Religious Persecution in the Middle East
Senior Advisor, In Defense of Christians
Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Andrew Doran, senior advisor to In Defense of Christians, discusses the historical and cultural context of Christianity in the Middle East and provides an overview of the persecution faced by Christians and other religious groups in the region, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio will be available, as well as the transcript, on our website, CFR.org.
We’re delighted to have Andrew Doran with us to talk about religious persecution in the Middle East. Mr. Doran is a senior advisor to In Defense of Christians, an organization that builds awareness and mobilizes individuals around the world to support Christians facing persecution in the Middle East. He served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. national commission for UNESCO at the U.S. State Department. He’s an attorney and U.S. armed forces veteran, who frequently writes about U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the rights of religious minorities, especially the ancient Christian communities of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
Andrew, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought it would be great if you could start by giving us an overview of the historical cultural backdrop of Christianity in the Middle East, and how it’s evolved, and how that has brought us to the situation facing Christians and other religious minorities in the region today.
DORAN: Thank you, Irina. And thank you very much for having me here. It’s a real pleasure. I think that question of Christianity in the Middle East and its origins is something that has taken a lot of people by surprise in America—not just in the West, really more in the United States—because there wasn’t a great deal of awareness of Christianity in the Middle East, I would say, until 2013, 2014. And then it was very much, who are these Christians who are being chased out of their homes by fundamentalists and extremists? And so that really prompt us to look at this maybe historically. And what I’d like to do is to put it in a little bit of a context.
Westerners typically think of Christianity in the two spheres of Christians, which would be the Greek and Latin spheres. And that approximates the Orthodox and the Catholic, and the Byzantine and the Western, East-West. And the truth is, there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s another dimension, and that’s this dimension of Middle East Christian—Middle East Christianity, which developed quite independent and different, although it was largely influenced by the Greeks. And so we’re talking about the region of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, the Near East, Anatolia, this region. But there were numbers—there were significant numbers of Christians dating back to the 1st century, 2nd century, 3rd century, when they converted to Christianity.
This is a part of the world that had been occupied. And the Christians became very used to occupying forces coming and going. And the most prominent, the more permanent among those, is the Arab Muslims, who, you might say, conquer, you know, Egypt and Mesopotamia and Syria, but the truth is they were very often welcomed by the Christians, because this provided them with a degree of independence and religious freedom that they hadn’t necessarily had under the Byzantine Empire. And so that’s an important point I think worth noting, that very often the Christians were prepared to welcome their Muslims—their Muslim rulers as liberators.
But they developed very different ecclesiastical models than those of the West and of the Byzantine and Russian Orthodox world. And I think that’s an important point there, because there’s not the Caesaropapist papist model of the church being subservient to the state, and there’s not the Western model of separation of church and state. In the Middle East, you have varying kind of spheres, but the primary focus on the religious and ethnic, to the exclusion of focusing on the political. And I think that’s a point that we’re going to come back to later on.
But one of the—one of the elements I think that goes along with that part of the conversation is that pacifism was something that was very prevalent in the first millennium of Christianity, and still is prevalent in the Middle East to this day. And it’s—so we have a very passive citizenry. And they were—if you think of this in terms of rendering to Caesar, rendering to God, the earliest Christians were typically content if they would be just left alone, not to get involved in the politics. And so that soothed the rulers, for the most part.
And it’s worth mentioning that Christians played a very significant role in Islam’s golden age of transcribing and translating many of the great classical works of Greek philosophy into Arabic. And these were, in turn, transmitted to Western Europe during Islam’s golden age, when Islam and Christianity encountered each other in Iberia and across the Mediterranean and in Sicily. And that’s a very significant historic event, and one that’s very often overlooked by the West, the great contribution of Muslim scholarship to the development of the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance in the West.
But moving to the modern era, and this is where we begin this phase of demographic decline. It really starts in the 19th century, especially in the late 19th century with Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian communities fleeing persecution at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, who were instituting policies that really culminate in the 1915 Armenian-Greek-Assyrian genocide. And these were—these were largely influenced by racist and racialist ideas that had done—had really come from Europe, that are originated in the West and had been incorporated into policy and then systematic persecution. And it wasn’t limited to Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. There was great suffering in the Levant in Syria, and a number of famines and a number of people dying of starvation.
