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“If You See Something, Say Something”: A Call for Help for Christians in the Middle East

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) licensed the slogan “If You See Something, Say Something,” as the slogan for a national campaign intended to raise public awareness of signs of terrorism and, especially, to mobilize citizens to report suspicious activity to U.S. law enforcement officials.  The DHS meme (a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture,” according to Meriam Webster online) is premised on the linkage between education and action, as well as on the notion that the safety of the collective whole requires individual acuity and responsibility.  I’m certainly not advocating thralldom to the War on Terror rubric from which the DHS maxim was born, but the underlying logic of “If you See Something, Say Something” assumed an apopthegmatic quality when I heard it recently, repositioned within the context of a discussion on the tragedy of Christians in the Middle East. 

The threat of extinction faced by Christians in their lands of origins has been a frequent subject of my blog posts (including on this site) and op-eds, briefings and testimonies to US Congressional and international human rights institutions, and discussions with religious leaders,  faith-based groups, and policymakers in the Middle East and the US.  I look forward to the day when reality allows me to turn my heart, mind, prayers, and keyboard to another subject.  However, that day seems distant, given that, as of this writing, conditions for Christians in what was once the vibrant epicenter of the early Church, continue to deteriorate precipitously. 

Within days, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis will arrive in Jerusalem on a journey being described as an Apostolic Pilgrimage.  This visit by the successors of the Apostolic Sees of St. Andrew and St. Peter commemorates the 50th anniversary of the historic Jerusalem meeting by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI.  That 1964 meeting was an event that declared the commitment of Constantinople and Rome to repair centuries of rupture in ecclesial unity that had followed the mutual excommunications between Constantinople and Rome in the 11th-century Great Schism.  This May’s sojourn to Jerusalem reflects both leaders’ resolute dedication, in Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s words, “to work further for Christian unity and reconciliation,” by deepening the spirit of trust and by exploring options for practical cooperation and theological resolution.  The meeting could generate a kind of roadmap for incremental changes which, eventually, can bring about full communion between the Churches East and West. 

More immediately, though, both leaders have made it crystal clear that their joint visit to Jerusalem and the surrounding places (Bethlehem and other sacred sites for Christians) is intended to lend solidarity to beleaguered Christians in the region as a whole.  Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis recognize the emergency facing Christians in the region, so it is by careful design that their plans for worship and dialogue in various fora and formats, will involve Christians of every denomination and tradition.  Christians of the four Eastern Sees of the ancient Pentarchy (those in Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem) live besieged, from Turkey to Syria, from Iraq to Egypt, in Israel and Palestine—Christians today are being strangled by state policies of political-economic discrimination and religious persecution, rendered the equivalent of hostages to societal anarchy caused by failing states, targeted and victimized by the tsunami of sectarian violence amongst Muslims, and cynically sacrificed by Great Powers more concerned with their geopolitical interests than with human rights.  Orthodox Christians form the numerical majority and have been disproportionately affected by the humanitarian catastrophes caused by the intersection of the West’s Great Power hubris and the Middle East’s regime-types of secular and religious authoritarianism.  But make no mistake: the erasure of Christians from the lands of Christianity’s origins has affected Orthodox, Copts, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Chaldeans, Maronites, Melchites, Latins, in an ecumenical tragedy of epic proportions.    

Against this backdrop, a recent Vatican statement regarding the upcoming Apostolic Pilgrimage indicated that the visit will be a signal “to sensitize those who have political responsibilities, because peaceful coexistence in that region and in the whole world is at stake."  What is at stake, quite simply, is the survival of the living Christian presence—people and patrimony, faithful and their churches, monasteries, cemeteries, libraries, and texts—in the original geographic footprint of Christianity.  And it’s here that the DHS slogan becomes portable, taking on rich meaning for how the world, and especially, for how fellow Christians, will respond to the modern tragedy of Middle East Christians. 

If we consider the response of Christians living freely in the US and Europe, as well as the Transatlantic governments that purport to be standardbearers for the promotion and protection of universal human rights, including the right of religious freedom, the DHS slogan has been turned on its head: in other words, the response has been to choose to avert their gaze and to remain silent, or to “see nothing and do nothing.”  At a December 2013 conference in Rome by Georgetown University on “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” Chaldean Archbishop of Baghdad, Louis Raphael Sako, called on the West to “open its eyes” to the reality of the “mortal danger” faced by Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and Syria.  Similarly, the General Bishop of the Coptic Church in the United Kingdom, Angaelos, spoke at a September 2013 conference at the National Liberal Club on “Reporting the Middle East: Why the Truth Is Getting Lost,” and lamented the West’s apathy in the face of Christian suffering in the Middle East.  A foreshadowing of their comments occurred in a 2009 in interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew likened his feelings in the face of sustained discrimination and persecution by the Turkish state to “being crucified”—a sentiment unlikely to change in the face of the Turkish government’s threats to convert the magnificent Orthodox Christian Cathedral of Aghia Sophia, a global treasure for all Christians and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a functioning mosque. 

