The harrowing lives of Christians in the Middle East (Washington Post)

By Colbert I. King August 14 at 6:49 PM
Witnessing sectarian turmoil in the Middle East, and observing the back and forth over which threat is most existential to countries in that religiously sensitive region, a soft voice asks: “Don’t Christian lives matter, too?” Depends upon how it’s expressed.

This weekend, the Episcopal Church and other Christian denominations will celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus Christ, and the Catholic Church will recognize Mary’s assumption into heaven.

Words

● An Aug. 11 article by The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief, William Booth, featured Aviya Morris, a 20-year-old West Bank settler, described as “the fresh new face of Jewish extremism.”

According to the article, “in 2013 [Morris] was arrested on suspicion of involvement in vandalizing Jerusalem’s Monastery of the Cross, where assailants left behind the spray-painted message ‘Jesus — son of a whore’ on a wall.”

Morris, The Post reported, was released without being charged.

● An Aug. 10 Anti-Defamation League news release expressed outrage at remarks made by Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein, director of Lehava, which the ADL called “a far-right extremist organization in Israel.” According to the release, Gopstein reportedly said he favored the burning of churches and compared Christianity to idol worship.

The remarks were made, the ADL said, during a symposium on Jewish religious law on Aug. 4 in Jerusalem, when Gopstein was asked: “Are you in favor of burning [churches] or not?” He replied: “Of course I am! It’s Maimonides. It’s a simple yes. What’s the question?”

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the ADL’s national director, said in the release, “Rabbi Gopstein’s views have no place within the Jewish tradition or in a democratic society,” and Greenblatt called for an apology.

● A June 18 ADL news release condemned a suspected religiously motivated hate crime against the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

The ADL said the 1,500-year-old church was set on fire early in the morning, damaging the prayer room and outer areas of the church: “Graffiti reading ‘False idols will be smashed’ — a line from Jewish prayer — was spray-painted on one of the walls.”
“We deplore this despicable hate crime against one of the holiest Christian sites in Israel,” said then-ADL leader Abraham H. Foxman in the release. Foxman also noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had condemned the attack and promised to prosecute the perpetrators.

Until those words describing anti-Christian hostility appeared in The Post and the ADL releases, I had never heard of Morris or Gopstein. They were made prominent by the publications. There is no indication that more than a small minority of Israelis shares such hatred. But it does exist, at least among a few, in the region where Christianity was born, and it finds expression in venom-filled words and desecrated churches.

Deeds

Christians beyond Israel are far worse off.

You wouldn’t know that is the case, however, from the attention that Middle Eastern Christians receive.

Followers of Christ in Iraq, quiet as it has been kept, have borne a large brunt of the pain resulting from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Before 2003, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today, because of killings and panicked flights from terror, that number is below 500,000.

The Islamic State’s calling card to Christians in Syria and Iraq: Convert to Islam or pay with your life. Recall the scenes on the Libyan beaches where Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians were beheaded.

“We’re certainly looking at the potential end of Christianity in the Middle East if no one does anything to protect these ancient communities that are dwindling now,” said Eliza Griswold, author of a recent New York Times Magazine article about the dire straits of Christians in Iraq and Syria.

But the international dueling over the Iran nuclear deal, sectarian turmoil and Israel’s response to foreign threats overshadow the plight of Christians.

Middle Eastern Christians have no army of their own, no government that represents them in world capitals, no voice in international parleys that have a bearing on their fate. They are vulnerable; their plight is slighted by Western powers fearful, as Griswold wrote, of “appearing to play into the crusader and ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives the West is accused of embracing.”
When all’s said and done, Christians in the Middle East have only their faith.

But they know, as do the Christians who will pay tribute to Jesus’s mother — a saint, not a whore — this weekend, that earthly powers don’t have the last word, that a cup of strength lies within their grasp, and that though they suffer, they, as Christians, actually matter to the one who matters to them most of all.

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