There are over 14 million Christians living in the Middle East (most are Orthodox, followed by Catholics). These Christian communities, in their ancient origins, predate the existence of Islam. Arabic as a spoken language was used by Christians six centuries prior to the writing of the Koran, and Church history testifies to the presence of at least one Arab bishop at the Council of Nicaea. Historic Jewish communities are also present in the old districts of cities like Damascus, Tehran, Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, Tunis, and Casablanca. Offshoot Islamic groups, distinct enough to be considered unique religious traditions, are found throughout the Levant states – they include Druze, Alawites, and Ismailis.
Within Islam itself, the Sunni-Shia divide is of huge significance. This divide is a major factor that accounts for the Saudi-Iranian power-struggle and the Iran-Iraq rivalry during Saddam’s rule. Failure to understand such differences and nuances in Middle East religion has led, and continues to lead, to major policy failures on the part of the western powers. The toppling of Saddam Hussein, who kept a firm grip on his majority Shia citizenry, was the biggest gift the west could have ever given the Ayatollahs. The U.S. empowered the Shia opposition, and the Shia-led Iraqi government is now cozying up to Iran – supposedly enemy #1 since 1979. It goes without saying that the American invasion and subsequent policies set the stage for a sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war that continues to rage.
More importantly, such ignorance is disastrous for the minority religious communities themselves as western “democracy projects” almost always exclusively empower Sunni and Shia majorities. Iraqi Christians, for example, enjoyed stability and protection under Saddam’s secular Baathist regime; American intervention, however, unleashed a bloodbath on this fragile minority community. International news, on a near weekly basis, reported the kidnapping of Christians, beheading of priests, firebombing of churches, attacks on Sunday services, and confiscation of homes and property in the years following the U.S. invasion. Estimates are commonly put at 500,000 Iraqi Christians who fled the burning country. American media, on the whole, hardly touched the subject of post-Saddam Christian persecution – this was partly due to cultural ignorance, but it was also due to the media’s towing of the “we are bringers of democracy and enlightenment” line. Talk of extermination of Iraq’s Christian population would look bad for the bringers of civilization. One wonders where the U.S. and coalition forces were as Christian communities and churches endured daily attack by local and foreign radicals. One wonders how the western coalition forces, at least culturally Christian in their identity, neglected the “religiocide” in their midst.
Disturbingly, Syria is now being slowly liquidated of its Christians. America and NATO countries continue to give political and material support to a Syrian rebel movement that is bent on exterminating Christians, Alawites, Shiites, and Druze. One popular chant among America’s “freedom fighters” in Syria goes “Christians to Lebanon and Alawites to the sea…”