In Iraqi security officer guards a church. Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
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Paradise lost: is Christianity doomed in the Middle East?

A religious revival is just one of the factors leaving Christians deserting the Middle East. Diversity must be upheld.

The stark cliffs of the Zagros Mountains on the Iran-Iraq border, and the dusty hills and plains that lie between those mountains and the city of Mosul, might seem an unlikely location for paradise. Yet Christians living here in past centuries believed that a local river called the Great Zab had once flowed from Adam and Eve’s garden. Patriarchs of the Christian Assyrian Church of the East living on its banks once signed off their letters with the salutation, “From my cell by the river of Eden”.

These days the Patriarch’s letters are sent from a less romantic spot: 7201 North Ashland Boulevard, Chicago. Successive waves of persecution have driven out the leaders of this ancient, prestigious and little-known church – including Mar Dinkha IV, the present and 120th Patriarch of Babylon, who was consecrated in Ealing, west London, and is based in the United States. As for the Great Zab, this summer it ended up as the de facto border between Kurdish forces on its southern side and the so-called Islamic State (IS) to its north. From being the garden of Adam and Eve, Iraq has become the land of Cain and Abel. Yet even its melancholy recent history can remind us that the religious conflict that scars the modern Middle East is far from inevitable.

In 1987, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.4 million. Since then, the country’s population has doubled but its Christian community has declined to 400,000. Many of these people are now internally displaced because of IS, a Sunni Muslim militant movement that drove them from their homes in August 2014 in its effort to establish an Islamic “caliphate”. The former Christian inhabitants of Mosul and the surrounding towns are now refugees in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region nearby, protected from the summer heat and winter snow only by UN-provided tents erected in local churchyards.

“We were given just a few hours to leave Mosul,” one of the refugees told me last summer in the sun-scorched streets of Erbil,
capital of the Kurdistan Region. “We fled to Qaraqosh [a Christian town just east of Mosul] and then Islamic State came there, too, and we had to flee Qaraqosh.”

He was one of a group of men sitting by the road under the shade of a wall; this was how they spent their days, because the tents in which they slept provided barely enough room at night and were left during the day to the women and children. Unable to afford cigarettes, the men passed the time chatting and then at mealtimes headed to the church-organised canteen that handed out free food. Not that there was much help on offer for them, the refugee said. Nobody cared about them and any aid that was supposed to reach them was being siphoned off. “Nothing like this,” he said dolefully, “has ever happened before.”

Except, it has. The Christians of Iraq have endured worse and survived. Their community in Baghdad was battered in the Mongol invasions of the 13th century and destroyed by the central Asian warlord Tamerlane in 1402: he gave orders that the only things that should be left standing in Baghdad were hospitals and mosques.

Those who survived Tamerlane fled north into the Zagros Mountains, joining others who lived in a band of territory along the northern edge of Iraq and Syria and the southern edge of Turkey. There, in 1915-16, they were caught up in the massacres inflicted by the Ottoman authorities on the Armenians. An estimated 250,000 Syrian and Iraqi Christians were slaughtered, or starved, or died of exposure during forced marches. Others fled to Iran, from where they were in turn displaced to Iraq. Their abandoned homes can still be seen in the now-tranquil towns of southern Turkey.

Unlike with either of these historical horrors, Islamic State’s ability – though not its ambition – to spread murder and oppression among Iraq’s Christians has proved limited. Since its initial successes, IS has been unable to make further inroads into Kurdistan, or fulfil its vainglorious boast that it would capture Baghdad. Muslims, not Christians, have borne the brunt of its brutality. Nonetheless it may manage to achieve what Tamerlane and the Ottomans did not: the final extinction of the Christian community in Iraq.

Deprived of their ancient heartland in and around Mosul, Iraq’s Christians are now divided between Baghdad and Kurdistan. Baghdad houses roughly 100,000 of them; but the very government of Iraq is run by religious partisans from the Shia Muslim sect. A Yazidi activist who tried urging Iraqi parliamentarians in Baghdad to save his people (the Yazidis, who preserve ancient pre-Islamic traditions, are even more vulnerable than the Christians) told me that the lawmakers’ response was that his people could save themselves best by converting to Islam.

