Like most churches in Egypt, men prayed on the right side of this sanctuary attached to St. Mark’s Cathedral, while women worshipped with their young children on the left. At some point during the morning service on December 11, 2016, a visitor entered the women’s section, left a handbag on a pew, and walked away. At 11:00, it exploded.
“I saw a headless woman being carried away,” said one witness to the aftermath of this attack, which killed 27 Christians, mostly women and children. “We were scooping up people’s flesh off the floor. There were children. What have they done to deserve this? I wish I had died with them instead of seeing these scenes.”
The massacre at St. Mark’s Cathedral was just the latest in a long line of attacks that have left many Middle Eastern Christians convinced that they have no place in their own countries. 100 years ago, around 15% of people in the Middle East were Christians. By 2000, that number had dropped to around 5%. Since then, a million Iraqi Christians have fled the region to escape genocide and hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians have been driven from their country by war and religious cleansing. If the war in Syria pulls Lebanon into its vortex, Lebanon’s Christians will face similar violence.
The world-historical crisis unfolding in the Middle East calls for American Christians to re-evaluate how we understand persecution, and what we can do about it. By God’s grace, this may be an opportune moment. With our current president and our president-elect arguing in public about the U.S.’ Middle East policy, it seems that under President Trump, a lot of things we used to take for granted will be up for grabs, for better or worse.
In this series of columns for iAt, I will endeavor to tell the story of the United States and Middle Eastern Christians, from the 1950s until today. But first, I want to set the stage by challenging how we think about persecution. How do we make mental sense of horror movie scenes like the bloodbath at St. Mark’s?
One approach is what we might call the “holy suffering” narrative. It is exemplified by this music video, in which a musician performs the hymn “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” while a pastor tells the story of an Indian Christian who refused to deny Christ, even as his children, his wife and finally he himself were killed by a mob. In the end, the killers are won over to the gospel by their faith, and the whole village is converted to Christianity.
I do not wish to criticize this video, which is a beautiful tribute to the faithful persecuted. But I do think we should think critically about the way it makes us feel, and the things we think we learn from it. There is no politics in this story. The Christian victims are perfectly innocent, threatening no one with their witness. Their killers are misguided fanatics, who are won over by the love of their victims. The ending is happy; persecution produces only good results. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. The story is sad, but we are left with a fuzzy, warm feeling. Finally, this story asks us for nothing – except a Facebook share, a prayer, or perhaps a donation. (All of which are good things, to be sure.)
The story of this brave Indian Christian may be true; but it is not helpful in understanding the Middle East crisis. The groups persecuting Christians have real political motives, and are often seeking to overthrow equally murderous governments, under the banner of creating an Islamic state – a project that Christians, by their very existence, pose an obstacle to. Middle Eastern Christians sometimes do desperate things to protect their lives, and those of their loved ones – as any of us would. Persecution can bring heroism out in its victims, but just as often creates extreme trauma, hatred, broken families, division and paranoia. And if persecution reliably helped the spread of the gospel, the Middle East today would be 95% Christian, not >5%.
The Bible turns us away from sentimental feelings about the persecution of other Christians, towards persecution’s political character. The book of Revelation shows the devil waging a ferocious war of martyrdom against the church. His allies in this war are not only demons or John Bunyan’s “Giant Despair,” but cities, nations, and governments, in whom is found “the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth.” (12:12-17, 13:7, 17:15-18, 18:24). As the Anglican lay-theologian William Stringfellow recognized, “Except for the accounts of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, Revelation is manifestly the most political part of the New Testament…concerning the character and timeliness of God’s judgment, not only of persons, but over nations.”1
A second American viewpoint on persecution is one we might call the “righteous nation” narrative. This narrative sees persecution as something that America’s enemies do, and that it’s up to America to stop. President Reagan seemed to see the world this way: he identified America as a “shining city on a hill” and the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and admirably cooperated with Pope John Paul II to bring down that empire. Today the enemies might be Iran, al Qaeda, or ISIS, but the U.S.’s enemies and the enemies of the church are seen as one.
This narrative has some advantages. It recognizes the truth that persecution is a political problem. It affirms that Christians who are not persecuted have a responsibility to oppose persecution – that while God may choose to make good come from evil, we are called to seek the good.
But the fatal flaw of the “righteous nation” narrative is to view persecution through American eyes, instead of through the eyes of God’s kingdom. Here too, we should start with what God tells us about persecution, and then proceed look at our world. In Revelation’s vivid tableau, the persecuting power, in the times when it is fully revealed, is not a subregional player like Iran, or a besieged principality like ISIS. On the contrary:
The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. Men…asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?’ …He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. …no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. (13:3-4, 7, 17)
Iran does not control access to buying and selling on world markets. ISIS does not have a surveillance apparatus that spies on every country in the world. Al Qaeda is not a military superpower that no nation can challenge. For the first readers of the book of Revelation, the persecutor was Rome, “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Where is Rome today?
The Princeton historian L. Carl Brown writes, “For roughly the last two centuries, the Middle East has been more consistently and more thoroughly ensnarled in great power politics than any other part of the non-Western world.” The Middle East’s politics cannot be “adequately explained – even at the local level – without reference to the influence of the intrusive outside system.” In other words, you can’t understand what’s happening in the Middle East unless you understand what the United States and Russia are doing there. And between 1991 and 2015, when Russian influence in the region was at a low, the U.S. was only the great power in town.
