Challenges Facing Christian Communities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East – Interview with Dr. Hrayr Jebejian February 23, 2016
Challenges Facing Christian Communities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East
Interview with Dr. Hrayr Jebejian, Secretary General of the Bible Society of the Gulf
February 23, 2016
Dr Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): Good afternoon once again, and welcome to ERPIC Live. My co-host again is Dr. Klearchos Kyriakides, Director of ERPIC’s Law and Democracy Program. And we have with us Dr. Hrayr Jebejian, Secretary General of the Bible Society of the Arab Gulf. Our focus this evening will be on the challenges facing Christian communities in the greater Middle East. As always, our speakers expressed their own personal views. Gentlemen, welcome. Dr. Jebejian, I’m sure you’ve studied the historical developments over the years of the Christian communities in this part of the world. What is the fate of Christianity in the Middle East?
Dr Hrayr Jebejian (H.J.): First of all, thank you very much for being here, for this panel discussion. it’s so exciting to see that we have the opportunity in order to discuss and do some brainstorming about some of the critical issues that the Middle East is going through, which of course has its impact and its influence on the rest of the of the word. The Christian communities, and the fate of the Christians, is one of the contemporary issues that we are dealing with these days, and the whole world is talking about, especially with regard to what’s happening recently in Iraq and Syria. Before answering your question, may I pause for a minute, and say one important thing. Christianity and the Christian Church were born in Middle East, and this is something which we really need to deal with. The Christian community is not a guest in a way; the Christian community was born in the Middle East. Christ was born in Bethlehem, and Bethlehem is in the Middle East. So Christianity, right from its birth, was part of this land, which is the Middle East. It was part of the culture, it went through all the developments in the Middle East, it contributed a lot to the welfare of the communities in the Middle East, it shared the struggles, its pains, and its joys. So when we talk about the Christian presence in the Middle East, we have to say that the Christians are part of the community in which they are living today. So when we talk about all these problems, and the issues, and persecution of the Christians, so we need to bear in mind that Christians are not guests, but they are locals living in this part of the world. And of course we are all following, unfortunately, all the tragic events that are happening with the Christian communities. But let me draw to your kind attention to one important fact, which I personally believe that we have to deal with. It is true that the Christians are being persecuted. It is true that the Christians are being expelled from their own homelands, in which they were born and they were raised with all the churches, and all the schools, and all the communities in which they are living in. But I would dare to say that the Christians are not the only minority, or the only community, which is being persecuted, or which is being expelled from their own community. Unfortunately, the situation throughout the Middle East, the greater Middle East, is very complicated these days, it is very confusing, and least to say it is very messy. We are witnessing the so-called new ideology coming up in our region, so-called a new culture, which is the rejection of the “Other”. To put it simply: if you’re not with us, then you are against us. This whole ideology is called fundamentalism.
C.P.: How new is this though? You say that Christians are not guests, but whether you’re a guest or a trespasser depends on the one who holds the title deed of the property. And now the title deed of these countries is held by non-Christians. And, therefore, it is their view, it seems, that counts. So it’s one thing saying that Christianity belongs here, as far as Christianity and the Christians are concerned, but that doesn’t speak of the other side – the side that dictates whether they can live here or not. Because I take this is what you’re alluding to with this change of philosophy. It is a decision to dictate others whether they can live here or not, and with the ability to carry it through.
H.J.: Of course, first of all Christians were always a minority in the greater Middle East, they were always a minority, they were never a majority.
C.P.: Even at the time of the Byzantine Empire?
H.J.: No, I am talking about the modern era. If you look into the modern era, they were always a minority, and the majority was Islam. But what we are really witnessing these days is the so-called growing fundamentalism, the religious fundamentalism, which is creating sort of a new ideology, and new culture.
C.P.: Is it a fundamentalism, or radicalization, because there are all these terms being thrown around. Is it radical Islam, or is it fundamental Islam, is it just Islam rediscovered?
H.J.: Not exactly, because if you look into what’s happening in the Middle East these days, it’s not only Christians that are being persecuted, and this is what I was trying to emphasize right from the start.
C.P.: So is it radicalized Islam? And if so, why did it all of the sudden become radicalized? Is it the result of the Gulf War? Was it something that was growing gradually? You’ve been witnessing these things first hand.
H.J.: It’s very interesting the way that the communities and their ideologies are being developed. And recently I was really reviewing one of the sociologist, Robertson, who is an expert in the globalization. In today’s globalized world, he says, people are losing their identity, and they are being threatened. And against that people are in search for the personal story, because they are losing the bigger story. And this personal story is creating some kind of a paradox which we have today, and we are coming with some form of a political identity, which is what we call the radicalism.
