A Prophetic Rejection of Sectarianism and Defense of Human Rights in the Middle East

In a remarkable communiqué, the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land has put Christian persecution in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring in the proper perspective. The persecution of Christians in the region is real and gravely serious, but it does not exist in isolation. Other groups are also face persecution, and since our commitment to human rights must be universal to be authentically Christian, we cannot ignore their plight and focus exclusively on our co-religionists.

There is no doubt that the recent upheavals in the Middle East, initially called the Arab Spring, have opened the way for extremist groups and forces that, in the name of a political interpretation of Islam, are wreaking havoc in many countries, particularly in Iraq, Egypt and Syria. There is no doubt that many of these extremists consider Christians as infidels, as enemies, as agents of hostile foreign powers or simply as an easy target for extortion.

However, in the name of truth, we must point out that Christians are not the only victims of this violence and savagery. Secular Muslims, all those defined as “heretic”, “schismatic” or simply “non-conformist” are being attacked and murdered in the prevailing chaos. In areas where Sunni extremists dominate, Shiites are being slaughtered. In areas where Shiite extremists dominate, Sunnis are being killed. Yes, the Christians are at times targeted precisely because they are Christians, having a different set of beliefs and unprotected. However they fall victim alongside many others who are suffering and dying in these times of death and destruction. They are driven from their homes alongside many others and together they become refugees, in total destitution.

Even more important, however, is the prophetic call to reject the Faustian bargain of supporting brutal, repressive regimes because of the favoritism they show toward Christians. In rejecting this sectarian mentality and embracing the Church’s commitment to human rights for all, there is a willingness to accept the Way of the Cross rather than taking the easy path that might seem to offer greater security.

These uprisings began because the peoples of the Middle East dreamed of a new age of dignity, democracy, freedom and social justice. Dictatorial regimes, which had guaranteed “law and order”, but at the terrible price of military and police repression, fell. With them, the order they had imposed crumbled. Christians had lived in relative security under these dictatorial regimes. They feared that, if this strong authority disappeared, chaos and extremist groups would take over, seizing power and bringing about violence and persecution. Therefore some Christians tended to defend these regimes. Instead, loyalty to their faith and concern for the good of their country, should perhaps have led them to speak out much earlier, telling the truth and calling for necessary reforms, in view of more justice and respect of human rights, standing alongside both many courageous Christians and Muslims who did speak out.

The contrast between this prophetic statement and the support some Christian leaders have given to regimes that engage in mass murder or other forms of counterrevolutionary repression could not be starker. And not only does the Assembly reject a sectarian mindset, it calls for cooperation across religious lines:

Christians and Muslims need to stand together against the new forces of extremism and destruction. All Christians and many Muslims are threatened by these forces that seek to create a society devoid of Christians and where only very few Muslims will be at home. All those who seek dignity, democracy, freedom and prosperity are under attack. We must stand together and speak out in truth and freedom.

It is easy to understand why Christians might favor brutal dictatorships when terrorists and other extremists are just a few miles away, threatening to impose totalitarianism and persecute all of those who do not fit into their dystopian fantasies. We can understand why frightened Christians might believe the propaganda and lies of those who exaggerate the strength of extremists to preserve their own power.

But we should expect more from our Christian leaders—from bishops and those at the Vatican. We should expect an affirmation of the core tenets of Catholic Social Teaching and the non-sectarian application of our universal values. We should expect the type of authentic Christian witness that is present in this letter.