In his efforts to build a coalition to strike militarily Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Iraq and Syria, President Barack Obama has been careful to avoid an overly religious discourse. Part of his appeal, however, is for the protection of Christians and other religious minorities. In his speech on September 10, Obama promised “humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced,” mentioning specifically tens of thousands of Christians. But his concern pushed far beyond relief: “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.” It is a noble sentiment. Obama would do well to consider, however, the many Middle Eastern Christian voices who see beyond these words something ignoble.
“In the American culture you need an evil, to fight an evil,” said Fr. Michel Jalakh, the newly appointed Lebanese Catholic general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. “ISIS did not come from nothing, they have lots of money and a large army, who is giving this to them? How did they emerge in one year?” If there must be a military response, Jalakh desires it come from within the Muslim world itself. Still, he sees a much simpler solution. “It is enough to shut off the water faucet,” he said. “Many of America’s allies are helping ISIS.”
Jalakh was a participant in the September 8-10 conference of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches (FMEEC), held in Cairo. FMEEC president Reverend Andrea Zaki, also general director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, did not express conspiratorial origins to ISIS, but feared a similar practical outcome. “Who will define the moderate groups?” he stated in response to arming Syria’s rebels. “I’m afraid that any militarization will go again to the radicals.”
For Reverend Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor, activist, and author, the United States has long been a contributing force to the problems of the region. As with Jalakh, he would prefer a joint Muslim world force to defeat ISIS. “(This) would be the Islamic states assuming responsibility and showing this should not have any roots in the region,” he said. “They should not throw it to the US or anyone else.”
But Reverend Muhib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, is far more forceful. “Yet another war is being prepared in our region, and we must avoid this at all costs,” he said. “Some say to arm ethnic communities, but this will fuel sectarianism. Fighting must be done by regular armies, not militias.”
Younan referred in part to internal FMEEC discussion about Reverend Maan Bitar, a Syrian Presbyterian pastor who advocated Christians be involved in the armed resistance against ISIS. His own congregation in Mhardeh, near Hama, is among the 22,000 predominantly Christian residents who have so far repelled the attacks of Islamic militants, despite daily shelling. But even in Bitar’s support for Obama’s overture he rebukes a key aspect of American policy. Any intervention must be in coordination with the Syrian government. “The important thing is for ISIS to fall,” he said. “But politically if we respect governments and nations the US should be in communication with them.”
Another FMEEC participant who also is in Obama’s corner, up to a certain point, raises similar concerns. “The coalition is good because the Arab armies are not sufficient to fight ISIS alone,” said Reverend Riad Jarjour, the Lebanese secretary general of the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue. “But it must not continue [against Syria or other targets], or else it will spark civil war throughout the region.”
Jarjour, who has facilitated peacemaker training for young activists in Syria from Sunni, Shia, Allawi, and Christian backgrounds, praised the US for saving the Yazidis and not allowing Kurdish Erbil to fall to ISIS. But he is aware of the widespread sentiment that links ISIS ultimately back to larger American interests. “Many think the United States created ISIS, so as to fight it later and reenter the region,” he stated. Few at the conference were eager to defend America’s reputation against such conspiracy thinking. President Obama is certainly aware that the US reputation has suffered in the Middle East. This is one reason why he is keen to emphasize ISIS does not represent Islam, and US policy is not directed against Muslims.
But the Christians of FMEEC also absolve their Muslim neighbors of the sins of ISIS, and they find in them a better protector than the United States. Zaki secured a meeting for the group with Ahmed al-Tayyib, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, who denounced ISIS and reassured Christians of their place in the Arab world as full citizens. Younan reciprocated, urging Christians to be a voice for Islam. He criticized those in the West whose sympathy mischaracterizes the situation. “Sometimes they see us as children who must be rescued from our Muslim neighbors,” Younan said. “Statements of lament miss the fact that [the US] government and military actions have contributed to our situation.”
The line between observant analysis and conspiracy is thin, and the frustrations of these Christian leaders match those of al-Tayyib, and many Muslims beside. While describing ISIS as “criminals tarnishing the face of Islam,” he also called them “new colonial products serving global Zionism in its new version and its scheme to destroy the East and rip the Arab region apart.” Regional mistrust of US motives runs deep, finding that US interests run roughshod over Arab concerns. Many believe the United States handed Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood and see a worse outcome emerging in Syria.
But while President Obama described arming rebels as part of “a political process” in a recent meeting with Eastern patriarchs, many in the region now view the Arab spring as little more than regime change by other means. Christians in particular feel like a pawn on the chessboard. US policy, of course, is not authorized by local consent, but such support is noticeably absent among those the president is seeking to defend.
Jayson Casper blogs regularly on Middle East politics, religion, and culture at A Sense of Belonging. Follow him on Twitter at @jnjcasper.