C.P.: But I have made that point, that what is happening is radicalization, but also tribalization. The region is breaking up into tribalism, but with an overarching radical Islam.
H.J.: Yes, but not all Islam is radical. Because if you look into the overall situation as to what’s happening in the greater Middle East, we have, yes, on the one side, Christians that are suffering, but there are also other minorities, that are equally suffering.
C.P.: But that doesn’t make it right.
H.J.: Of course that does not make it right. But what I’m trying to say is that, yes, Christians are suffering, but also other ethnic groups and minorities are suffering, and among them are also Muslim minorities. For example, the Shias who are suffering. And there are also the Yazidis, for example, who are being persecuted, and they were expelled from their homes. The Kurds are also being persecuted. So what we are witnessing these days, is kind of ethnic conflicts in this region, where the Christians are also a part of this land, and this ethnic cleansing because they are part of the so-called “Other”, and they do not belong to that particular group, or that ideology, so they’ve been persecuted. So in this respect it is not right to see that it’s only the Christians who are being targeted.
C.P.: Granted. But come back to the question I posed. Was this gradual incoming, or was it a reaction to something? Or is there a controlling mind behind it? Is it a conscious development? Is it a natural development of history?
H.J.: No, because as you look into all the events that are happening in the world, and especially in the Middle East, you could see how gradually it developed. It started with al-Qaida and then eventually moved into what we are calling these days ISIS, which is sort of an ideology, religious ideology, religious fundamentalism, which is being taught especially to this young generation.
C.P.: it’s unnatural development, or a planned action?
H.J.: It all depends on what you mean by saying “planned action”.
C.P.: Sure, but there are certain things which begin in somebody’s mind, or collectively, and it is implemented in politics, and geopolitics. It’s often the case: somebody wakes up with the great idea, and tries to implement it, and on the other hand there are certain dynamics of history, natural forces, which create certain developments and certain events. Is this the first, or the second, or combination of both?
H.J.: I am not a politician, but if you follow the trends that happened over the last, let’s say, ten or fifteen years…
C.P.: I am not looking for conspiracy here. But it seems that there is an organizational element behind what is happening – a systematic movement, a systematic action.
H.J.: They are calling themselves ISIS, it’s definitely an organization which is running this all fundamentalist movement, the rejection of the “Other”, and the establishment of the Islamic caliphate which they are they are aiming for…
C.P.: And a reasonable question is: if it’s “a”, and you deal with this organizing mind one way or the other, you can perhaps solve the problem. But if it’s deeper, systemic, structural, historical trend, it’s more difficult to deal with.
H.J.: Of course, and this is what is happening now. It is becoming more and more difficult to deal with because it’s no more staying in the Middle East area, and it is spreading unfortunately. And this is where internationally it is becoming…
C.P.: So it is becoming a force of nature.
H.J.: It looks as if. Look at what’s happening in France, in Paris for example, with all the terrorist attacks which they claimed they were responsible for it. And also in other places, where there is a kind of atmosphere of fear and tension all around the world. So it’s started in the Middle East, it’s really an important hub for them in the Middle East, but it is also spreading and it is becoming an international threat. So, how to deal with that?
K.K.: I have a question for you, Hrayr. Can we view the present-day cruelty and discrimination, and killing in historical context? And if so, how far back can we look to identify the source of this cruelty?
H.J.: There is this famous saying that history always repeats itself, right? So it’s only that the perpetrators are different. It’s all interrelated, but the culture changes. The way that we do things changes. If you look back into the history, of the early 20th century history, you can see that genocide took place in the beginning of the 20th century, starting with the Armenian Genocide, then the Jewish Holocaust, then today with the Christian persecutions, and the Yazidis’ genocide, which they are actually even calling it a genocide. So you could see how the historical events are really taking place. So as I said history is repeating itself. Maybe in those days, in the earlier days there wasn’t this so-called ideology of the religious fundamentalism. Today we have a new kind of entity and ideology which is called religious fundamentalism, or whatever you want to name it, which is doing the murder, but the murder is there.
K.K.: As a follow up to that. It’s dangerous to ask the question: “What if?”, but I’ll ask it nonetheless. What if the Western powers had clamped down on Turkey when it engaged in the unlawful killing and genocide of the Armenians during the First World War? What if the genocide and unlawful killings of the Armenians was followed by a proper war-crimes process? Would Hitler and the Nazi regime have embarked upon the Holocaust? Or would they have thought twice? And would today ISIS, or whatever it’s called, think twice about committing genocide in the Middle East?