The U.S. is the world’s largest weapons seller, and 40% of our arms sales go to the Middle East. The world’s top buyer of American weaponry is Saudi Arabia, which is also the world’s top financier of anti-Christian persecution and Islamic extremism. The historian Rashid Khalidi claims, “Most of the estimated 1 million casualties suffered by both sides in the Iran-Iraq War were inflicted by weapons delivered by the two superpowers.” The same is true of the Middle East’s wars today, above all in Syria, where a cruel dictatorship armed by Russia is fighting an insurgency armed and nurtured by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, an insurgency that has cleansed huge regions of their Christian populations.
Separately, the U.S. gifts $5.7 billion in weapons to select allies every year, almost all of it going to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan. This military aid often accompanies training for these countries’ militaries, and creates networks of close relationships between the Pentagon and generals in places like Egypt and Pakistan. Where Middle Eastern governments are not closely tied to the United States, they are usually under harsh American sanctions that lead to vast civilian suffering, as in Iran, Syria, and, formerly, Iraq. Since 1949, the U.S. has orchestrated or supported coups d’etat in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. There is no conflict in the region that the U.S. is not involved with, usually quite intimately.
All of this means that the Middle East today is, in large measure, what American intervention has made it. The rise of the U.S. as the main imperial power in the region (displacing Russia, France and Britain) has coincided with the fastest decimation of Middle Eastern Christian populations since the Crusades, as well as the violent deaths of millions of Muslims, Yazidis, Sabeans and others. This story, not a story of holy suffering, nor a story about the evils of America’s enemies, is the story I hope to tell in the coming months.
On March 4, 2016, in the city of Aden, Yemen, armed men stormed a Christian old people’s home that was founded by Mother Theresa. They killed 16 people, including four nuns who were tied up and shot in the head, their skulls smashed in with guns as the nursing home’s residents cried out for mercy. Their names were Sister Anselm from India, Sister Judith from Kenya and Sisters Marguerite and Reginette from Rwanda. The nursing home’s priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil of India, rushed to the chapel and frantically tried to eat all the sacred host before the militants could desecrate it. He was not seen again until Christmas Day, when his captors released a video showing him trembling and in ill health, explaining that he had been kidnapped “because I was working for the Christian religion and the church.”
It would be very easy to make the Aden massacre and the captivity of Father Uzhunnalil into a tear-jerking musical tribute to faith that inspires us while asking nothing of us – that is, into a story without politics. It would also be easy to make it into a story about the depravity of Islamic extremists. But these narratives are just not good enough.
The larger context of the Aden massacre is an atrocious, largely forgotten war. For nearly two years, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Gulf Arab states have been bombing Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, in an attempt to put down an uprising against Yemen’s Saudi-backed dictator. The Saudis have waged a war of systematic cultural destruction and attacks on civilians. Thousands have been killed by the coalition’s bombing, and countless others have died of starvation or treatable diseases as the country’s feeble infrastructure has crumbled under an international blockade. With the tacit approval of the Saudis, al Qaeda has carved out a 300-mile long state for itself on Yemen’s southern coast, seizing much of Yemen’s oil infrastructure, murdering converts to Christianity, and expanding their training camps.
The United States has given crucial support for Saudi Arabia’s war, refueling Saudi planes in mid-air during their bombing runs, providing targeting intelligence, and supplying state-of-the-art cluster bombs, which are designed to explode close to the ground and shoot out scores of tiny bomblets that butcher anyone within a certain radius.
This journal’s mandate is “to explore the concrete implications of Christ’s presence in all facets of life.” It is a mission that hearkens back to Abraham Kuyper’s well-known declaration: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
This is a tough truth to apply. It is very easy to get it wrong, to use it to claim Christ’s blessing on whatever it is we are already doing. Witness the U.S.’ deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy from 2012-2015 – the height of the American dirty war in Syria, and the beginning of the war in Yemen – who claims that his faith “made him a better policymaker.” (He is at pains to reassure us that “my religion didn’t overwhelm other considerations, dictating which policies I should support.” No, no fear of that.)
We should remember that when Christ claims our square inches, it is in judgment of them, as well as blessing. We should remember that one concrete implication of Christ’s presence is that when Christians being persecuted by U.S.-backed governments and militias cry out to God, “he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:8).
If it’s true that persecution is the devil’s war on the church, and that he uses the powers of this world as his weapons, what does it mean for American Christians if our own government is implicated in persecution? What does our co-religionists’ suffering ask of us then?
I don’t have an answer, but I believe the question is a crucial one. Next month, I will try to tell the story of the genocide of Iraq’s Christians in the context of America’s war there. This month, I hope you will join me in praying for a smooth transition of power in Washington, for the safety of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, and for comfort for the victims of St. Mark’s.
William Stringfelllow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 27 ↩
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Thanks Joel! Keep sharing your research and analysis of the Middle East. We would also appreciate at some point your thoughtful solutions or actions that the US should be taking.
Joel, You have developed much from actually seeing things with your own eyes. Thank you for sharing it with us. I look forward to your columns. I will pray for Father Tom Uzhunnalil and the victims of St. Mark’s.