Shortly after Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq ten days ago, the Iraqi Prime Minister called for national dialogue, in “the papal spirit of love and tolerance”.
This has been hailed by various groups, including – a few days ago – by the right-wing Shiite nationalist leader Moqtada al-Sadr.
A strange reaction to the words of the Pope in a “land where Christians are persecuted”, isn’t it?
“Iraq or the Middle East – where Christians are persecuted” is a phrase we often hear in Europe, including in the newspapers. But is this really the case?
I remember a vigil at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2013, organized by the European People’s Party (EPP), during which he expressed his solidarity with persecuted Christians in Syria.
After all, they believed, the rebellion in Syria was Sunni, against President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawis – and the Christians he was protecting.
A few days later, I was in Syria. I had tea there with two generals who had defected from the rebels. I asked them about the situation of Christians.
“One of us is a Christian,” said one of them. “Can you see who?” Of course I couldn’t. They told me that they were in fact protecting Christian villages from attacks by Assad, who took advantage of the lack of knowledge in the West to accuse the rebels of sectarian warfare.
Young Syrian Christians who went to demonstrate against Assad in 2011 have also been imprisoned, tortured and killed by the regime – as have their compatriots of other faiths.
In Iraq, not a single church was attacked in the 20th century.
This changed after the invasion of the United States and the “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003. Iraq sank into chaos and became the epicenter of extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq.
Many mosques have been destroyed. And dozens of churches too. Indeed, Christians have been victims of sectarian violence, like everyone else in Iraq. Despite this, “secular Europe” seems to read only the testimonies of Christian victims.
Save Christians from Daesh?
It is this sectarian vision that prompted the Belgian Deputy Minister for Migration and Asylum, Théo Francken, to decide to grant humanitarian visas in 2017 to hundreds of Christians from Aleppo to come to Belgium.
Although the operation appeared to be steeped in fraud, it was defended because it “saved Christians from the clutches of ISIS.” While not only Christians, but especially Yazidis, have been targeted by ISIS.
From this point of view, it is mainly Christians in the Middle East who receive asylum. As a result, their numbers in the region continue to decline dramatically. This is then used again as evidence that they are being prosecuted.
European policy has even more cynical consequences. The first is that it fuels sectarianism in the Middle East rather than combating it. By focusing attention only on Christians, Europe is creating resentment in other religious groups.
In other words, Europe’s behavior is sectarian and feeds sectarianism, even where it did not exist. By wanting to protect only Christians, Europe makes life for Christians in the region more difficult.
Learn from history
The history of Christians in the Middle East only makes history even more cynical.
The majority of Eastern Christians were expelled from the Church by various councils in the 4th and 5th centuries and persecuted thereafter. As the Egyptian Coptic Church broke away, many other “heretics” had no choice but to flee to a more tolerant Persia.
The Muslim conquests of the 7th century were viewed by many Eastern Christians as a liberation from the Byzantine yoke. Under Islamic rule, Christians and Jews had to pay an additional tax, but at least they were free in their faith.
As wars of religion and heresy ravaged Europe, Eastern Christians lived in relative peace. It could hardly be otherwise given their numbers.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, half of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire were Christians.
The Ottoman rulers were therefore surprised when the French came to their home in the same 19th century to tell them that they should treat Christians better and that they, the French, would protect Christians.
It is also Europe that invented religious representation in the region. France and Great Britain weren’t content with just dividing the Middle East between themselves during WWI. Both countries also introduced systems where directors were elected based on their religion.
The consequences that we see most clearly today in Lebanon, where everything is fixed according to religion, and decision making has become impossible.
Of course, we don’t have to answer today for what our ancestors did wrong. But it’s not too much to ask to learn from these mistakes, is it?
Pope Francis has already understood this. He recognized that in Iraq people of all religions were and still are victims of terror. This is also the reason why he is listened to there.
In this regard, we Europeans can perhaps learn something from this Argentinian.