Robert Fisk’s World: The never-ending exodus of Christians from the Middle East

One of the oldest sects in the world is still fleeing sectarian violence for the West
I have usually found that the closer a religious Christian, Jew or Muslim comes to the Middle East, the madder they become. The most avuncular Shropshire vicar, the kindest Jewish moderate, the most secular Muslim – dump them within a thousand miles of Jerusalem and they have the eyes of Lord Blair of Kut-al-Amara, that crazed, glazed, faith-based lunacy that must have inhabited the eyes of the Crusaders when they slaughtered their way across the Holy Land, dropping off near modern-day Homs in modern-day Syria to consume – literally – some of their Arab enemies. Orthodox priests fight each other over Christ’s tomb; Israeli settlers claim that the Koran is not “a valid document” and local Muslims fully intend to “Islamicise” the world.

Was I the only one to react with a total lack of surprise to the news that Muslim Afghan soldiers are fighting Muslim Taliban fighters with a coded inscription on their rifle sights from the Bible’s Book of John? Could Holman Hunt – who also went batty in the Middle East – have imagined that his Light of the World (Jesus, no less, painted in 1854) would be guiding the path of American as well as Afghan army bullets into the hearts of the Muslim Taliban? Possibly. So it turns out that another bunch of religious nutters, the makers of Trijicon rifle sights in the United States, believe the inscription is “part of our faith and our belief in service to our country”.

Not since the Serbs and Lebanese Phalangists set off to massacre and rape their Muslim enemies over the past three decades with pictures of the Virgin Mary on their rifle butts has there been anything so preposterous. No doubt, our brave Dutch newspaper cartoonist – he of bomb-in-the-Prophet’s-hat humour – will now sketch Jesus using a clip of 7.62 ammo to bang on the door of that wretched cottage in the Hunt portrait. Indeed, ’twas I who first spotted two American M(12A)1 Abrams tanks parked in central Baghdad in 2003 with “Crusader 1” and “Crusader 2” painted on their barrels. But since the man who sent them there – check out Bush’s lunatic conversation with Chirac – believes in Gog and Magog, what’s new? Don’t tell me no one in the Pentagon (or the British Ministry of Defence, which has an order in for another 400 Trijicon sites) didn’t query that weird “JN8:12” on the equipment.

No wonder then – and here’s a real tragedy – that Christians are in a state of perpetual exodus from the Middle East. In Egypt, six Coptic Christians were killed at Christmas – along with a Muslim policeman – when local Muslims attacked them. The Copts are maybe 10 per cent of their country’s 80 million people but they are heading in droves for America. One problem they have is seeking official permission to build churches in Egypt – and if they get this permission, sure enough, up will pop a mosque right next door.

Courtesy of that great Bible-reader George W Bush, the Christians of post-invasion Iraq – one of the oldest sects in the world – are still fleeing sectarian violence for the West. They’ve been murdered and burned out of their homes. Why, even the head of the superior Islamic council of Iraq, Ammar al-Hakim, turned up in Beirut this week to tell the Maronite Catholic patriarch of Lebanon that he was doing “all he could” for his Iraqi Christian brothers and sisters. Algerian Islamists have just burned a Christian Protestant church in an apartment in the Berber city of Tizi Ouzou. But as an Algerian police officer said to the local AP man in the town a few days ago, “What happened is appalling, but the apartment wasn’t an authorised house to practise a religion…” So that’s OK then.

There’s not much point, of course, in looking for the last known resting place of one and a half million Christian Armenians, because they were mass-slaughtered by the Turks in 1915 – although neither Bush nor his successor will call it a genocide because they are frightened of Muslim Turkey. Yup, the “era of martyrdom” started by Diocletian in AD284 just goes on and on.

The Christians of Lebanon would say the same, forgetting their own murderous militias of the civil war. But wasn’t it the largely Muslim Palestinians who in that same war claimed that the “road to Jerusalem” passed through Ayoun el-Siman, the very Christian heartland of Lebanon? Please note how I have not touched upon the anti-Christian savagery of Nigeria – whose revolving presidency is currently held by a Muslim who is under permanent medical attention in Saudi Arabia, the seat of Wahhabism – nor of Malaysia, where Christians are now under attack for being allowed to call their God “Allah”. The fact that Muslims and Christians both believe in the same deity has no apparent value. Indeed, in God’s name – quite literally – the very name of the very patriarch of the Lebanese church is Nasrallah Sfeir – the “allah” bit meaning exactly what it sounds like. Ye Gods, I suppose we must say!

But I was heartened to read a fine article by my wise old journalist friend Jihad Zein in the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar last week. He believes that governments in the Muslim world have been repressing societies but – and I hope I have grasped his complex argument correctly – repressed societies are now repressing minorities. He points out that the exodus of Christians from neighbouring Muslim countries have actually thickened the Christian populations of Damascus and Aleppo in Syria. The 1914-18 war had a direct demographic impact on the Middle East’s Christians, quite apart from the Armenian genocide.

The British tolerated – and in some cases actually covered up – the genocide of Assyrians in northern Iraq by their installed Iraqi monarch’s army in 1933. I’ve read that some of King Faisal’s soldiers had originally also fought in the Ottoman army, so practised the art of killing Christians by slaughtering Armenians – just as some German officers in the Ottoman army who witnessed the Armenian genocide thus learned how to murder the Jews of Europe a quarter of a century later. In any event, the Zein thesis is that Middle East governments have abandoned the idea of cultural authority in the interests of safeguarding the security of their political society. The Fisk thesis is that minorities don’t count any more.

But don’t bet on it. Was it not the army of Israel which named its 1996 bombardment of Lebanon “Grapes of Wrath”, an operation which included the atrocity at Qana, when 106 Lebanese civilians, more than half of them children and including mothers and old men, were torn to bits by Israeli shells? And did not Grapes of Wrath take its name from chapter 32, verse 25 of the Book of Deuteronomy in which it is said that “the sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of grey hairs”. All in all, a good description of the massacre at Qana. Or of those innocent Afghan villagers torn to bits in Nato’s heroic air strikes. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that DY32:25 is inscribed on Nato’s bombs. Work that one out.