SUMMARY: Most of the callers to an al-Jazeera show on the persecution of Christians in Iraq believed, if they even acknowledged that Christians were being persecuted, that the Americans or the Kurds were behind it. The notable exception was a Saudi Christian who believed the Christians were being killed simply because they were Christian.
COMMENT: Muslims have a difficult time acknowledging atrocities committed by other Muslims. If they do, it’s usually at least one level removed from the group they belong to. An Arab Sunni Muslim, for example, might admit that a Kurdish Sunni Muslim or an Arab Shia Muslim commits atrocities, but it is much harder for him to acknowledge the guilt of another Arab Sunni Muslim. Few if any of the callers below were willing to admit that members of their own group would be involved in the slaughter of Christians in Iraq.
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The current situation of Christians in Iraq was the subject of a recent al-Jazeera TV show where viewers were invited to call in and share their opinions about the reasons for the persecution of Christians there. Hostess Muna Salman introduced the program by informing her viewers that many of the Chaldean Christians still speak the language of Jesus, and that the Assyrian Christians are descendants of an empire that existed 700 years BC. They have formed an integral part of Iraqi society for 2,000 years, but are now targeted for killing and forced departure from their homes. Muna wanted to know whether her viewers believed the Christians were being killed for political or religious reasons.
The first two responses were, unfortunately, all too typical. The first caller was convinced the Kurds were killing the Christians. These were the same Kurds who in the 80’s cooperated with the Israelis and more recently with the White House. They were killing the Christians to create political instability so they could form their own Kurdish nation. The second caller, an Egyptian with a view of history most Copts might disagree with, said that in 642 the ruler of Egypt called upon the Muslim General Amer Bin al-Aas to come and protect the Egyptian Christians from the Romans. The General responded to the invitation, introducing both Islam and security to Egypt. Muslims have always protected Christians. The Iraqis on the other hand, had invited people – the Americans - whose only goal was to destroy the country.
The third caller was a surprising change. He introduced himself as Edward, a Saudi Christian. He believed the problem facing Christians in Iraq was the interpretation and application of religious texts that allowed people to kill them. Muna, as surprised as anyone to hear someone describe himself as a Saudi Christian, interrupted him to ask, “Excuse me, Edward, this is the first time I’ve ever heard this. Are you saying there are Christians who are Saudi citizens?”
“Yes, there are,” Edward replied, “For reasons of their own safety I cannot say how many we are, because as you well know there is no freedom of religious conversion here.”
“I don’t know any such thing,” Muna quickly retorted, “I am just listening to your point of view.”
“I am informing you,” Edward continued, “That there is no freedom of religion in our Arab countries and for that reason I cannot tell you how many converts there are. But I can tell you that I represent…..”
Muna interrupted again, “OK, let’s get back to our subject of the Christians in Iraq. The callers so far think that what they are being subjected to is due to political and not sectarian reasons. Do you agree with that?”
Edward’s response was clear. “No, ma’am, and my point of view might surprise some people. I believe that Christians in Arab countries are being persecuted just because they are Christians. Go back and look at the religious texts. They tell people to fight for Allah, they say, ‘I have been ordered to fight.’ We need a new understanding of these texts. We need love and we need culture. We don’t need someone saying, ‘I have been ordered to fight you until you accept Islam.’ There is no room for violence in our day. We need school curriculums that condemn violence, not ones in which students are taught these violent texts from elementary school to university. The Christians in Iraq are being persecuted and oppressed in application of these texts.”
Muna interrupted again, “Edward, the purpose of this program is not to discuss religious texts, whether they are Islamic or Christian. We are only talking about the political and social aspect, and we don’t have religious scholars here to clearly explain the religious texts.”
Edward wouldn’t give up. “I respect your opinion, but I want to point out that the basic issue is a faulty interpretation of some texts that produces a culture of extremism that results in this persecution, hatred, provocations, and genocide. I cannot display my cross in Saudi Arabia even though I am a Saudi citizen. I cannot carry a Bible….”
It was time to switch gears. “OK, Edward,” Muna said, “It’s not only the Christians who are being persecuted and killed in Iraq. Other groups are being subjected to the same thing, and millions have been forced to flee the country. Why do you think this is a religious issue only related to the Christians?”
“Because,” Edward replied, “The Christians are peaceful. Everyone in Iraq will testify that the Christians are peaceful and not aligned with this or that political party. The only reason they are being persecuted is because some takfiri salafi Wahabis want to…”
Muna decided to bring the discussion to a close. “Edward, don’t wander off the subject, because there is no-one here from the other side to respond to what you are saying. But I thank you for expressing your viewpoint. You believe that the reasons are religious, and you believe the Christians are being persecuted because they are Christians. We will see if other viewers agree with you. Khalil, from Palestine?”
Khalil cut to the chase. “I want to reply to Edward. The truth as confirmed by history is that Christians have never lived a life better than that under Islam. Islam gave them the same rights it gave Muslims, and made the same demands on them it made on Muslims. Islam guaranteed them food, clothing, lodging, and protection, and anyone who attacked any of them was given the same punishment as if he had attacked a Muslim.”
Muna reminded Khalil that the earlier caller from Egypt had also spoken of how Christians were protected when Islam entered Egypt, and Khalil readily agreed. “That’s exactly correct. And when the European Crusaders came to attack Muslim countries, the Christians stood with the Muslims to defend them.” Khalil went on to express his viewpoint that the only solution for Iraq was the application of an Islam strong enough to end all sectarian conflicts. Those with a Sunni or Shia or Kurdish platform were only carrying out the plans of the Western kafirs to shed both Christian and Muslim blood.
When Muna pointed out that the number of Christians in Iraq had dramatically dropped from over a million to less than 600,000 in just a short time, he replied that Muslims were being persecuted throughout the Muslim world 100 times more than the Christians. The fact that Muslim rulers were worried about the Vatican and the West, in fact, probably meant that Christians were suffering less in their countries than were the Muslims.
One caller from Morocco claimed that “the Prophet lived in peaceful coexistence with the Christians and the Jews”, and Muslims today should do the same. A Syrian caller asked why Syrian Christians were not being “persecuted” if the issue was one of Christian persecution. His answer was that the Western media was exaggerating the situation to gain support for the Bush administration’s war policy, and that the groups targeting Christians were carrying out the plans of that administration. As soon as a demonstration took place in Canada calling for the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan, the media began playing up the story of Christians being persecuted in Iraq. He also agreed with previous callers that “never in the history of the world have people been pressured or oppressed or persecuted as Muslims are today by their own rulers”.
An Iraqi now living in Qatar took strong exception to the suggestion that the Christian persecution in Iraq was a new phenomenon or supported by the West. He said Christians were targeted there from the beginning of the war by terrorists who entered Iraq from other countries including Jordan and Iran. The entire Christian population of the Baghdad section of Dorah had either killed or forced into exile. He claimed it was a mistake to ignore the terrorists group present in the country and blame everything on the Americans. “There are,” he said, “Terrorist groups and unprotected borders and militias entering the country from all over the world.”
But he was in the minority. Most of the remaining callers agreed on one thing – it was the Americans (or the American-supported non-Arab Kurds) who were behind the killing of Christians in Iraq. Arab Muslims would never do such a thing.