Questioning religion and politics in the MENA region

By Harry Hagopian
September 24, 2014

Joseph Stalin once asked an advisor rather perfunctorily, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” This quotation referring to Pius XII later featured in Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, volume 1, chapter 8, on The Second World War (1948).

But why am I raking over old coals today? Simply because I recalled this infamous quotation last week as I followed an inaugural summit organised by In Defence of Christians, whose president is the Lebanese-American Toufic Baaklani, and which met at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington DC. It attracted the good, the high and the mighty and purported that it "provides a voice for Christians in the Middle East" to "discover how you can make a difference."

According to the stated objective, the primary purpose of this summit was to bring all members of the Christian Diaspora together in a newfound sense of unity. Quite a mammoth task, mind you, but Middle Eastern Christians - whether Orthodox or Catholic, Evangelical, Coptic, Maronite, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean or Assyrian – were called on to join together in a solidarity that strengthens their advocacy efforts and reaches out to US policy makers, elected officials or the American public at large. In essence, it was meant to be a laudable attempt that congregates peoples of good will in defence of the defenceless and becomes a voice for those who are voiceless.

I admit wholeheartedly that such a gathering, even though it is ostentatiously labelled a ‘summit’ simply because of the presence of five Middle Eastern patriarchs in its midst, is a constructive thing. The US and many EU member-states quite often get the MENA horribly wrong despite so many years of history, colonialism, pacts or associations and of course messy politics. After all, who could decry such a lofty goal?

But let me probe a tad further into this event. For those ecumenical or political aficionados who followed it, they will have no doubt been aware of the little spat following a speech by Senator Ted Cruz who was heckled when he stated that Christians have no greater ally than Israel for their salvific future – a bitter pill to swallow for many participants. But let me stop being unduly critical before someone yells "sour grapes" at me!

My own beef with this ‘summit’ is two-fold. For one, there is a myth being propagated by a few religious hierarchs that their well-being, let alone survival, depends on their alliance with the dictatorial regimes of the MENA region. By cosying up with those bloody regimes that would not bat an eye before throwing someone in gaol, torturing him or her and scrubbing away their very existence, they seem to think that Christians in the MENA region can surely fare better.

Mind you, their argument can become plausible when one witnesses the execrable terror perpetrated by the so-called ISIS group across Iraq and Syria or its exclusivist caliphate-unfriendly attitudes toward religion in the region. Or even the pandemonium created by some elements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. And granted, ISIS enjoys the support of considerable numbers of Sunni Muslim men and women who prefer them to sectarian armies or other factional militias. In a sense, those people either feel marginalised or disenfranchised both politically and economically, or else their understanding of Islam is so caustic and intolerant that theirs is truly a case of ‘my way or the highway’. But they still remain a tiny percentage that does not represent in any deep form or shape the larger corpus of Islam that admittedly looks at its constituency as a broad ummah just as we Christians do with our universal fellowship.

So this rather indolent intellectual exercise exported as religious leadership by some MENA Christians is lily-livered just as the openness of some Western Christian leaders to accept it lock, stock and barrel is correspondingly parvanimous.

My second bigger concern is a propensity - again exacerbated by the undisguised crimes of ISIS that feeds on ideological and theological wastelands – when a few Christian hierarchs now look at Christian realities, at their woes, hopes or fears, in isolation from other communities. But alas those leaders do not always represent the Christian vox populi either and forget that Christians in the MENA and Gulf regions are (due largely to Egypt and Lebanon) no more than 10 per cent of an overall demographic population. For them to highlight the indigenous Christians as an insular reality from the other men and women of the region, or even portraying them as non-neighbours, is indefensible. It could well rebound on those Christians and boomerang on their long-term interests once the ISIS finite nightmare subsides – as it will do eventually.

I personally struggle with my Christian faith. I often test it so it can grow and become stronger. I also do not pretend that Christians are safe in a region overwhelmed by chaos and gripped almost by bloodlust and violence. But I still have a problem with church leaders, priests or grassroots organisations – some of them good friends – who jump on convenient bandwagons to play politics when their job should be more one of compassion, mercy and support to their peoples.

I started off with Stalin’s derogatory aside about the Pope’s divisions. If I were sitting at the same table as Stalin, I pray that I would have somehow mustered the prophetic courage to retort, “How many divisions does the Pope need anyway?” Christians are part of the MENA region and their strength need not lie in their physical might alone.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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