(AINA) Klaus Wivel is a reporter writing for the Danish weekly Weekendavisen. His book about Middle Eastern Christians, The Last Supper: The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands, was just published in the United States. Wivel sat down with me recently to discuss his book, the Christian community in the Middle East, how those Christians are received in Europe, and what the future holds.
THE WEEKLY STANDARD: What drew you to the story of Middle East Christians?
KLAUS WIVEL: I started writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1998. At the time of the Second Intifada, 2000-2005, it became increasingly evident that Palestinian Christians felt vulnerable. They had been an instrumental part of the Palestinian national movement, but the character of Palestinian nationalism shifted in a more Islamic direction during those years. The Christians told me that they felt like strangers in their own land, and began to leave by the thousands. I was told by Christians in Bethlehem that if the emigration kept going at this pace, no Christians would be left in a couple of decades, besides a few monks and custodians maintaining the holy sites. Being only two percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, this assessment wasn’t an exaggeration.
Around 2006 even more catastrophic news made its way from Iraq where it was stated that up to two thirds of the Christian population–among the oldest in the world–had left the country. Several churches were bombed, priests were killed, Christians were kidnapped by the thousands, and whole areas of the major cities Baghdad and Mosul were being evicted.
Then in 2011, following the Arab Spring and the ouster of then-president Hosni Mubarak, the same stories were heard in Egypt. Christians here, too, were under attack and with even less protection from the security forces than they’d received under Mubarak. I decided at that point to travel to the area to investigate the story myself.
TWS: How does the Sunni-Shiite conflict affect Middle East Christians?
WIVEL: In Iraq, Christians were caught in the middle during the war. It’s worth remembering that the Christians in Iraq where not a part of the civil war and had no armed militias. They were left more or less unprotected. Both Shiites and Sunnis would kill or kidnap Christians, although it’s unclear whether their crimes had anything to do with religion or sectarian strife or if it was simply local thugs using the shield of militant jihad to get rich from hostage taking.
In Syria it’s a little different. Here the Christians have been allied with the Assad regime, made up of Alawites, who constitute a heterodox branch of Shia Islam. For that reason Sunnis have attacked Christians who are seen as Assad loyalists.
In Lebanon the Christians are divided against themselves. One part has been aligned with the Sunnis since the pro-democracy March 14 movement ousted the Syrians from Lebanon following the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The other part of the Lebanese Christian community, led by Michel Aoun, is siding with Hezbollah.
TWS: What do the Middle East Christians want from the Christians of the West, especially North America and Europe?
WIVEL: Attention. Many of the Christians I met were baffled by the fact that the Christian West was not up in arms about this. But it’s a delicate matter. Some Christians think–especially among the clergy–that if Western governments state the case of the persecution of the Christians too forcefully, they will really place the Christians in the poisonous position of being accused of being lackeys of the West.
I’m certain that this was one of the main reasons why Western governments gave no warnings about the persecution of Iraqi Christians during the Iraqi war. They feared that if they did that, the invasion would be viewed as a Christian invasion, a “crusade”, a word President Bush learned the hard way never to use again. It was a fair point, but silence didn’t help either. Today there are hardly any Christians left in the areas outside of Kurdistan.
This is why it was important when Secretary of State John Kerry recognized Islamic State atrocities against minorities as a genocide. Nonetheless, Christians and Yazidis living in Kurdish refugee camps lack everything, including the most basic supplies like food and medicine. This is a scandal. If we can’t find the means to help the ones who are still in the area it’s no wonder millions of refugees are going to Europe. Our priorities need to be fixed.
TWS: Have lots of Middle East Christians found refuge in Europe? Are you working with Christian groups in Europe now to help Christians from the Middle East?
WIVEL: Many don’t realize the dire nature of the situation. In my home country, Denmark–officially a Christian nation, but among the most secular places on the planet–the most unpleasant experience a priest ever will encounter is preaching to an empty church. Middle Eastern Christians tend to choose to go to the Americas. They view Europe as a post-Christian society. However, there are some exceptions. For instance, the Swedish town of SÃ¶dertÃ¤lje has welcomed Christian immigrants since the 1970s, first from Turkey, then from Syria, and since 2003 from Iraq. SÃ¶dertÃ¤lje accepted more refugees from the Iraqi war than the US did.
TWS: How does this end for Middle East Christians? The Jews built their own state, but this is unlikely with the Christians. So does someone step in and save their towns and regions, or is this a community on the verge of disappearing?
WIVEL: There’s certainly a feeling among the Iraqi Christians that after 2000 years the Christian presence in Iraq, outside of the Kurdish area, is finished. Everyone knows that Sunni Muslim locals helped Islamic State in pointing out where the Christians lived in the summer of 2014 so that they could be evicted, enslaved or killed. Even if Islamic State is defeated the distrust toward the locals is monumental.
Many call for a safe zone in the Nineveh Plains guarded by troops from the international community, but that’s doubtful. In other Arab countries like Egypt, Christians will continue to leave, but since there are several millions still living there, there will continue to be Christian presence for a long time. There are two things preventing Middle East Christians from leaving. First is that there is no Christian version of Israel where they can find refuge in the region. Second, migration to the West is becoming increasingly difficult. Europeans are not more welcoming of Christians than of Muslims.
VOP PRAYER REQUEST:
With no end to radicalism and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East in sight, the signs seem to point to the prophesies and intensifying violence and battle in this war torn region. No matter your political or spiritual view regarding the current unrest, as Christians we can unite on the front line in the fight together in prayer.
- Almighty God, in the name of Jesus defend your faithful in their time of need. Help them endure all that may come against them. Comfort them in their suffering, fear and grief.
- We pray freedom for those held captive.
- We ask that you intervene when violence and evil plots against your people.
- Father, help them to forgive.
- Oh God, give us your heart for the persecuted Church and for the persecutors.
- Refresh your Church with the Holy Spirit.
- May your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
- Come quickly Lord Jesus, our Savior.
In His Holy name, we ask these things. Amen.