Some of the world’s most ancient Christian communities are found in the Arab world. Sadly, however, religious persecution has forced many Christians to flee the West Asia and seek refuge in Europe and America. In recent years, the numbers of people leaving their homeland has increased exponentially particularly in Syria and Iraq. In their host countries as well as more generally, it is often forgotten that the Eastern churches are very different from their European counterparts.
Some years ago when I first arrived in Syria I went to the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab, the Prophet's grand-daughter and the daughter of Imam Hussain, which is in the suburbs of Damascus. At night, on the way back to the old city, I couldn't find the right bus until a tall gaunt man asked if he could help. I asked him to tell me which minibuses went to Souq al-Hamidiyyah, one of the oldest markets in the old city. He told me where to wait and then said he would stay with me until the right bus came. He spoke broken English and I replied in broken Arabic having just begun my classes at the university there. It transpired that he was a Christian refugee from Mosul where he had been a basketball coach. He said that he had come to pray at the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab since she too was forcibly brought to Damascus, albeit as a prisoner and not as a refugee not that there is much difference between the two. He was on his way to London while his wife, whom he had not heard from for two weeks, was also headed to London but via Helsinki.
Today there has been another exodus from Mosul as well as many other Christian communities in other parts of Iraq as well as Syria. Most recently this has been because of a frightening announcement by ISIS that Iraqi Christians need to either pay jizya, protection money to the tune of nearly $400 per month per person or convert. If neither option is taken then offenders will be killed. To identify them, ISIS foot soldiers have gone around painting the letter 'Noon' on the doors of Christian houses. The letter stands for Nasrani, an Arabic word for Christian.
Of course this threat has only exacerbated the urgency with which people are leaving their homes. Some have headed north into Kurdish controlled areas, others have headed for Baghdad and yet others have found refuge in the shrines of Najaf and Karbala where Sayyidah Zainab's father and brothers are buried. A small number, who can, have also tried to head for Europe and America. Not so long ago, driving from Karbala to Najaf, I saw huge number of empty mowakib or rest stops for pilgrims along the side of the road. These normally only come alive in the month of Muharram when pilgrims walk from Baghdad and other cities to Karbala but nowadays they have offered shelter to some of the thousands of Christians feeling with their families. Needless to say, the barbaric and vile statement that led to this exodus is as alien to Islam as the people who made it but there have been very few voices of protest, particularly amongst Muslims.
Of course with the assault on Gaza, the situation in Syria and the efforts by ISIS to recruit in Lebanon, the whole region is in tumult. Although Lebanon has a thriving Christian population sadly sectarian conflict is an ever-present reality. One of the few places where Arab Christians are ‘integrated’ is Jordan, as Prince Hassan bin Talal said in an interview in 2001, although he was worried even then of the exodus of Arab Christians from the Middle East noting that there were more Christians from Jerusalem in Australia than Jerusalem itself. What is often forgotten is that the Christian communities are culturally Arab.
Mar Musa Monastery
Mar Musa, a sixth century monastery in Syria, which was founded by the son of an Ethiopian king who gave up his throne, is a testament to this. The phrase Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, 'In the name of God the Merciful and the Compassionate,' written in Arabic calligraphic script adorns the walls of the church, nestled between frescoes that date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. This phrase is also the first verse of the Quran. Daily services are often conducted in Arabic and during the prayers God is referred to as Allah. Apart from the obvious theological differences, most notably references to Jesus as the son of God, a lay person would have trouble telling these prayers apart from Islamic prayers. The service I attended was conducted by Father Jihad, a name which is unfortunately often only associated with militarised extremists.
The author with Father Paolo Dall'Aglio
Outside the church is a tent called 'the tent of Abraham' indicating one of the purposes for which this monastery was restored in the 1980s. Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest and an erudite polyglot, and a hulk of a man, envisioned the monastery as a place that would facilitate inter-religious dialogue particularly between Christians and Muslims. Indeed the majority of the visitors to the monastery were Muslim.