H.J.: That’s a very good question, because this argument was raised last April in Yerevan, in Armenia, during this international conference on the Armenian Genocide, which was organized by the government of Armenia, where all the speakers, and all the lectures were foreigners. There wasn’t a single Armenian lecturer who would make a presentation. And one of the lecturer, he was from Scotland, Professor Donald Bloxham, he was the one who raised this issue: that because the Armenian Genocide, being the first genocide of the 20th century, because it remained unpunished, it gave way to other genocides to take place throughout the history. So, in a way he tried to make a connection between the crimes, irrespective of where the crime took place.
K.K.: I always call it the unlawful killing and genocide of the Armenians, because the genocide began with the death of a single person, and each individual death collectively constituted the genocide. So we must never forget that the collective destruction of the Armenians is the consequence of the destruction of individual lives, that’s why it is important to remember that.
K.K.: But I think this is an interesting discussion, because if we look at the genocide and unlawful killing of the Armenians, they were assisted, directly or indirectly, by the Germans during the First World War, and then at the end of the First World War the allied powers did not launch a Nuremberg-style war crimes process. So what the history teaches us often is that the perpetrator of murder, manslaughter and genocide is sometimes, but not always, assisted by external actors. And this, I suppose, brings us to the question of Christodoulos. What we’re seeing today, individual killings taking place on the ground, they form part of what is arguably a genocide, and that brings us to the key question: are there external actors that are manipulating the situation, or assisting in any way?
H.J.: When it comes to the Armenian Genocide, for example, you have the historical verifications for that. Of course the perpetrator was the Ottoman Turkey those days, but Ottoman Turkey was an ally with the Germans and other nations. But of course you have all these foreign diplomatic agencies were, or offices that where there, who were witnessing what was happening with the Armenian nation. There were all these missionaries, all these diplomats…
C.P.: Thanks to one of them, Morgenthau, one knows what happened. If it wasn’t for that, there would have been a dark space in history.
H.J.: Yes, exactly.
C.P.: But this is interesting. Most countries in the Middle East claimed to be democracies, in some ways liberal. Well, not liberal – illiberal. But, nevertheless, they tried to claim the sticker, or the banner of a democratic regime. They have constitutions. Constitutions indicate what actions are to be taken with human rights, minorities, and so on. Again, historically, was the fate of the Christian communities better under the Baathist regimes, for example? The secular Baathist regimes? Is it that the more religious regimes become, the less tolerant they become? Is there something to say in favor of the secular regimes that became the anathema of the Arab Spring?
H.J.: If you are going to look from a purely, let’s say, Christian context…
C.P.: No, the minorities’.
H.J.: The minorities. During these regimes one should admit that the minorities were protected. For example in Iraq, the Christians under Saddam were well-treated, and respected, and protected.
C.P.: For his own political reasons, it was not a matter of the ideology. Or was it? Was it a matter of Baathist ideology?
H.J.: It was a Baathist ideology, and the Christian community was a minority there, and they were protected. They were doing well during the Saddam times. And Christian community had freedom during these days in terms of worship, in terms of printing the Bible…
C.P.: They printed the Bible in Baghdad? Or you did?
H.J.: We did, yes! Let me give you an example. It sounds a bit surprising but during Saddam’s times we printedd the Bible in Baghdad, and we were free, as a Bible society, to distribute the Bible within the schools. Even, to your own surprise, we received a request from local government sources to distribute the Bible within the government department.
C.P.: Today it has changed?
H.J.: Today it has changed. In Baghdad, let’s say, because the Baghdad regime is different than in other places, which are under the ISIS occupation, but at least today’s Baghdad is protected. But in the Saddam’s time they were protected and respected. We have to admit that.
C.P.: What about Syria?
H.J.: In Syria, again the same thing. The Christian communities were protected, and also the other minorities were protected, and were respected, and I have to say that they had quite a good degree of freedom in terms of worship and in terms of their activities. And of course today, when Syria is divided between the part, which has been occupied by the fundamentalists, and the other part which is under the government regime, the Christians, needless to say, are all under the government-controlled area. So they still enjoy this protection, they still enjoy the respect of the local authorities.
C.P.: But not the Yazidis.
H.J.: They are all in the part on the border with Iraq, between Syria and Iraq, they’re all concentrated in those areas. Where there were a lot of deportations of the Yazidis, and persecution by the fundamentalist forces.
C.P.: But are they Muslim? Are they a particular type of Islam?
H.J.: The Yazidis, you mean?
H.J.: They are a minority which is not necessarily following Islam.