So in this case, this is when we start seeing the first mass waves of emigration from the Middle East by Christians, coming to Europe and coming to North American and South America. And at the same time, what we’re seeing into the 20th century, the great powers of Europe are really withdrawing after Russia, which has a very close connection to a lot of the Orthodox communities of the Middle East. Most of the Christians of the Middle East are Orthodox Christians. And so there is something of a bond there with the Russians that the Americans and really the British do not have. There’s not that close cultural bond. It’s much closer to the Russians.
The French historically—they did a significant role in the establishment of Lebanon, for example—had a close Catholic connection between the Maronite Roman Catholic rites of the Catholic Church. And so we’ll see this later on. This doesn’t exist in the United States. And this is part of the reason that I would argue Middle East Christians have had difficulty getting their voice heard in American foreign policy circles, because there isn’t that close connection with mainline Protestant or evangelical Christians. And so this has put them at something of a disadvantage. They’re also competing against very real policy interests of the United States, such as securing energy from the Gulf states, which has been part of U.S. policy for more than half a century, certainly a foreign policy priority. So they’re going up against some very strong, powerful, competing interests.
That is somewhat related to the rise of extremism and fundamentalism in the Middle East. And so what we have seen more recently in recent—certainly the 15 years has been something approaching systematic—systematic removal would be a little bit too strong, but certainly Christians being driven out of their homes and persecuted, murdered. But this also—it must be said that this suffering has taken place in the context of enormous loss of human life in Muslim communities in the Middle East. And so all of this is happening certainly at the same time. And these issues are related. And they are in many ways responses to the conduct of the U.S. foreign policy in the region.
So one significant event that’s coming up that I think speaks to the world religious leaders is this week the pope, Pope Francis, is meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. And this is the first-ever meeting—historic meeting, it’s slated to take place in Cuba. And it is worth noting, I think, that the Russians—that the Russian Orthodox Church does have significant influence in the foreign policy of the Russian government. There is certainly a realpolitik component to that, but Putin does listen to what the Russian Orthodox leadership has to say, because it’s a vital constituency domestically for him. And the Russian Orthodox leadership has been for several years now pressing him to protect the Christians of the Middle East.
This puts, again, this community at odds with the West because of problems in Ukraine, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. And so it’s very difficult for Middle East Christians to form another bond, I would way, with Europeans and Westerners at a time that it’s vitally needed. They don’t have a great deal of confidence, in my experience speaking with Middle East Christians in America, in America’s capacity for getting its foreign policy right, especially with respect to protecting Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
So I think I’m just about at my time there, Irina. And with that, if you have any questions, or if those joining the call have any questions. I’d be happy to answer them.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Andrew. We would love to open it up now to questions and comments from the group for what Andrew’s laid out and to drill down even further.
OPERATOR: At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll pause just a moment. The first question will come from Todd Scribner, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Please go ahead.
SCRIBNER: Hello. Yeah, thanks for your presentation. It’s very helpful. I did have a question, and that is you mention that a lot of evangelical and mainline Protestant communities here in the U.S. don’t have very close ties to Christian communities in the Middle East historically, and this has had implications for our foreign policy questions and our relations with them, you know, from the U.S. perspective. But a lot of evangelicals do have very close ties to Israel, sort of theologically and politically. And I’m wondering if there is any complications for well-being of Christians in that region that has resulted from kind of the Evangelical-Israel nexus that has played into kind of the politics in that area over the last, you know, few decades?
DORAN: Thank you. I think that’s an excellent question. In my experience, speaking with Middle East Christians whether in the Middle East or in the United States, there tends to be—they’re really all over the spectrum between support for the Palestinians and support for Israel. And so I haven’t seen anything like a unified—what you might call a unified attitude or approach or sentiment to it. But I think there are certainly some complications there.
But you know, I’ve seen just over the last year, looking at a number of very strong Israel supporters in the United States among the American evangelical community, an increasingly willingness to be outspoken in defense of the rights of Christians—particularly Christians, but also other religious minorities. And I think that’s a very positive step. I think that there has been a tendency to view the Middle East in very Manichean terms. And I think lost in that—in the absence of nuance there, we’ve lost an opportunity, and we’ve alienated a number of I think natural allies in the region.
And that’s certainly been unfortunate. But I am hopeful that in the years ahead that evangelical leaders will take it upon themselves to travel throughout the Middle East, encounter these Middle East Christian communities where they are, and meet them where they are with a sense of compassion and understanding, and look for a path forward where no one group is going to be supported to the exclusion of another.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment?
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Salam al-Marayati with Muslim Public Affairs Council. Please go ahead.