The Kurdistan authorities are keener to keep their Christian residents, and apparently their leader, President Masoud Barzani, has discussed a proposal to build new Christian towns within the region’s borders to accommodate the refugees from Mosul. But Kurdistan cannot provide work for all the refugees, and because of its oil economy and the high demand for housing locally, the cost of living there is much higher than in Mosul. For “90 per cent” of the Christian refugees, as more than one of them told me, there is no solution except emigration from the Middle East.

Who are these Christians of Iraq and where did they come from? And how have they come to be on the verge of disappearance from their own homeland?

The Church of the East – which is now split between those who follow Mar Dinkha IV, and others who accept the Pope in Rome as their ultimate spiritual leader – was originally the community of Christians who lived in the Persian empire. Most of them were related to the people of Syria and they spoke a version of Aramaic, which they wrote with Syriac characters. Their form of Christianity evolved in ways that marked them out from their western counterparts.

When looking to expand and spread their beliefs, they looked not west towards Europe, but east, towards India and China. They were the first to introduce Christianity to the Chinese and the Mongols and to this day the Mongolians use an alphabet based on Syriac characters. Genghis Khan’s daughters-in-law were Christian and eventually the Church of the East had a Mongolian patriarch. A network of monasteries and churches spread eastwards from Baghdad to Beijing, encompassing a bishopric of Tibet and another in Kashgar, a Silk Route city in western China.

Much of this happened while the patriarch of the Church of the East was living under Muslim rule, following the Arab conquests of the 630s AD. Along with followers of other pre-Islamic religions, Baghdadi Christians were used by the Muslim Arabs as decipherers of Greek science and occasionally as ministers and advisers. The patriarch was permitted to debate theology with the Muslim caliph.

And yet, subsequently, the fortunes of Christians in the Middle East declined. Perhaps it was inevitable, as their numbers dwindled and their power waned, that they would be exploited by rapacious governments. This was exacerbated by conflicts between Christian and Muslim states, including the Crusades. However, it also coincided with the collapse of the Arab caliphate and the rise of others – such as Turks and Mongols – who had the zeal of new converts, saw religion as the binding force that legitimised their own rule and were not attracted by the rationalist tendencies that had once been popular in Baghdad. In an Arab world ravaged by conflict and ruled by outsiders, few intellectuals remained who could resist populist dogmatic conservatism.

A similar change has happened in the Arab world in the past half-century. In the 19th century, as the Ottoman empire decayed, resurgent nationalism went hand in hand with religious emancipation. The rulers of Egypt, for example, wanted to promote an Egyptian identity in which Christians, Muslims and Jews could all participate. Between 1860 and 1930 Egypt had three Christian prime ministers. To be sure, the ruler was always a Muslim, because Egypt was a monarchy; but let’s remember that Britain to this day has never had a Catholic prime minister and that Spain only revoked the 1492 expulsion of its Jews in 1968. So, parts of the mostly Muslim Middle East were heading towards religious equality faster than Europe.

As nationalism spread across the Arab world, other Christians took prominent positions. One, Michel Aflaq, was a founder of the Ba’ath Party, which ruled Iraq and still rules part of Syria. Christians led two Palestinian nationalist movements and some played a part in the Kurdish national movement. Others were leading communists, attracted by an ideology that also offered equality to religious minorities. Even as late as 2003 Iraq still had a Christian, Tariq Aziz, as its deputy prime minister. (He is in prison, enduring desperate conditions.) This is not, by the way, an endorsement of any of those entities, which could be ruthless to those who opposed them. But they were at least movements that were open to any who wanted to join them.

In the Middle East over the past few decades, by contrast, the most popular movements have been religious. Islamic zealots came to power in Iran’s revolution in 1979, the postwar Iraqi elections of 2005 and Egypt’s presidential elections in 2012. Religious observance has risen, too. In the 1950s attendance at the yearly Ashura procession in Karbala, Iraq, was so thin that a senior cleric felt the need to launch a movement to rekindle religious sentiment. In 2014, two million people attended the festival. Meanwhile, the clerics’ political movement, called the Islamic Dawa Party, has taken over the government of Iraq.