K.K.: Christodoulos made an interesting point that I wanted to pick on here. It’s a generalization, but it’s worth making. It appears to be, that the more religious the regime, the more vulnerable the Christians happen to be. And it takes us back to the Armenians. We should never forget that the unlawful killing and genocide of the Armenians took place at a time when Turkey was a Caliphate, as well as an empire. The genocide and unlawful killing took place at a time when Turkey had issued a jihad against the non-Muslim enemies of Turkey, and it was a religious regime. So we’ve got to be very careful about reintroducing…
H.J.: It all depends how you want to define a “religious regime”.
C.P.: I’ll tell you how: in a basic way. I think you must admit that what is coming together in this part of the world today is a feeling of entitlement to persecute, and a feeling of empowerment to do so. So there is the two: an inclination to do it, and the ability to do it. This is what I was probably thinking about on a “fishing expedition” before: is it a trend of history, or is it the effect of a policy by somebody? I think the empowerment element… or maybe there’s a combination of both? This combination in both of these dynamics that are converging. Because I think all of a sudden you can get it out of my mind that Muslims in this part of the world feel entitled to assert their prominence in some way. Is it a reaction to the new “crusades”, what they call them? There is something there, but there’s also the empowerment element. Some governments are making it possible for these people to do this. Again, I’m not insinuating that it’s the West or this or that. There has to be some sort of organized support for these things.
H.J.: I don’t want to enter into the political analysis, because I’m not a politician. But coming back to what he was referring to the religious governments. For example, most of the Arab countries or non-Christian countries, with the exception of Lebanon where we have sort of a Christian image, in the sense that the president is a Christian Maronite, and that’s because the Lebanese setup is based on religious denominations: we have around nineteen officially recognized religious denominations. And all the government posts are divided according to religious denominations, where the president should be a Christian Maronite. In that sense, we have some kind of a Christian image in Lebanon. But the rest, before the Arab Spring, and so on and so forth, they are all Muslim countries. And we still have Christian communities living in these countries, and they were living in co-existence with the Muslims.
C.P.: Give us some numbers.
H.J.: For example in Egypt, if you look into the numbers – 10%…
C.P.: It’s decreasing.
H.J.: Of course it’s decreasing. In Egypt, the Coptic Christian community, which is the biggest one, is around, according to some studies, 10% of the total population, which makes it around 10-12 million. In Syria there used to be 1.1 million Christians living there. In Iraq 1.5 million. In Palestine between 25,000 to 30,000. In Lebanon, unfortunately we do not have any recent statistics for quite a long time, but before the war…
H.J.: I think the last official recent statistics were done during the French time, unfortunately we don’t have it.
C.P.: Is that intentional? Because in Cyprus there is no statistics, not of the Christians, but certainly of the non-Christians. Was this a policy of not doing this?
H.J.: There can be a number of things.
C.P.: You don’t want to answer political questions.
H.J.: Actually, before 1975, around 35 to 40% were Christians. Now that statistic has changed, and especially after the 1975 where so many Lebanese emigrated, including the Christians. So my guess is that it is less than 35- 40%. But coming back to your question. We had a considerable number of Christians who were living under the so-called religious government, if you want to call them religious, and they were enjoying quite good religious freedom. For example, if you take into consideration the Arabian Gulf countries, definitely the Christians there are expatriate Christians, that were coming from different parts of the world: from Asia, Africa, and so on. But the government has given the plot of land to the Christian communities, so they can build their churches…
C.P.: But they are not citizens.
H.J.: They are not citizens.
C.P.: They are second-class, at best…
H.J.: Whatever you want to call it, but they are Christians who are living in these countries, and they are enjoying relative freedom. They have their own churches, they have their own set ups, they are free to worship within the church compound. So, what I’m trying to say is even though the governments are non-Christian governments, or Muslim governments, but we have Christian communities who are living there. Now what has happened with this new ideology coming up in certain areas…
K.K.: Particularly the Eastern Mediterranean…
H.J.: …Particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, and this religious fundamentalism came, where they started rejecting the “Other” – those who are not of the same mindset like they are. And the “Other” includes also the Christians.
C.P.: But it would be interesting if there was a change, or radicalization in the Arab Gulf. You are saying there hasn’t been?
H.J.: There hasn’t been, in the sense that…
C.P.: So there must be a difference between the Muslims of the Gulf vs. the Muslims of the Eastern Med.
H.J.: Well, not all the Muslims in the Eastern Med are fundamentalist, that’s also what we have to say.
C.P.: I understand, but you are suggesting that there are very few, if any, in the Gulf, other than of course, Saudi Arabia. But the other Gulf States are very tolerant – because it is tolerance that we are talking about.
C.P.: So that hasn’t, despite the rise of radicalization in other parts, it hasn’t affected it. Is it, perhaps, because the Christians in that part of the world are not politically relevant? Because they are not in the political system.