AL-MARAYATI: Thank you. I think there’s a number of questions, obviously, that arise from your presentation. Probably the time allotted doesn’t do justice to the topic, because it is a topic that has obviously profound implications on Christian-Muslim relations globally, you know, as we step forward. A couple questions I have, is what is the proportion of Muslims who are persecuted by Muslim extremists versus Christians who are persecuted by Muslim extremists? And secondly, in terms of the genocide of Armenians and Greeks and Assyrians, did that not happen when the Islamic state was actually dismantled, and there was actually—it was the nationalists who were involved in that persecution? Because if you take the time premise that it was done under an Islamic government, the Ottomans had been governing for centuries. And so it would behoove us to at least look into what the relations or status of Christians were throughout that time as well as, you know, of course, the time of Umar, when he first—the second caliph in Islam, when he went to Jerusalem and he made it a point not to pray in the church, so that Muslims wouldn’t think that that was their religious obligation, to go and take over churches.
DORAN: Salam, thank you very much. Those are excellent questions. I’ve tried to, you know, in covering 2,000 years in 10 minutes or so—I think I did injustice to a number of different issues there. And you raised two that I think are quite excellent.
With respect to the question of proportion, I don’t know that that’s been documented, but I think any glance at the evidence would—at the numbers, at the death toll, at the number of casualties—civilian casualties that have been suffered, let’s say, since 2003 alone, we are talking about a terribly disproportionate amount of suffering at the hands of Muslims by Muslim extremists. And I don’t even know that Muslim extremist is the right word. I do subscribe to the theory that they’re not—these are not true Muslims, when we’re talking about ISIS and ISIL.
And with respect to your question about the Ottoman Turks, that’s an excellent point. And I did try to allude to the fact that the Ottoman government had been, I think, strongly influenced by racist and racialist ideologies of the last 19th and early 20th century. But I didn’t do—I wasn’t clear that that was—and you make an excellent point—that this was something that was done not by religious leadership, quite independent of it. But this was more of a nationalist movement. And that is absolutely an excellent point. And so quite right. Yeah, and I think that—because it does merit greater discussion.
When I do hear people talk about the question of Muslims killing Muslims, it is certainly problematic, because you hear people take this sort of—it’s almost like a tribal, civilizational approach to the question of violence. Well, those are Muslims killing Muslims, we’re concerned about the Christians. That’s a very dangerous approach to take. And it’s certainly only exacerbates relations between the West and the Middle East.
AL-MARAYATI: Thank you. Yeah, and I don’t want it to be about, you know, who’s suffering more, Muslim or Christian. But I do appreciate your answers. Thank you.
DORAN: Thank you, Salam.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Jim Antal with Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. Please go ahead.
ANTAL: Hello. Thank you for your presentation, and also your great answers to these questions so far. I have the opportunity to be traveling to Cairo, Lebanon, Oman, and then Palestine and Jerusalem in a few weeks with the head of our denomination, John Dorhauer, and also the head of the Disciples, Sharon Watkins, and several other mainline leaders here United States. And we’re going to be meeting with our partners over there in those contexts. And I’m wondering if you had the opportunity to be with us, what would be the first or second or third questions that you would be asking our partners pertinent to these concerns?
DORAN: That’s an excellent question. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to travel to the places you mentioned and throughout the Middle East, and have had a number of opportunities to meet with both Christian and Muslim religious and secular leaders. And I’ve found that the situation, of course, is going to vary very differently from Egypt to Iraq to Syria to the holy land to those Christians who remain in southeastern Turkey, to Iraq, and whether you’re in Kurdistan or other parts of Iraq. The situation can vary.
I think the first question, of course, if I understand the mission correctly, it would pertain to humanitarian needs and what could be done to help. I think some other questions could include what can be done to sustain your community here over the long term, and what can be done to promote tolerance and to promote pluralism. And very often, the answers to those questions can vary within different communities and different nations.
ANTAL: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question comes from Ghalib Begg with Michigan Muslim Community Council. Please go ahead.
BEGG: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. My question is, isn’t there a direct relationship between the war and what’s going on in terms of persecution of the Christians? You know, before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it seems like the Christian community—and they lived in the Muslim world, the Arab world, for 1,400 years, and I’m sure it wasn’t an ideal situation but that’s how the Middle East is.
I would like, listening to some of the Republican leaders that are catering to the right-wing religious right, it seems like they want to promote more war versus peace. So wouldn’t it behoove the religious leaders, particularly the Christian leaders, and especially in the light of the conference in Morocco where the 300 Islamic leaders came together to protect the non-Muslim minorities, to do a similar thing here in the West, and also join the peace movement—or anti-war movement, which would result in protection of also Christian and other minorities in the Middle East?
