By Andrew Hamilton
DECEMBER 20, 2010
The Gospels describe Christmas as a time of great happiness that a saviour has been born. But they also intimate the murderous business through which salvation will come. Not only the star but also the shadow of Herod stands over the place of birth.
This Christmas many Christians in predominantly Muslim nations will also be shadowed by fear.
In Iraq, churches have recently been bombed and Christians murdered. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi (pictured) awaits hanging, accused of insulting the prophet Mahommad. The Pakistan Government has backed off its feeble attempt to provide some measure of justice in the process. Meanwhile the United Nations will consider a resolution that endorses similar laws against religious defamation.
Middle Eastern Catholics have expressed disappointment at the response of Western Christians. This response ranges from helpless and embarrassed attention that quickly modulates into neglect, to an ideological assault on Islam.
The latter sees the sufferings of Christians as the expression of the mortal struggle between Christianity and Islam, and as a demonstration of the innate militancy of Islam towards those whom it classes as infidels.
Neither response respects duly the Christians who suffer. A proper response must consider first the complexity of a situation which cannot be reduced to religious difference. Antipathy to Christianity is fuelled by resentment against Western powers that are identified with Christianity.
This grievance can be traced back to the Crusades. But the militant forms of Islam that have corroded tolerance for Christians in many Islamic societies owe more to contemporary history. Western support for Israel and the humiliation both of the Palestinian people and of surrounding countries have favoured the spread of a more narrow interpretation of Islam.
The United States invasion of Iraq has been catastrophic for Iraqi Christians. Under Sadam Hussein they lived in relative peace. As a result of the invasion, they have been identified both with the United States as Christians and as clients of the Sunni.
The antagonism between Sunni and Shiite and the cooptation by Iran and Saudi Arabia of radical groups has hemmed in the space for happy co-existence.
It is easy for politicians and local landlords to draw on this potent mixture of religion and prejudice to inflame local grievances about property or power. Christians are a convenient scapegoat to focus resentment.
This complexity explains in part why the response of Western Christians is so muted. It shows that they do not have a detached standing point from which to look at the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians. Western Christians, as indeed all Western people, are complicit in it. We inherit the consequences of the Crusades, our policies towards Israel and the Palestinians, our participation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, the sufferings of the Palestinian Christians are not only factually complex but emotionally complex. They forbid us to set them in a detached ideological framework, but invite us to work out a more complex form of solidarity.
The 'we' that links Western Christians and Christians living in Muslim societies involves a double set of relationships. The first relates them as groups of fellow Christians. The second relates them as members of Western and Islamic polities, requiring Westerners to acknowledge the often discreditable history of their dealings.
The proper relationship between Christians whose life is stable and those whose lives are precarious is clear. It is adequately described in the early church. One the major thrust of Paul's mission was to collect money to send to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. This was echoed, too, in the care and responsibility that larger churches offered to the martyrs in far off places.
But leaders of Western churches are unlikely to press for such solidarity, or Christian congregations to hear it, unless Western Christians own their complex history with Islam. Solidarity with Christians in the Islamic world cannot be built unless it is accompanied by solidarity with Islamic peoples as well.
It is contradictory to embrace Christians as the victims of Islam while ignoring the way in which both they and Muslims in the region have been the victims of Western depredation and invasion.