The consistent meme of being ignored, forgotten, and abandoned, runs throughout the statements of Christian leaders from the Middle East, and recalls Martin Luther King’s memorable statement that “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Politics aside, for Christians who live freely and safely in the United States, the call for help from fellow Christians in the Middle East is a matter of conscience.  There’s absolutely no room for ideological claptrap or political dissembling in order to justify looking away and doing nothing in the face of the humanitarian debacle in the region.  Likewise, there can be no excuse for resort to divisive language and a politics of hatred that can only worsen conditions in the region—and that runs counter to Christian teachings to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matt 22:39).  All of the aforementioned Christian hierarchs have emphasized that any hope for a durable peace in the region depends on uncompromising support for religious pluralism, on acceptance of the conviction that each and every person is created in the image of God, and in seeing God in the face of one’s neighbor, whether Christians, Muslim, Jew, Druze, Alewite, or anyone from the myriad faith traditions that constitute the peoples of the Middle East.

Earlier this month, the ideas of peace through pluralism and non-violence, as well as the exhortation to see and do something, found an echo chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA), co-chairs of the bipartisan Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, convened a press conference in the Capitol complex in Washington, DC, to bring attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.  Wolf and Eshoo are tireless champions of the universal right of religious freedom.   Wolf pulled no punches in his observation that “now facing an existential threat to their presence in the lands where Christianity has its roots, the Churches in the Middle East fear they have been largely ignored by their coreligionists in the West.” Eshoo, who spoke of her background as an Armenian and Assyrian Christian, recalled the genocide against Armenians and other Christians in Turkey at the start of the 20th century as a warning about the erasure of Christians in today’s Middle East.

The Wolf-Eshoo event was no media stunt.  Instead, the gathering brought together the fullness of the Christian Church, in an ecumenical gathering that included 15 speakers (I was humbled to be one of them) from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions and denominations.  A sampling of the speakers indicates the remarkable ecumenical spirit of the gathering—some of those who spoke were Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White, Chaplain of the St. George Anglican Church in Baghdad; Joseph Kassab, Founder and President of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, who read a statement by Chaldean Archbishop Sako, who could not leave Baghdad); Metropolitan Methodios of Boston, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington; Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan, Armenian Apostolic Church of America; Johnnie Moore, Senior Vice President of Liberty University; Dr. Barrett Duke, Vice President for Pulbic Policy and Research of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; and myself and Nina Shea, who served together with me from 2004-2012 tenure on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The speakers offered individual testaments and accounts of the suffering of Middle East Christians, from Turkey to the Holy Land, and spoke in one voice in their signing of a ”Pledge and Call to Action on Behalf of Christians and Other Small Religious Communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.” The pledge, which today has well over 200 signatories and will be entered into the Congressional Record later this month, is a grassroots document, drafted with input from many sources from the diverse churches of the region, with no institutional sponsor, but instead, with a grassroots call to bring moral support, diplomatic assistance, and humanitarian aid, to the Middle East’s persecuted Christians. 

Key points in the pledge include “a request to President Barack Obama to appoint a Special Envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities, to review U.S. foreign assistance programs to ensure that they uphold policies and principles that relate to religious freedom and pluralism, and to help Christians and other minorities remain safely in the region by providing equitable access to American refugee, humanitarian, and reconstruction aid.”  (See http://wolf.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/media-advisory-press-conference-on-american-christian-leaders-pledge-to)

The emphatic message of those who came together to speak in Washington two weeks ago, to make the “joint pledge to speak up for our fellow Christians and other threatened religious minorities in the Middle East,” was the decision to work together as Christians, in solidarity and ecumenically, to pray, educate, and act, in order to end indifference and to support the universality of human rights for all human beings.  Metropolitan Methodios put it neatly, when he referenced the “If You See Something, Say Something” slogan.  “We have been seeing a lot.  Now is the time to say something.”  That commitment is an inspiring launch for the approaching Apostolic Pilgrimage of Brothers, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Pope, to Jerusalem later this week.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs Study Groups on Southeastern Europe and on Muslims and Democratic Politics.

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