DORAN: Thank you, Ghalib. It’s an excellent point. I think it’s very difficult to make the case that there is not a very direct connection to what is going on and what has happened over the past 13 years, and to suppose that it can’t be directly related to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That was a profoundly destabilizing event in the region. And I think one thing that might be said, and I think this would be my contention—my contention would be that Iraq is not an authentic nation-state, certainly not one that could—I think it will be very difficult for it to sustain pluralistic democracy.
I think without a highly evolved sense of common interest and the common good—I don’t want to say that it was inevitable that a pluralistic, democratic Iraq could evolve out of the post-World War I—out of Sykes-Picot, essentially. I am very skeptical Sykes-Picot and the possibilities of Western-constructed nation-state in the Middle East. But I think it was almost impossible for a pluralistic, democratic Iraq to emerge out of violence, out of war, in other words by force. And my hope is that this is a lesson that has been learned by policymakers.
I think that there were very legitimate—there were people who authentically believed that democracy could be brought through force to the Middle East. And my hope is that that is—that’s something that’s being rethought by the policymakers in both parties. I suppose time is going to tell. But the saber-rattling that we hear among candidates I think is very out-of-step with where the American people are with respect to war, and further war in the Middle East. I could be mistaken about that, but that would be my sense, and certainly my hope.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School. Please go ahead.
BENTSMAN: Hi. Thanks for your presentation. It seems to me that the primary recourse for the population has been to leave the Middle East and seek refuge elsewhere. And I’m wondering what options exist for them to stay safe and at home in the Middle East?
DORAN: That’s an excellent question, Michelle. And thank you. And here, again, I think it’s varies from region to region, country to country and, in some cases, city to city and village to village. In my previous answer, I alluded to much of the Sykes-Picot construct falling apart in Iraq and Syria. If we look at maps of Iraq and Syria, they don’t really reflect the reality on the ground. Much of it is—it’s a very fluid situation. It can change from village to village or province to province.
And so in that sort of a situation—your question is, what can Christians be doing, what are alternatives to leaving? In Syria, we’re seeing a number of Christians displaced internally. There are large numbers in Homs and Aleppo, but a number of them have been displaced internally. Many have left Al-Hasakah province, many have gone to Europe. Would they return to Nineveh province in Iraq and Al-Hasakah province in Syria? I think that’s a legitimate possibility, but there would have to be a very stable political solution.
In Lebanon, there’s a much more stable political solution, but a number of people are still leaving. And there’s been this thought I think that Lebanon might slip into violence. And it was talked about in 2012 and 2013. And years continue to go by, and Lebanon continues to remain secure politically and militarily. And I think that’s a very good sign for the future of pluralism and perhaps even democracy in the Middle East. Whether or not Christians remain the Middle East is going to be very closely tied to the political stability that is offered by governments. And in Egypt right now, the situation may be a little bit more tenuous than it appears, but there are millions of Christians in Egypt, and there is a commitment there.
And I think more broadly across the Middle East, most of the people who are there, or many of them, wish to remain. And so, if it incumbent on our government to take steps to become a little bit more involved—certainly more involved than it has been in the past—to see that the rights of minorities are protected. And I would say, in the face of the fact that many of these nation-states are collapsing, I think most obvious response would be to carve out havens for groups who have been vulnerable and see about—until such time as these nation-states can be reconstituted, if they can be. Until that time, I think that there should be—that the international community should be more active, and America should be active leading the way, for the establishment of havens and protected zones, not just for Christians but for all vulnerable groups across the Middle East.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from John Chane with Episcopal Church, Please go ahead.
CHANE: Thank you very much. Andrew, appreciate this presentation, and I hope that in some way it can continue. It’s something that really is not discussed at the level that at least we’re discussing it even today.
I have a question—kind of an overview question of how—what is the status, as you see that status, of Christians in Saudi Arabia today, given the role that Saudi continues to wish to play in the region, which is highly destabilized? That’s the first piece.
The second piece is, I have been to Iran, I think, on seven occasions, really at the request of academics and clerics in Qom. And as people of the book, the Shia scholars are very fascinated and really working very hard, not only to address common theologies but also addressing this kind of an issue—not easy there, but this kind of an issue. And I traveled to Najaf, Iraq, this weekend for a week of meetings called by clerics and scholars at the seminary there and beyond to discuss not only the role of cooperation between Sunni and Shia within their own lives, given the region’s instability, but also addressing the same issue that you are addressing right now. So it’s fascinating to see that this is happening. But again, I look at Saudi Arabia as a key player, at least from a foreign policy point of view, and I really don’t understand in any great detail the status of Christians in that—in that kingdom right now.