H.J.: Of course they’re not in the political system because they are not citizens of these countries. Irrespective of how many years you stay these countries, if you are a foreigner, you will always remain a foreigner. You will never get a citizenship in these countries. If you are, for example, a Filipino leaving for twenty years in the Gulf with the working visa…
C.P.: It’s not a challenge to power, whereas…
K.K.: I want to step in here, because this is interesting. So we’re learning here is that in the Gulf settlers or temporary workers from overseas cannot acquire citizenship, in other words one day they will be gone, whereas in Europe temporary workers or other migrants, or refugees, can eventually acquire citizenship. So we’re seeing demographic changes in Europe which are producing new citizens, within the law, but the similar process is not being played out in the Gulf.
C.P.: The important part is that in Europe there is beginning of a competition for power. Because MPs in England and other countries are taking into consideration the voting power of the new immigrants. Nothing like that is happening in the Gulf.
H.J.: Actually, it’s not only in the Gulf. If you are in Lebanon, for example, or in other parts of the Arab world, and if you’re living in this country as a foreigner, no matter what kind of residency status you have, eventually you cannot become a citizen. It was only in Lebanon, with this special governmental decree several years ago, which they give citizenship to all the Syrians, who were actually born in Lebanon, and raised in Lebanon, and they lived all their lived in Lebanon, and they didn’t receive any citizenship. They were still with the Syrian citizenship. That was a special decree. Other than that, you as a foreigner, you go to Lebanon, you live there for, let’s say, five years, or ten years, you would not become a citizen of the country.
K.K.: So with the demographics of the citizenry of Europe are changing, but they are not changing in the Gulf.
H.J.: Or, indeed, in the Arab World. Now, of course, you will argue about human rights here, but that’s how the setup is. You either take it, or leave it.
K.K.: Can I just turn the discussion back to the fate of the victims of persecution, murder and other forms of improper conduct in the Eastern Mediterranean. I want to zoom in here on the mechanism of destruction. When we talk about the persecution of the Christians, or the Yazidis, or the Shia, or whoever else it is that we’re talking about in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, is there a particular process that is followed when a particular group is persecuted or discriminated against, or otherwise treated improperly?
H.J.: When you look into all the developments that have happened in Iraq and in Syria, when they were conquering a place, or a particular city, or a particular region was under the threat to be conquered, either the people left…
K.K.: You are talking about ISIS now…
H.J.: Of course. They are the ones who are actually involved in the persecution.
K.K.: So the first step is…
H.J.: Whenever a city was under the threat to be conquered, what happened? Either the people who were living there, because they were concerned about their lives, they left once they were conquered. Then there were three things that they told the inhabitants to do. Either you had to convert to Islam, or, if you are not a Muslim, then you have to pay the jizya, which was the tax imposed by the Islamic caliphate throughout the history on the non-Muslims, especially on the Christians and on the Jews. So actually they are bringing back that which was in the Islamic caliphate and imposing taxation. Or, the third one, leave everything, whatever you have in your possession, and leave the country or a city. Which means: your home, your possession, your wealth, you car, everything…
K.K.: This is what happened to the Armenians, this is what happened to the Greeks in Asia Minor, this is what happened to the inhabitants of the occupied northern Cyprus.
H.J.: That’s good, the correlation that you are making. So this is what exactly happened. The Christians and other minorities, whoever they were, left all their possessions from these places in Iraq and Syria, and migrated to places which are safer.
K.K.: So this is not only an attack on human beings on the basis on their race or their religion. This is actually an assault on the right to property.
H.J.: Of course. People left their property, their wealth. Some people weren’t even able to take their money from their banks.
K.K.: So what happens to the title deeds of the Christians, or the Yazidis, or the Shia, or Sunnis, whoever that is, who flees these areas?
H.J.: Nothing. They just mark that this has been occupied. It is the house of the Christian, a non-Muslim, and it’s gone.
K.K.: The subject matter is about the Christians, so let’s zoom-in on the Christians. We’ve heard a lot about the refugees and migrants who were leaving Turkey across the Aegean Sea. We’ve heard a lot about the people who are fleeing Libya into Italy, and other parts of southern Europe. Where are the Christians going to?
H.J.: Now, if you are looking into the Syrian situation, we have more than 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, and it’s not that difficult for us to see that the small countries like Lebanon cannot absorb this much of refugees. We have around something like 600,000 – 700,000 refugees in Jordan, and of course in Turkey there are more than 2 million.
C.P.: What is the percentage of Christians?
H.J.: According to some unofficial statistics, from 1.1 million Christians, 700,000 have left the country. So that’s a really big number, right?
C.P.: And gone where?
