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Christians Under Siege in the Islamic Middle East
By Sam H. Zakhem

Since the 11th century crusade, Christians in the Middle East have been an endangered species. Their plight has never been worse than it is today.

In times of antiquity, Arab and Jewish Christians were at least protected against Muslim hostilities as "people of the book." Today, in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, Christians of all denominations are being hunted, tortured and killed by Muslim radicals as an unwanted and undesirable minority. Wherever the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda or other extremist groups prosper by virtue of the absence of a strong government (and internal security force), Christians suffer deprivation, death and different forms of oppression and discrimination.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians were treated relatively well historically. When Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2011, the Arab Spring became the Arab Winter for non-Muslims. Untold numbers of Christians were killed, numerous churches were looted and burned, and many had to either emigrate to the West or leave the areas where their family had lived for centuries.

In Syria, where the regime was traditionally nonsectarian and Christians generally shared in the prevailing pattern of privilege allocation, the civil war provided an excuse for the world to turn a blind eye as Islamic terrorists descended on Syria from numerous Muslim countries. Christians began to suffer discrimination followed by persecution at the hands of the "freedom fighters" whose only interest was an absolute Islamic state. In areas controlled by Muslim extremists, Christians have to pay "khuwwa" (a special tax), convert to Islam, move or die. Churches are destroyed, looted and burned. Nuns and priests have been kidnapped or killed. Some of the oldest monasteries in Christendom have been destroyed. A leading politician in Lebanon recently told me, "If these terrorists prevail in Syria, there will be no Christians left in Syria or Lebanon." Not in defense of the many faults of the Assad regime, but for the sake of the plight of Christendom in the region, Americans should hope this warning does not fall on deaf ears in Washington.

Prior to removing Iraq's Saddam Hussein, as in Syria prior to its civil war, Iraqi Christians enjoyed a position of relative privilege. Now that "Western-style democracy" has been imposed on Iraq and the former regime's power structures eliminated, Christians suffer big time. Churches have been looted and burned, clergymen have been massacred, and those Iraqi Christians who can afford to run have made their exodus to the West. After the Islamic State, also called ISIS, seized control of Mosul, Iraq, on June 10, the remaining Christians were told to "convert, pay khuwwa, be killed by the sword or leave." The lucky ones left to territories controlled by the Kurds, who are now the protectors of the Christians in northern Iraq. It is estimated that out of the 1.5 million Iraqi Christians, fewer than 400,000 remain in Iraq.

In Lebanon, Christians who were once the overwhelming majority are now relatively powerless. The oppressive Ottoman era (1550-1918) promoted mass migration of Christians to Christian-dominated countries in the Western Hemisphere. It is estimated that in Brazil alone there are three times as many Christian Lebanese as there are in Lebanon today. The Christian population has also become a minority by virtue of birth-rate demographics compared with their Muslim counterparts. The Christian heritage of Lebanon, dating back to the earliest days of the church, will soon be only a remnant of history.

The current conflicts in Syria and Iraq merge and feed off each other as the Christians in both countries suffer. Ironically, the groups directly and indirectly helping the Christians in both countries are considered adversaries of the United States. Iran and Hezbollah have been major supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Concurrently, they have been the protectors of Christians in many cities. If, as expected, Hezbollah and Iranian fighters join the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army in the fight against the Islami State, the result will be of great benefit to the Christians and also to America.

When all these factors are weighed, we see how alliances morph in the Middle East. Iran and Hezbollah are fighting al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorist groups -- those who America considers to be the most evil elements in the world today and whose valueless tactics include beheadings and public executions of their "enemies" without the due process of law or military justice, based only on ethnicity, religious affiliation or nationality. This proves there are no eternal enemies or eternal friends, only lasting national interest.

For once, President Obama's foreign policy is on the right track in its support of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army in fighting the Islamic State. It is in our national interest to immediately arm the Kurds and to provide consistent air support to help defeat the Islamic State. In so doing, America will not only have temporarily stopped this evil terrorist group, but we will show the world the true nature of our pledge of alliance. If America turns its back on those few in the Middle East who share the sacred values enshrined in the First Amendment in their time of desperate need, it will disparage our national dedication to the premises upon which our nation was founded. We stand alone as the nation capable of preserving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the oppressed in that region of this world.

Sam H. Zakhem is a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.


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