The Common Good

Arab Christians Getting Overdue Recognition

I was glad to see Daoud Kuttab's recent post on Obama and Arab Christians. Raising the profile of Christians in the Middle East, especially Palestinian Christians, is one of my key goals whenever writing about the Middle East. As Kuttab reminds us, many U.S. Christians are unaware, unsympathetic, or completely misunderstand the plight of their sisters and brothers in Christ. Another recent and excellent article-that also expresses some of the complexity of Christian attitudes in the Middle East-appears in a recent issue of National Geographic. (My only disappointment was that it didn't directly mention Christian militias' role in the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.) You can find the article on the Sabeel Web site-another great resource for gaining a better understanding of Christians seeking peace with justice in the Middle East.

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Here's an excerpt from the article (or click here to read the whole thing):

This is the first Easter, ever, that Mark has been allowed to spend with the family in Jerusalem. He is from Bethlehem, in the West Bank, so his identity papers are from the Palestinian Authority; he needs a permit from Israel to visit. Lisa, whose family lives in the Old City, holds an Israeli ID. So although they've been married for five years and rent this apartment in the Jerusalem suburbs, under Israeli law they can't reside under the same roof. Mark lives with his parents in Bethlehem, which is six miles away but might as well be a hundred, lying on the far side of an Israeli checkpoint and the 24-foot-high concrete barrier known as the Wall.

Mark finds it depressing that "80 percent of the Christian guys I grew up with have left for another country to find work." Yet he understands why. A trained social worker with a degree in sociology, Mark has been looking for a job, any job, for almost two years. "You're surrounded by this giant wall, and there are no jobs," he says. "It's like a science experiment. If you keep rats in an enclosed space and make it smaller and smaller every day and introduce new obstacles and constantly change the rules, after a while the rats go crazy and start eating each other. It's like that."

For anyone living in Israel or the Palestinian territories, stress is the norm. But the 196,500 Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians, who dropped from 13 percent of the population in 1894 to less than 2 percent today, occupy a uniquely oxygen-starved space between traumatized Israeli Jews and traumatized Palestinian Muslims, whose rising militancy is tied to regional Islamist movements that sometimes target Arab Christians. In the past decade, "the situation for Arab Christians has gone rapidly downhill," says Razek Siriani, a frank and lively man in his 40s who works for the Middle East Council of Churches in Aleppo, Syria. "We're completely outnumbered and surrounded by angry voices," he says. Western Christians have made matters worse, he argues, echoing a sentiment expressed by many Arab Christians. "It's because of what Christians in the West, led by the U.S., have been doing in the East," he says, ticking off the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel, and the threats of "regime change" by the Bush administration. "To many Muslims, especially the fanatics, this looks like the Crusades all over again, a war against Islam waged by Christianity. Because we're Christians, they see us as the enemy too. It's guilt by association."

Mark and Lisa, like Arab Christians everywhere, conduct an ongoing argument about whether to leave their homeland for good. Mark has one brother in Ireland, another in San Diego, and he lived in the U.S. for a few years. He got his green card and was working in California when he and Lisa were married, in Jerusalem, in 2004. She tried living in San Diego for a while but was homesick for her family, so the couple moved back after Nate was born.

Living as Arabs in the U.S. after 9/11 was an eye-opener for them. "It's funny," Mark says, "what Americans think about things. They've never heard of Arab Christians. They assume all Arabs are Muslim -- terrorists, that is -- and that Christianity was invented in Italy or something. So when you say, I'm an Arab Christian, they look at you funny, like you just said, The moon is purple. I had one lady ask me, 'What does your family think about you being a Christian? I suppose they must have been very upset!'?"

Ryan Rodrick Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners. He is currently on a five week sabbatical in the Middle East, where he is taking photographs for Mennonite Central Committee and Questscope.

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