DORAN: John, thank you very much for your question. I’ve had the opportunity to travel fairly widely throughout the Middle East and even the Gulf States. I have not been to Saudi Arabia, so I can’t speak with firsthand knowledge about this.
My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of Christians in Saudi Arabia, who are few, are expats. Most of them are, I think we would just say, the servant class—Filipinos. I have had the chance to meet with and speak with Filipinos who, when they’re describing practicing their faith in Saudi Arabia, it sounds very similar to underground churches around the world where religious freedom really doesn’t exist. And that America has not been in a positon to demand more of its putative allies with respect to the promotion of human rights is certainly disappointing.
With respect to your other question about engagement with Iran and common theology, I think that’s an absolutely fascinating area. And other scholars I’ve talked to, in addition to yourself, and other professors I know who’ve had the opportunity to engage the Shia community do talk about the possibility of common ground for reason and theology and engagement. And my hope for the United States would be that it could play a less-interested role in the Middle East in terms of the recent Sunni-Shia tensions and violence and play the role of mediator, because it’s going to be very important in the years ahead to help bring stability to the region, to bring peace between this increasingly fractious Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East.
CHANE: Thank you.
DORAN: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal with the National Council of Synagogues. Please go ahead.
ROSENTHAL: Thank you for your presentation.
The Copts are perhaps the oldest Christian group in the Middle East, the Copts of Egypt, and they have been subjected to some awful persecution and massacres over these past years. Some years ago, when we wanted to raise our voices in protest, we were urged by some of the Coptic leaders not to do so because that would only worsen their situation. How do you react to that?
DORAN: That’s an excellent question, Rabbi, and thank you.
This is—this is something that I’ve heard from a number of Coptic Christians who have come down, I think, on both sides of this. And I think—one trend that I’ve seen is that Christians in Egypt and Coptic Christians who have emigrated to the West seem to have a different answer. One story that I’ve heard repeated was on Anwar Sadat’s visit, I think in 1976, to the United States there was a protest by Coptic Christians. And Sadat was humiliated, returned home, and a number of churches were closed or, you know, permits not—permits for bathrooms and things like that, which were always tight—have always been tightly—very tightly controlled by the Egyptian government, were not—were not approved.
And so—and I think at no time more than the summer of 2013 has this very question that you raised come up, because Pope Tawadros took a very active role in bringing down the Muslim Brotherhood, standing there in solidarity with the millions who had taken to the streets, and the military and the judiciary and Al-Azhar University, which represents—they’re a very significant force within Sunni Islam, and particularly in Egypt. And that bold statement by the Coptic pope certainly had repercussions for the Christians later that summer, when a number of churches were burned and there was great violence done to Christians and Christian property. I don’t think that the Coptic pope would—well, I can’t presume to know what he would say, but he isn’t—from what I’ve read, I don’t think that he would back away from the stand that he took and that millions of Coptic Christians and others took. At the same time, that came at a terrible price, and a number of Coptic Christians did leave Egypt in the aftermath.
But you raise an excellent point, and I don’t know if this is something that has reached anything like a consensus in the Coptic community, whether or not to remain passive in silence or whether or not to be a lot more socially and politically active. It’s a—it’s a great question. I think it’s probably something that’s going to be grappled with for years to come.
ROSENTHAL: Thank you.
DORAN: Thank you, Rabbi.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Egon Cholakian with Harvard University. Please go ahead.
CHOLAKIAN: Andrew, excellent presentation, and it’s a hot potato of a subject. I applaud you for your courage. Also for the CFR. Bully for both of you.
About five minutes before the call commenced, I sat down with a pencil and paper and I thought, I wonder just how many jurisdictions, how many countries can I just personally, without looking on the Web or otherwise, can I identify where there’s a confrontation between the Muslims and the Christians. And within five—four or five minutes, I counted right here 15 different countries worldwide. And that doesn’t take any—as I said, any research to figure that out, so I’m sure—(inaudible)—a broad base—South Asia, Africa, you name it—and it’s interesting. And so I started realizing that, OK, you’re taking your scope of interest at this point as the Middle East and Christian activity. So it’s broader-based, but notwithstanding, I’ll try and keep it within the scope of your jurisdiction.