H.J.: Well, some of them have gone to Lebanon, as you are aware, there are 1.5 million Christians, so a good number of them are in Lebanon. Some managed to go to Jordan. There are the Christians, who have relatives in Europe, in Sweden and all these places, because in Sweden also we have a number of Arabic speaking communities, so they are also there. And we have all those who are fortunate to travel all the way to Canada and to the other places, they have done so. Some also have managed to run away to Turkey. And similar is the Iraqi situation. According to the statistics, we have something like 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, and according to some of the recent statistics hardly any – something around 250,000 – 300,000 have remained.
C.P.: The Jordanian constitutional regime is more sympathetic to minorities?
H.J.: Oh yes. In Jordan, both the Christian and local Christian presence, and also taking on board all those refugees, in Jordan the Christian presence is equally respected, and tolerated, so with all the context that we have, in Jordan the Christian community is very much respected.
C.P.: Refugees are eventually able to attain Jordanian citizenship, or is it the same as in the Gulf?
H.J.: No, it’s the same as in the Gulf. None of these refugees will eventually have a citizenship. For example, Lebanon does accommodate a big number of Palestinian refugees. In Beirut we have camps for the Palestinians. And these Palestinian refugees do not have any Lebanese passports. And that’s from the 1948. Now, all they have is some kind of, as we call it, laissez-passer, which is something that the Lebanese government issues, which gives the status of a refugee.
C.P.: I remember having discussions in the past. One of the reasons was that the Arab countries didn’t want to diffuse the Palestinian issue. So they wanted the Palestinians to be in limbo, so that there would be a pressure against Israel. So the Palestinians are a little bit different, because they are not a minority, they are Sunni, etc. I think there was another hidden agenda.
H.J.: That’s another story, yes, we shouldn’t mingle the two. But coming back to your initial question is that these people, these refugees, the present refugees, will never be in a position to get… Whereas in Europe, one day, most likely they will be able to get citizenship.
K.K.: That’s a theme that emerged from this discussion, which I’ll take with me, that there is a difference in approach between the secular liberal democracies of the West, and the non secular, non-liberal, and non-democracies of most of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. I wanted to just come back to this theme of the mechanisms of destruction, if I may. We’ve spoken now about the uprooting of human beings from their homes. It doesn’t matter whether they are Christian, or Muslim, or Yazidi, or Buddhist, or whatever their religion is. These are human beings, they’ve not been treated with dignity, they’ve not been treated with any form of respect, they’ve either been coerced out of their homes, or they fled from their homes in fear of their lives. We mentioned the takeover of their properties. What about their churches and other places of religious worship? What has happened to those buildings that have been left behind?
H.J.: We are witnessing, unfortunately, and this is very sad, we are witnessing destruction of so many churches.
C.P.: And not only. Cultural heritage sites, ancient Roman ruins, etc.
H.J.: This is where my argument will come: the rejection of the “Other”. This is the reason why I said right from the very beginning: we have a new ideology coming out, which is the rejection of the “Other”. It is not rejection of the Christian only, it is the rejection of the “Other”. The destruction of all the ancient history – Syria, Iraq – these are countries which have…
C.P.: …Steeped in history…
H.J.: …Deep historical and cultural heritage. I am not sure if you have been to these countries, where you can see all these historical sites. Some areas in Syria, which unfortunately fell in the hands of the fundamentalists, they destroy the historical and cultural sites.
H.J.: Because they just don’t want to have anything to do with history.
K.K.: We’ve seen it here in the occupied part of Cyprus. The churches have been destroyed, or left abandoned, icons are being ripped out of churches and sold on the black market.
H.J.: It’s a wish to uproot the culture, which is not considered their own culture. Whereas, and that’s the folly about it because it is their culture, at the end of the day.
K.K.: It is our culture.
C.P.: But what I am saying is that it is their culture too, but they are too fanatical to see it. Can I just come back to that point that in Europe the refugees are entering the power struggle. Whereas in this part of the world minorities and refugees are completely out of the power struggle, yet they are considered a threat to the degree that they have to be exterminated.
H.J.: In some parts, that should be very clearly defined.
C.P.: In some part. Whereas they don’t pose any political threat, because they are not citizens, and this is coming back to your point, that it is the intolerance of the other, but for the sake of what? There is no practical significance. They are not threatening to take over the power of the government, they are not threatening to change their religion. All they want to do is live. And they deny them that right. So it’s a deeper problem, I think.
H.J.: But allow me to say that the present situation that we have in the greater Middle East is the concern of everybody, each and every country in the greater Middle East, including Europe and the rest of the word – it’s the concern of all. It’s not only the concern of Christians, who are suffering, but it’s the concern of everybody.
K.K.: Is it? What are the British, and the Americans, and the French and the others doing to protect these people from subjugation?