Following the Syrian uprisings, Father Paolo was asked to leave Syria by Al-Assad's government and he was kidnapped by ISIS exactly a year ago on the 29th of July 2013 while trying to negotiate for peace between different rebel groups. His family has issued an appeal for his release hoping that he is still alive although confirmed reports suggest he has been executed in Al-Raqqa. If he has become yet another victim of the evil propagated by ISIS and its ilk then the world has lost a man who brought 'light' unto the world. As a friend of mine recently said, “the true strength of a person, religion, or people lies in the ability to criticize the actions of the in-group,” in other words the group or groups to which they belong. Father Paolo was a man who was willing to criticise his own church and his opposition to the Vatican’s support of the Assad government bears testament to this.
Today there are protests in support of the Palestinians in different cities across the world and Muslim communities in particular have mobilised in support of Gaza. I have argued elsewhere that the biggest misperception is that the Israeli-Palestinians conflict is about Islam. It is about a people's right to their homeland. In India various Muslim religious leaders have made statements condemning Israeli aggression and people have taken out rallies, courted arrest and used social media to protest. Sadly however there has barely been any mention of the thousands of Christians who are suffering the same fate as the Palestinians and are being uprooted from communities, some of which are more than 1600 years old. A small number of young people have changed their Facebook profile pictures to the letter 'Noon' in solidarity with the Christians of Iraq, others have tried to raise awareness by posting articles and news items but these gestures, although commendable, are simply not enough.
Why are public platforms not being used to raise awareness of the persecution faced by Christians in Iraq? Why are there no protest marches? Why are there no aid packages being dispatched? In societies where literacy is not that high, it falls on the social, political and religious leaders to speak up. Perhaps the truest measure of a person’s humanity is their ability to transcend ethnic, racial, religious and tribal differences and treat the suffering of others as their own. For surely, one of the best forms of worship is to be of service to those who are less fortunate, regardless of their background.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge who writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu Daily Inqilab
Anwaar >> but just add up how many millions were killed by internecine warfare in European countries, the two Crusades that they brought to Palestine, the conquest of North and South America, the colonizations in Africa, Asia and Australia
Is it not pretty rich about someone who is settled in USA, lives and enjoys the American Dream to complain about the colonization of America by white man? Is it not amusing for a gentleman and CAIR activists who earns and pays tax dollars to Washington DC and then complains about israel killing gaza folks?
Come on be honest and accept YOU ARE ALSO PART OF THE PROBLEM..
BTW your retirement and 401-K bucks and whatever is pretty safe with the Jewish Bankers of wall Street and your Prophet will have never approved of it, why dont you then change the system instead of complaining? For a start, come back to India and invest here.. Will you?
>>>> "That is a tiny minority but no people in the world have destroyed other peoples' countries as much as the Europeans and the Americans have."
It may be rubbish to a lying hate pracharak like yourself, but just add up how many millions were killed by internecine warfare in European countries, the two Crusades that they brought to Palestine, the conquest of North and South America, the colonizations in Africa, Asia and Australia, the Nazi Holocaust, the Soviet massacres of kulaks, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the American-Israeli massacres of Arabs since 1948 and the disruptions in the Middle East to quench Western thirst for oil. I do however sympathize with you because once you become a hate pracharak lying becomes an essential tool of the trade. Keep going!
"That is a tiny minority but no people in the world have destroyed other peoples' countries as much as the Europeans and the Americans have." CAIR pracharak
Rubbish. Muslims metastasized from Arabia to infest a huge region from Spain to India, killing, looting, raping and enslaving people for 1000+ years. Advanced civilizations from the Byzantine and Coptic Christian civilizations to the numerous Hindu civilizations in India were exterminated by these savages. It has been estimated that some 270 million people perished in the slaughter-house of Islam. Muslims enslaved 15 million black Africans, compared to roughly 10 million blacks enslaved by Europeans. And that does not even count the millions of our people enslaved in India.
The world had forgotten how barbaric Islam is. It is now relearning that lesson.
>> "muslims cranks are disproportionately higher everywhere"
Not judging by this forum!
>> "try to destroy the country they are living in"
That is a tiny minority but no people in the world have destroyed other peoples' countries as much as the Europeans and the Americans have.
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