Then I started looking at the identity of the—of the orchestrated assaults against the Christians. They’re very, very visible. They’re very intense. I looked at the Church of the Nativity back in Bethlehem: 38 days in the church, all but destroying. A major episode, but it got the applause of the Muslim community. It wasn’t just a few people. It was a tremendous applause from their community, and broad-based applause.
I go back to the Munich Olympics. Granted, it was Jewish; notwithstanding, had a tremendous impact on the Christian community. Again, it was broad-based—heavily orchestrated, broad-based applause from their community and approval rates, on and on and on.
My question to you is simply this. With a diet such as these highly conspicuous, broad-based, highly orchestrated events against Christians and so forth, what do you think that does to play out into the contemporary situation in the Western world—North American and in Western Europe—with respect to the Muslim immigrants? Do you not think that this bears on the American and the West, you know, when they look at this diet that is imposed on, what we’ve witnessed over decades and decades? Do you think that’s not playing out at this point?
DORAN: Egon, thank you very much for your question and for your kind words.
That’s a very difficult question and I don’t think one that can be—that can be tackled with ease. I do get the sense from Muslims in the Middle East that there is a great deal of frustration. I recently had a conversation with the Somali Muslim who’s living in America, and we spoke for some time at length, and what I was really trying—he’s someone who falls into the demographic of one of the Westerners who might, out of anger, leave the West and go join the Islamic State. I’m happy to say that this is not someone who did that or who was inclined to do that, but he was able to explain kind of where the anger—the source and the origins of the anger.
And so maybe I’m being a little bit too emotionally detached and removed here, but I did want to try to understand. And he said—he said, it’s not the values of the West. That’s not true. And it’s not—it’s not even the permissiveness of the culture. What really is at the heart of this is the fact that the West and the United States has gone into the Middle East and killed so many Muslims. And so I just—I’ve thought about that since that conversation, and I wonder if that’s true. And I think it really may be. I think—in other words, I think there’s a sense of helplessness among so many millions of Muslims. And I think we would—we should remember that, for the 1 billion plus Muslims—in excess of 1 billion around the world—who had to witness terrible violence, Muslims at the hands of Muslims, but Muslims who’ve also been killed by the United States and their allies in recent years—that there—that there is—the violence that has come from that has been minimal. We are talking about—now we’re getting into the tens of thousands that are participating in violence and probably millions who are supportive, but that is a minority. And I guess—I guess I would say it is important for us to try to understand to what extent we have contributed to this.
Now, having said that—and I think this is probably where you’re going—there does come a point where the countries in the West have to take—have to take some responsibility for being prudent about who is being permitted in and who is not. I don’t think that—and this is—this is something that I—that I must mention—I don’t think that Muslims feel—very often, as Muslims have told me, they don’t feel—they’ re not particularly keen to be lectured by Americans or Westerners, Europeans, about the violence going on in the Middle East, because they will look at the violence that Europe and America has done to Jews, to Native Americans, to blacks, and to other groups, and say, look at—look at what you’ve done; how dare you presume, you know, after a few decades of clean record, to lecture us? We’ve never had anything on the scale of what the West has done to vulnerable groups. And I—and I think that that is a point well-taken.
Another point that might be made is that the—and many have made this—that the Middle East is, one hopes, moving toward a Westphalian moment. I don’t happen to buy that thesis, but a lot of the violence throughout the Middle East does resemble the violence in 16th and 17th century Europe and the wars of religion. And I know that there are many who think that it’s just a question of time before the extremists burn out and they burn out their—burn out others in the region on violence, and that the next step will be something like a Westphalian moment. One can hope that something like that does happen, because the violence has been—it’s been terrible on the people living there.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next comment or question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question comes from Leo Thorne with American Baptist Churches USA. Please go ahead.
THORNE: Yeah. Thank you, Mr. Doran. I think you gave us a good broad-stroke beginning, and you raised a number of issues, and the questions are really coming focused on that. And this issue of persecutions of Christians is a really significant issue, and I’m glad we are discussing this today.
I have two questions. One of the points that came out in the Morocco meeting in January had to do with the full rights of all citizens in Muslim-majority states. Is this a good road to travel? And I know all roads will help when you’re talking about persecution of Christians and anyone, and I know there is no silver bullet. But the specific question is, where should we be really placing our energy in this matter, this very difficult matter?
And then a second question is the role of the media. Do you think that the media’s role in sort of exacerbating and fueling the kinds of ways in which they publicized persecution of Christians, that this is really being helpful? And how could we stem that media tide? Because I’ve been to Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and I’m glad you said that there are millions of Christians there, and many of them don’t want to leave. They want to stay and work. And there’s some good work being done, but that’s hardly being talked about. So how is the media really affecting our work here?