C.P.: And some countries in the region, too. Because some countries pay lip services, and pretend to do something about it, and I would not point any fingers anywhere, but it’s clear, and yet nothing is happening. In fact they are doing the opposite, they are supporting the indirect genocide. It’s more than a tragedy. It’s a disaster of global proportions.
H.J.: What really matters at the end, irrespective of what the political calculations are, human souls are suffering.
K.K.: You’ve made a very important point: human souls are suffering. I really want to press you on this. Quite rightly we’ve been focusing on the uprooting of people from their homes, the destruction of churches and other cultural artifacts. But then people are being chucked into refugee camps in Jordan, or Lebanon, or Turkey, or wherever it is. And that must surely have an adverse effect on their soul. So I would suggest that even though many of these Christians or others who have survived the assault upon their homes, and their villages, and their towns, there must be some sort of deep-rooted psychological effect.
H.J.: Very good point. One of the major concerns that we have, let’s call it a challenge, is small children, young boys and girls, who are now growing in the refugee tents somewhere in the region. What kind of a new generation are we expecting from this?
K.K.: This applies of course to the Muslim refugees, it cuts across the religions.
H.J.: Of course, I am not talking about the Christians, I’m talking about the refugees in general, especially the children. We have a big generation of young ones, five years, six years, seven years, nine and ten years of age. What kind of a generation are we expecting from this? Definitely, a generation which will grow with hatred, and the pain in their own hearts.
K.K.: But who will they blame? Will they ISIS? Or will they blame the Americans?
H.J.: They will blame everybody. We will have a new generation which maybe will eventually grow up to become a fundamentalist.
C.P.: It’s not the first generation, though, because it’s already been 30 years since this generation has been developed, through the Palestinian period, and the Iraqi war period, and so on. So this is the second generation, at least.
K.K.: I’m not an expert on the Palestinian question. But correct me if I’m wrong, it took the Palestinians twenty or thirty years to become radicalized, after the first Middle East war at the end of the 1940s. And this point about the childhood. I do fear for the children who are being brought up with the psychological scars of that they’ve seen in Iraq and Syria. Is religion the answer? And if so – how?
H.J.: You want me to answer this from the Christian perspective?
K.K.: You can answer this from whichever perspective you wish.
H.J.: Let’s try to end on a positive note. Where do we go from here? Can we go up, or do we have to go down?
H.J.: Let me share some statistics from The Economist, a well-known publication, about the Christian presence in the region. In the 20th century, according to the statistics, the number of Christians in the greater Middle East, compared to the rest, was 20%. Now, in the 21st century, it is less than 5%. Now, you can see the decrease in the number of Christians. So this obviously will tell us, or will highlight that we’re not very much in a positive trend, if the situation continues. But is this good or bad? Definitely it is bad, not only for the Christian presence, but also equally bad for the community in this part of the world.
K.K.: You were saying to me something earlier about how Christian values had an effect on the region. Can you just develop that point?
H.J.: If we are going to look from the theological perspective, what is Christian theology all about? It is to understand the other, and to accept and respect the other. Christ came to the word for the other. We’re not going to preach now, but that’s the whole essence of Christian theology. And now there is what we are going through, especially in our part of the world, is the rejection of the “Other”. So we definitely need the Christian theology in this part of the word. Not necessarily for proselytism, don’t misunderstand me, but to create a platform, to create a basis, where people can accept one other.
K.K.: We can’t expect Christianity to make inroads into the Eastern Mediterranean in the view of the circumstances. But we can try to bring liberal democracy into the Eastern Mediterranean. Liberal democracy is in a sense an offshoot of the Greco-Christian tradition, but it’s not tainted with religion as such. And indeed, there is a secular foundation to a good deal of liberal democracy. I would suggest that a way we can try and counteract the religious extremism and the misuse of religion is to do our best in the Eastern Mediterranean at least, first of all to shore up liberal democracy and liberal democratic values, and secondly to try, in so far as we can, to spread the values and the principles of liberal democracy into this region.
C.P.: And without allowing the exceptions, though, that have become a rationalization: that democracy is something you have to contextualize. And in the context of the Middle East it has to be XYZ. And XYZ makes it illiberal, but it’s ok, because it’s in the context. We’ve completed a circle that we’ve cancelled ourselves. I agree with you, absolutely, that that’s the way to go, but the rationalization of the exception is such, that we are nullifying the whole argument.
K.K.: I’ve got to mention Cyprus here.
C.P.: Cyprus is exactly the point.
K.K.: A bi-communal federation means the citizens split into two. A bi-zonal federation means the territory of the state split into two. How is it going to be split into two? On essentially religious as well as ethnic lines. That’s contrary to the basic principles of democracy.
