will have no doubt been aware of the little spat following a speech by Senator Ted Cruz, who was heckled when he stated that Christians have no greater ally than Israel for their salvific future – a hard pill to swallow for many participants. If it were not, they would have applauded the meeting with President Obama and Susan Rice at the White House as if all Christians were now safe and secure in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere in MENA on the back of this 40-minute meeting!


But let me stop being unduly critical before someone yells “sour grapes” at me.


My real beef with this “summit” is two-fold. For one, there is a myth being propagated by some religious hierarchs that their well-being, let alone sheer survival, depends on their alliance with the dictatorial regimes of the MENA region. By cosying up with these bloody regimes – which don’t bat an eye about clapping someone in gaol, torturing them and snuffing out their existence – these hierarchs seem to think that Christians in the MENA region will fare better.


Mind you, their argument becomes more plausible when one witnesses the execrable terror perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in parts of Iraq and Syria and its exclusivist attitudes toward religion in the region. And if not ISIS, then the rabid pandemonium created by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. But whilst ISIS enjoys the support of considerable numbers of Sunni Muslim men and women who feel marginalised and disenfranchised both politically and economically, they are still a tiny percentage that does not represent in any real form or shape the larger corpus of Islam that, admittedly, still looks at its constituency as a broad ummah just as Christians do their own global fellowship.


So this indolent intellectual exercise exported as religious leadership by some MENA Christians is lily-livered, and the openness of some Western Christian leaders to accept it lock, stock and barrel is correspondingly parvanimous.


My second concern is a propensity – again, exacerbated by the undisguised crimes of ISIS that feeds on ideological and theological wastelands – whereby few Christian hierarchs now look squarely at Christian realities, hopes, woes or concerns in isolation from other communities. Let me humbly remind those leaders they do not always represent the Christian vox populi and that Christians throughout the whole of the MENA and Gulf regions (due largely to Egypt and Lebanon) constitute no more than 10% of the overall demographic population. To start highlighting the indigenous Christians as a separate reality from the other men and women of the region, or even portraying them as non-neighbours, is indefensible. It will rebound on those Christians and boomerang on their long-term interests once the finite nightmare of ISIS subsides – as it will eventually do.


I personally struggle with my own Christian faith because I often test it so as to grow and strengthen it. But I have a problem with church leaders, priests or grassroots organisations – some of them friends – who jump on convenient bandwagons to play politics when their job should be one which exemplifies compassion, mercy and support for their peoples.


I started off with Stalin’s derogatory aside about the Pope’s divisions. Had I been at the same table and had the prophetic courage to respond to the totalitarian politician, I would have simply retorted: “How many divisions does the Pope need, anyway?” My hypothetical response to Stalin provides an ethical backbone for Christians who criticise others for suffusing politics in their religious domains. If we’re to answer whether faith can do politics in the MENA region, the foremost thing we can say is that it doesn’t require divisions!


Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political analyst, and ecumenical advisor based in London. He tweets @harryhagopian

Few Christian hierarchs now look squarely at Christian realities, hopes, woes or concerns in isolation from other communities. (image via wordpress.com)

By cosying up with these bloody regimes – which don’t bat an eye about clapping someone in gaol, torturing them and snuffing out their existence – these hierarchs seem to think that Christians in the MENA region will fare better."

  • Beiruti

    Quite a critique by someone who did not attend the conference. I did and can tell you that to a prelate, the seven Patriarchs all said that their mission is not to defend Christianity in the MENA. They did not wish to be singled out, segregated or put in some sort of "ghetto". Rather, they all said that their purpose was the protection of all religious and ethnic minorities, Christians, Muslims Jews, Yazidis and others. The all said that their mission in the Middle East is in service to all the people, not just Middle Eastern Christians. Many of the NGOs present and represented fund schools, health and education programs. In Jericho, on the West Bank, there is a school run by Franciscan nuns that has to turn students away and which is funded by one of the NGO's present. Only 4% of the students are Christian with the 96% being Moslem and most of those being girls since Moslem schools do not educate the girls. What united them all was the common threat posed by ISIS. To a Patriarch they all said that this ISIS is not a manifestation of Sunni Islam or any form of Islam. For that reason, they were advocating for the protection not only of Shia Muslims, but Sunni Muslims as well that are not fundamentalist enough for ISIS. And, it was not a political gathering. Politics divides, religion and protection of people of faith was the common ground that brought them all together and was the theme of the gathering, not politics. They all pled that for the region to progress, there must be a separation of church and state, religion from politics. They were the most progressive liberal clergy I have ever been around and it was a great honor to have attended. Unfortunately, Senator Cruz and Mr. Hagopian suffer from the same myopia when it comes to matters of faith. The issue can stand alone without a political component.

    September 17, 2014