Christian Arabs are the canary in the Middle East cage
As a Christian Palestinian living in a politically-charged America, I look forward every year to the Christmas holiday season, a period of about 30 days during which the world pauses from its violent chaos to think about the plight of the quickly vanishing segment of Christians who are barely surviving in the Middle East.
During the rest of the year, save around Easter in the spring, it is rare for politicians, world leaders, activists and the media to bother themselves about the plight of Christian Arabs.
Christian Arabs are like the canary in the cage, a method used many years ago by miners and underground explorers to warn of the first signs of peril. If the canary is still alive, the miners have little to fear. If the canary falters and dies, it means the miners are in grave danger.
The Christian Arab canary is faltering in the Middle East cage but, unfortunately, no one is really paying attention — other than the pandering that the Christmas season has evolved into, during which Israelis, Americans and even Arabs each try to use the topic of Middle East Christians for their own political gain.
Despite deep roots in the Middle East, the Christian population continues to dwindle. But it is not the numbers that concern me and nor should they concern anyone the most. What should concern everyone is how Christian Arabs have been marginalized and have vanished into the bigger picture.
Last summer, Pope Francis used a visit to the Mediterranean city of Bari on the eastern coast of Italy, which is often described as “the window to the Middle East,” to sound a canary-like alarm that the Christians of the Middle East have become victims of a “murderous indifference.”
Accompanied by the heads or representatives of most of the Christian World, including the Orthodox and Assyrian churches, Catholics and Lutherans, Francis urged the gathering to unite under the motto: “Peace be upon you. Christians together for the Middle East.”
But Christians are not together. Only months earlier, in January 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence visited Jordan. He was received by King Abdullah, who expressed concern about President Donald Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and then went to Israel where he addressed the Knesset, including the empty seats of Arab members protesting his callous disregard for genuine peace.
Despite deep roots in the Middle East, the Christian population continues to dwindle. But it is not the numbers that concern me and nor should they concern anyone the most. What should concern everyone is how Christian Arabs have been marginalized.
In accepting his nomination for vice president on Trump’s Republican ticket in 2016, Pence described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” playing the Christian card in the hopes of solidifying America’s large white-Christian voter bloc. And solidify that vote Trump and Pence did in the presidential election, with 75 percent voting to support their ticket.
And yet, as the second-most powerful man in the world, Pence spent little time speaking about Middle East Christians, preferring instead to merely promise to support the needs of only a segment of Christians who are living in Iraq. Pence defended Trump’s decision to strip financial aid from Palestinians, a demand made by Israel, and pandered to the needs of Iraq’s Christians as being the representatives of the entire region.
Like many Americans, Pence forgets that Christians originated in the Holy Land and that Jerusalem is important to them, too. He has chosen to ignore the fact that Christians suffer equally alongside Muslims under brutal Israeli military occupation.
With that, Christians can find little hope for their own future, even as delicate canaries who play such a significant role as the first front to a worsening Middle East region.
I think of the true centers of Christianity. Not in Washington DC or in America, which claims to be a “Christian country” and yet turns its backs on Christian Arabs. Not in Rome, where the Pope courageously but diplomatically challenges Israel’s atrocities to no avail.
I think of Bethlehem, where the prophet of Christianity was born, and the nearby Christian cities of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, where his teachings are recited everyday.
I think of Nazareth, where Jesus lived, and the vanishing Christian populations such as the surviving Taybeh in Palestine’s Israeli-occupied West Bank. I think of Jerusalem, which has been surrendered by the world to Israel’s desecrations and violence.
I think of how dim the Christian lights have become in those cities as the canaries struggle to breathe.
But most of all, I think of how Christians around the world have turned their backs and abandoned the heart of their faith, forgetting their barely surviving ancestors in the Holy Land.
If Arab Christians are allowed to be forgotten, then the future of the Middle East is bleak. The canaries in the Middle East are struggling to survive and warn the region and the world of the impending catastrophe that is being allowed to happen. And no one is listening.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter. Twitter: @RayHanania
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