C.P.: And even more basic: it’s a violation of fundamental rights. If you’re going to insist on liberal democracy, you have to insist on its underlying principles. Now, is there a hope for that in the Middle East, or are we always going to excuse ourselves, and excuse the violators by saying: you’ve got to be in the context.
H.J.: We, Christians, we are people of hope. We don’t look to the glass, which is half empty, and say it is half empty or half full – we look to the glass and we say that we want to see that the glass is completely full. That’s the kind of a person we as Christians are.
C.P.: Or should be.
H.J.: That’s what our theology should be about. I personally believe that the day will come when this will stop, one way or the other. It will stop, and the time will come to rebuild this region. And in this rebuilding process, what you mentioned here is equally important. But I feel that theology is also an equal part in order to bring these values. And this is where I see the importance of the Christian presence, and the Christian church, and Christian theology in rebuilding this region. This is why I always emphasize that the Christian community should stay here. And maybe more than any other time, Christian theology now is needed, in this time of crisis, because people have so many questions.
C.P.: Is there any organizational support for these people to stay? Now the organizational support is focused on enabling refugees to leave, no matter what they are. Is there a chance of turning that around? Is there a chance of turning around? But what sort of support can you give them in an alien environment, when their lives are in danger?
H.J.: People are fearful. When fear enters into your heart, you know it as a human being…
C.P.: Let me just give you a historical allusion. In the 19th century the great powers each had a protected community, Christian community, and therefore some of the powers in the region were afraid of consequences. So they didn’t attack the Orthodox, because the tsar would be pissed off, or the British, or the French, etc. I don’t see that happening again. In fact it may bring the opposite effect. But can you see some sort of a guarantee by the UN, or the civilized powers, or something, that will affect a change in this thinking? Because I don’t think just waiting for them to these guys to get mellow and change their mind, I don’t think this is going to happen. They will react to some sort of potential price that they will have to pay.
H.J.: So far there are no guarantors as such.
C.P.: The EU is facilitating what is happening. There is no will to fight it on a philosophical level, I think.
H.J.: And I’m not sure if maybe we should enter into a completely new field. But I’m not sure if the secular ideology that Europe has embraced, especially some parts of Europe, which is very much becoming secular, I’m not sure to what extent this is also helping the greater Middle East region, and especially for the Christian presence. If the Christian presence in Europe had been relatively stronger, most likely…
C.P.: …The reaction would have been different.
H.J.: Can I just make my last contribution. I want to read you something that the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Sacks, said in the British Parliament on the 16th of July 2015. I think this is really a good way of sort of tying the various threads of our discussion together. He said the following: “Three things have happened to change the religious landscape of the world in recent years. First, the secular nationalist regimes that appeared in many parts of the world in the 20th century have given rise to powerful religious counterrevolutions. Secondly, these counterrevolutions are led by religion in its most extreme, adversarial and anti-Western form. Thirdly, the revolution in information and technology has allowed these groups to form, organize, and communicate to actual and potential followers throughout the world, with astonishing speed. The result has been the politicization of religion, and the religionizing of politics, which throughout history has been a deadly combination. In the long run it will threaten us all, because in a global age no country or culture is an island.” He concluded: “We must stand together, the people of all faiths and of none, for we are all at risk. Religious freedom is about our common humanity, and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it. This, I believe, is the issue of our time.”
C.P.: In a nutshell: can we appeal to the common humane heart of these two religions in this part of the world?
H.J.: It’s three religions, let’s not forget, it’s Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
C.P.: But it’s the Judeo-Christian tradition and Islam. Is there a common humane heart?
H.J.: There should be.
C.P.: Can we reach it? Well, this is exactly what the rabbi had to write so well, I mean these three points.
H.J.: I think we need to do more than “inshallah”, and this is exactly what we are trying to do. As Christians, that’s our theology. It’s a theology of creating this platform with three monotheistic religions to come together. I was born and raised in the Middle East, and I still cherish its values. The Middle East is such a beautiful place, and one of its beauties is the coming together of the different cultures, of the different ethnic groups, of the different religions together.
K.K.: We want to finish on a positive note here. Our concern is to establish the Eastern Mediterranean as a vibrant, ethical and successful part of the world. That’s the spirit of ERPIC, that’s the spirit of the people who participate in these discussions. And I think put your finger on one of the keys to achieving that noble, but difficult objective, and that is to embrace the diversity of this part of the world, to try and rebuild what has been destroyed, and to try and build a future that is based on, what you said earlier and the Chief Rabbi said, our common humanity. That’s the key to the success of this part of the world.
C.P.: Thank you very much gentlemen.