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US must recognise the invisible victims of regional conflict

The future of the religiously complex societies of the Middle East relies on the recognition of their diversity and respect for the rights of all citizens.

For decades, Christians have been the "invisible or ignored victims" of conflicts in the Middle East. At best, the US has paid scant attention as communities of indigenous Christians in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt have been attacked or forced to endure hardship.

There are many reasons for this, with one principal factor being ignorance. Most Americans have little knowledge of the Arab world, its history and people. They are unaware that these Christian communities even exist. This must be remedied, since without an understanding of the role played by Christians in the Arab world, there can be no reasoned discussion about the future of this region.

I once hosted a press breakfast in Washington for a visiting Palestinian priest from the Galilee. Since I had invited only reporters who covered religion, I hoped for an informed and thoughtful exchange.

A set of initial questions from the AP's religion reporter established, early on, that the conversation would not be as productive as I had hoped. He began by asking: "You say that you are an Arab Christian. But how can that be - aren't they two different groups?" He followed up by asking: "When exactly did you and your family convert to Christianity?" The clergyman from the Galilee replied quite simply "My relatives converted about 2,000 years ago."

I have found that not only reporters were ignorant or dismissive about Christians in the Arab world. About two decades back, a senior US State Department official told me that he was off to Syria and high on his agenda was his intention to challenge "Assad's and the Baath's persecution of Christians". I cautioned him that Christians had been among the founders of the Baath party and, for better or worse, saw the Assad regime as supportive of their rights.

Just a few years ago, I had another disturbing conversation about Syria's Christians with a senior official, this time from the White House. We were in agreement about the need for fundamental change, but when I raised concern about the vulnerability of Syria's Christians, his dismissive response was: "Maybe it's time for them to leave."

Even when their presence is known, the Christians' plight is ignored in our political discourse either because acknowledging their situation might muddy a simplistic storyline or conflict with what has been identified as a larger policy objective.

And so, for example, the West has been silent about the precipitous decline in the Christian population of the Palestinian West Bank and Jerusalem out of deference to Israeli sensitivities. Pro-Israel Christian groups frequently make pilgrimages from the US to the Holy Land to show their support for Israel, while ignoring the existence of an indigenous Christian community and the hardships they are forced to endure. "They come," a Palestinian cleric told me, "to look at the places where Jesus walked and don't even see that we are here. We are invisible to them."

It was George W Bush whose war in Iraq unleashed the twin demons of violent extremism and sectarianism that resulted in the near destruction of the Chaldean Christian community of Iraq. The Bush White House simply shrugged this tragedy off.

And even today, the effect of sectarian conflict on the Christian communities of Syria and Egypt is rarely factored into discussions about these countries. And so the Syria story is "opposition versus regime", or "Al Qaeda facing off against Hizbollah", while the Egypt story is framed as "Muslim Brothers against the military" or "democracy versus coup". Meanwhile, on the ground, in both countries, ancient Christian churches are destroyed and communities live in fear of violence.

Right-wing groups will never criticise Israel's behaviour towards Christians, just as they were silent during the uprooting of Iraq's Christians. As a result, their advocacy can easily be dismissed as political posturing.

However, it is important not to allow a one-sided narrative born of ignorance to be replaced by another born of prejudice.

A wholesale maligning of Islam is not the way to correct the neglect of the past and would be profoundly unjust to the overwhelming majority of Muslims who have for centuries lived with, worked with, and, even now, struggled to protect their vulnerable Christian neighbours from extremism.

The way forward must be based on acknowledging the rich religious diversity that is the heritage of Arab society. Simplistic formulas that ignore this reality aren't the answer.

The Arab world is undergoing profound change. Resolution will neither be found in dictatorships nor in governments based on one or another form of intolerant sectarian dogmatism. The future of the religiously complex societies of the Middle East must recognise their diversity and respect the equal rights of all their citizens.

If America is to play any constructive role in this region's future, it is imperative that our policy discussion be better informed by a deeper understanding of the history and present-day reality of the region. A good place to start would be to acknowledge the role that Christian communities have played, together with Muslims, in shaping the region and to have our policy discussion reflect that reality.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter @aaiusa

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