DORAN: That’s an excellent question, Leo, and thank you so much.
I think—to answer your first question, I think a movement toward recognition of full rights of citizens is a very important concept. I think that assumes, of course, that one would—that a citizen looks at rights as enumerated or bestowed by the state as the principle origin and source of those rights, or that that state is even a legitimate authority. And I think that’s where one could run into some problems. But I think, you know, the notion of common rights that we can determine on the basis of common reason, common experience, common humanity, natural law, something along those lines, I think that’s an—that’s an excellent step. That’s very much a step in the right direction. And one does hear Christians in the Middle East and other religious minorities speaking of equal rights rather than—using the term “equal rights” rather than “religious freedom.” And I do wonder, for a variety of reasons, if that might not be a good path forward.
With respect to the media, it certainly is frustrating. There was a professor in Mosul, a Muslim professor, who laid down his life speaking out against the atrocities that were taking place. And I’m ashamed to say I don’t know his name off the top of my head, and it’s a pity that more don’t know that story, that there are many heroic stories that will not ever be told. And there are a number of Christians, when you travel throughout the Middle East, who are serving their Muslim brothers and sisters within their communities. The Sisters of Maadi in Cairo, in the Maadi neighborhood of Cairo, serve 100,000—at their—at their health clinic, about 100,000 patients a year, 90 percent of whom are Muslim. And these are Coptic Catholic nuns, and they’re really doing amazing work. And there are examples of this throughout. There are—there are Lebanese—the Good Shepherd Sisters in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon brought in—they took in thousands of Syrian refugees who fled. And there was a story there of a Christian—former Christian soldier from the civil war who was living in the village who was then overseeing a refugee camp against some of the same people he had fought against in the Bekaa Valley a generation before. There are many beautiful stories like this, and the media does not seize upon that. They—and instead, what we see are these—some of these just horrific images of the captives being executed, either on the shores of the Mediterranean or in Syria or Iraq, and it really is troubling. And those images are meant to terrorize. The purpose of terror is to terrorize, as that famous tautology of Lenin reminds us. But it is also quite effective in terrorizing. But it’s a shame that the media isn’t presenting the Middle East for what it is, which is a much more complicated, nuanced, and really beautiful place, and that violence is unfortunately the exception.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Richard Yellin with Hillel Student Organizations of Israel.
YELLIN: Yeah, thank you very much, Andrew. I’m sitting here, it’s 12:00 midnight, five minutes to midnight in Israel. I’m sitting on the border, a couple miles away from Tulkarm, and there are people being stabbed in Israel daily. And this is the only democratic country amongst 23 Arab countries in this particular area, 350 (million) Arab Muslims.
We have to get our language right, because we’re not really speaking the right language. I think the word “religion” ought to be eliminated because it seems that we get upset much more quickly when ethnicity is at stake and not when religious grouping are at wars. It seemed forever until American Christians raised their voices when Christians were being massacred. Why did it take so long? And I think you explained that. When Jews are massacred, the Jewish people worldwide, as an ethnicity, seem to me to encircle the wagons almost the next day, immediately. Do you think there’s any truth in this may be naïve observation?
DORAN: Richard, thank you for your question. I think it’s an absolutely correct observation.
A friend of mine, who is a retired Foreign Service officer, was born in Budapest in 1944 to Jewish parents and her father perished in the Shoah—she later emigrated with her mother in ’56 and became an American citizen, joined the Foreign Service, and had quite an amazing career—she began speaking about the challenges the Christian communities in the Middle East were facing at churches and elsewhere back in the late ’90s. And Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for The Atlantic, has been for several years saying I simply don’t understand why there is something approaching indifference coming from American religious leaders.
And I think this does get back to the question there is simply not the same cultural bond that exists among Jews and, in many ways, among Muslims. Christians simply do not have that same closeness. I think—I think that Orthodox Christians in the East do tend to have a closer sense of what’s happening. I think the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox have a much closer—much, much closer cultural ties to the Christians of the Middle East, and that—and they’re also much more aware of what’s going on. I think it becomes more attenuated when you get into Europe, but they at least have something of a history and, you know, the bond I mentioned between the Maronites and the French. But by the time you get to the United States—and it is wonderful, by the way, to hear so many mainline Christians who I think are—not to knock anybody, but I think the mainline Christians are much further along understanding the complexity of the Middle East and engaging Christian and other communities there. But Evangelicals—the Evangelical community is only just at the very beginning of understanding that there are Christians in the Middle East and that this is an issue that needs to be—that these are—that these are human beings who really need to have their rights spoken for in the public square.