Why the religious revival? In my years in the Arab world working as a diplomat, I often debated this question with Arab friends, almost all of them believing Muslims, who nonetheless felt alienated by the rise of fundamentalist Islam. Is it caused by poverty, or the lack of democracy, or the failure of the rule of law? No: the revival has happened also among Muslims in the west, and in relatively democratic and prosperous countries such as Turkey, as well as autocratic ones. (Indeed, some of the poorest of Muslims – in remote parts of Afghanistan, for instance – are among the least radical.)

Is it because of colonial injustices, sometimes described as “Muslim grievances”? To some extent: yet these grievances were once seen as ethnic, or class-related, rather than religious; and often the victims of these colonial injustices, most obviously in Palestine, included Christians as well as Muslims. Is it because the conflict between Shias and Sunnis has heightened people’s sense of their religious identity? Yes, but that only raises a further question of why the conflict happened along religious lines in the first place.

The more fundamental reasons are fivefold. First, money: formerly provided to left-wing movements by the Soviet Union, now plentifully available from Iran for Shia revolutionaries and from the Arab Gulf for those who are most hostile to Iran, many of them Sunni Islamists. Second, the defeat of nationalist governments by Israel in the 1967 war and the subsequent failure of secular authorities and movements to capture the public imagination and loyalty. In Egypt, according to recent Gallup polling, religious authorities (Christian or Muslim) command the respect of 92 per cent of the population, far ahead of any other institution. Third, the connivance of western governments – and Israel, in fact – in the rise of
Islamist movements in the 1970s, when they were seen as a safe alternative to nationalists and communists. Fourth, the weakness of the education system in many Arab states, whose heavy focus on rote learning reinforces dogmatic literalism, and which often does little to educate students about cultures and religions other than Islam.

The last reason is perhaps even more significant. The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf has written about what he calls the “intense religiosity of the urban migrant”, who sees religion as a way to protect himself and his family from the temptations of urban life. The rise in religiosity in the Muslim world has coincided with mass migration to the cities. It has also coincided with globalisation, which has undermined indigenous Arab cultures, leaving religion as the sole clear criterion of identity and the focus of national pride. Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover how many of IS’s supporters had previously appeared to be thoroughly westernised: this is perhaps the very reason they feel such a passionate need to recapture their sense of being separate and different.

Although the rise of religious exclusionism and violence is a large part of the reason for Christian migration, it also happens for more ordinary reasons: economics, for example. The precipitate shrinkage of the Iraqi Christian community after 1987 did not begin with the 2003 war, nor with the rise to power of Islamist parties in 2005, nor even the 2014 massacres. It began instead with the sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which prompted middle-class Christians to seek refuge in the US, where many had relatives, following previous waves of persecution.

There are still more than ten million non-Muslims in the Arab world, the great majority of whom are Christians. And even if almost all of them leave within the next half-century, they will survive in exile, at least for a few generations, though transplanted to western countries devoid of any of their ancient shrines and monasteries. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians now live in the sprawling suburbs of metropolitan Detroit in the US. They have tried hard to hold on to their heritage – largely marrying among themselves, and even maintaining their Aramaic language among their children and grandchildren.

The Middle East is greatly poorer for their absence. After the failure of their attempt to hold violently on to power in Lebanon, the Christians have become an increasingly neutral group politically. Their presence is often a liberalising factor, because, as a people exempt from Islamic law, they are a reason why states cannot seek to impose sharia on all their citizens (a reason, of course, why they are targeted by extremists). Without the Christians, the region will be even less liberal and more monochrome, and will risk becoming more isolated.

The Middle East would also lose a part of the heritage and history that all its people, Muslim or Christian, have in common. For the Christian communities have preserved parts of their nations’ heritage: Aramaic in Iraq, pharaonic hymns in Egypt. Their diversity (there are innumerable sects) reflects the region’s history, each sect tracing its origin to the political developments of one era or another. The schools that Christians run in the Middle East, open to Muslims, have educated generations of Arabs.

There is one further and wider point that the survival of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities makes. By their continuity and sheer existence in the Middle East, these communities remind us that the Islamic world has not always been the bloody tragedy that it is today. It has seen much violence over the centuries, true;
but it has also been strengthened by its own diversity, and coexistence between the various religions. It was at its best and most flourishing when it treated diversity as a strength and not a weakness. We all lose if that lesson is forgotten.

Gerard Russell is a former British and UN diplomat. He is the author of “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East”, newly published by Simon & Schuster

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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