The news of how Christian communities in Syria are being forced to purchase their lives by signing treaties of submission to jihadi overlords is just one of the more recent reminders of the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East. This is a subject that struggles to receive much comment from Western leaders, or apparently provoke much serious outrage in the general public. Naturally, Christian groups and media outlets do periodically go through the motions attempting to draw some attention to this matter. Yet among some of the liberal churches, the alleged oppression of Palestinian Muslims by the Jewish state seems to keep them far too busy to devote much time to campaign about the genuine oppression of Christians by Muslims.
In some sense, the precarious predicament of Christian communities in the Middle East is somewhat more complicated than it may appear. In both Iraq and Syria, the Baathist regimes co-opted the Christian community into supporting what were already minority-run states. In Syria in particular, it made sense for the Assads’ Alawite minority to enlist the help of Christian communities in maintaining power over the Sunni majority. The disintegration of these regimes has naturally left Christians exposed to the resentments of the wider populace. Nevertheless, the most extreme and sustained violence against the region’s Christian minorities is primarily coming from radicalized and emboldened Islamist terror groups. From the Copts in Egypt, to the Christians under Hamas in Gaza, to the state-sanctioned oppression in Iran, to the sporadic attacks on Christians in Pakistan, the same extremist Islamic forces are at work.
The latest events in Syria specifically concern the Christian communities in the province of Raqqa, which is currently under the control of the militia forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Islamist group which claims association with al-Qaeda. There the leaders of the community faced either forced conversion to Islam or death if they did not agree to sign a treaty of submission, which forbids them from practicing their faith openly. By imposing this treaty ISIS is following orthodox Sharia practices, which compel Christians in Islamic society to live in a subservient state of dhimmitude. Nor was the convert-or-die threat an empty one. In the past year alone, 1,213 Christians were murdered in Syria in what were recorded as killings motivated by the victims’ religion.
All of which, one might have thought, would be of great concern to churches in the West. Clearly many of these congregations have a strong sense of social conscience and are no strangers to activism and campaigning. Yet, in the case of several of the liberal churches, the campaign of choice is not one to support their beleaguered and persecuted coreligionists in the Islamic world; instead they have set upon the campaign to demonize the Jewish state, incidentally the only place in the entire Middle East where the number of Christians is actually growing.
As Jonathan Tobin has written about here, the Presbyterian Church USA has not only seen attempts to pass boycott motions within the church, but most recently the Presbyterians’ Israel Palestinian Mission Network has released a study guide that is fiercely anti-Zionist. Similarly, the Methodist Church in Britain has witnessed an ongoing controversy over its moves to issue a boycott of Israel. And of particular prominence this year was the move by St James’s Church in London to mark the Christmas festivities by erecting a graffiti-covered 26-foot-high replica of Israel’s security barrier. Reportedly this stunt cost the congregation over $50,000. Presumably no more worthy or needy cause could be thought of at the time.
While both Malcolm Hoenlein, the long-serving head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks have both publicly expressed outrage at the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians and called for action to prevent its continuation, it seems that the same passions have not been stirred among certain liberal Christian congregations in the West. Apparently they reserve their sense of righteous indignation primarily for expressing opposition to the Jewish state’s efforts to defend its civilians from Islamic terrorism.