I’m not really sure how this—how this will play out, but I—but I do think that it’s a point very well taken. And I think that, you know, speaking as someone who’s a Catholic, Cardinal Wuerl has been excellent, Cardinal McCarrick has been excellent on this particular issue. But in general I don’t know that the Catholic bishops in the United States have really done enough to raise awareness about this issue and to help mobilize their flocks for providing humanitarian support for the Christians in the Middle East. I think that that’s something that could—that more could certainly be done. But I would also say that the Catholics are engaged and have—and have a reach in the Middle East that Evangelicals really don’t. That really is a pity, because if you’re an Evangelical Christian in the Middle East—and there are certainly tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Christians in the Middle East—you have no voice here in America. And so I think we have seen, since the emergence of ISIS, something of a—of a I hope it’s sea change on this issue, but time will—time will tell.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question will come from Majed Ashy with Merrimack College. Please go ahead.
ASHY: Yes, hello. Thank you very much for your presentation.
And I would like just to point out something you mentioned, which is the complexity of the Middle East. As you mentioned, the situation there is very complex. Christians have been a very integral part of the Middle East history. For example, the founder of the Baath Party in Syria and Iraq is a Christian, Michel Aflaq. And also, like a lot of the artists now in the Middle East, from Lebanon and Egypt, they are beloved and they are Christians, and people know they are Christians and love them. Also, like, politically, like for example, Saudi Arabia have been supporting Christians in Lebanon, the Christian party; also, like, supporting the—like, the Christians in Egypt in some way. So, like, even at the time of the Ottoman massacre of the Armenians, there was Egyptian writers who actually—like Herman Falouty, who wrote that if you think that God created Christians to be massacred, then you don’t know God. So basically it is very complex. And I am very concerned about the narratives that are emerging of conflicts between Christians and Muslims that are, you know, supported by the massacres by ISIS and so on.
So I think, you know, my question to you is, do you think there is room to create, like, or to emphasize the narratives of cooperation between Muslims and Christians, and Muslims and Jews even? Thank you very much.
DORAN: Thank you very much, Majed. I think there’s absolutely room for several such organizations like that, and it’s important not to fall into the hands of the ISIS narrative that this is a Christian versus Muslim fight. And thank you for raising that question about the Ottomans again, because I realize that I did not fully answer Salam’s—from the Muslim Public Affairs Council—his question earlier.
And there was one other point that I wanted to add, that the Ottomans in the 17th century, as a matter of policy, began integrating Christians into Sunni villages and Christians into Shia villages, and that in Lebanon to this day there are several villages with Christian and Shia, and then Christian with Sunni. And they didn’t necessarily always make a point to integrate Sunni and Shia, but the idea there was the Christians had a—had a leavening effect, and the Ottomans recognized the value of Christians and the leavening effect that they did have and being, as you said, an integral part of Muslim cultures throughout the Middle East.
The point about Michel Aflaq, of course, is a very important one, the founder and architect of Baathist ideology. And I think it can also be said that this was a—Baathist ideology at the time, many regarding it as progressive and secular. And in practice, it incorporated so much of the brutal—the brutal tactics of the totalitarian regimes of Europe, both communist and fascist, and ended up being a means for brutally oppressing so many people. But, you know, because of its secular theories, was praised by a great many religious minorities, including Christians, across the Middle East.
And of course, I think we’ve seen how that’s played out. But to answer your question, I think there’s absolutely a time—and now would be absolutely the time for greater cooperation between Muslims and Christians in helping to shape a more accurate narrative of the nuances and complexity of the Middle East, and presenting that to the American public. And I think that would do a great deal to curb the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment that seems to be rising among the public.
FASKIANOS: Andrew, thank you very much. We’re at the end of our time, unfortunately, and I apologize to those of you who—I know we have several questions still left, but we try to end on time. So, Andrew, we’ll just have to have you back, but you really gave us a good analysis, and insights into the history and what is taking place today. So thank you very much.
DORAN: Thank you so much, Irina. It was a pleasure to be with you.
FASKIANOS: And I encourage you all to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all again, and thank you to Andrew Doran.
More from this series
Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz discusses the intersection of religious freedom and women's rights around the world.
Katherine Almquist Knopf discusses the ongoing violence in South Sudan and policy options for ending the civil war.