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Monday, November 8, 2010

Some Reflections on the Middle Eastern Christian Situation

The thoughts  I am writing this week are not a religious theme - as a matter of fact, I am not exactly feeling all that sanctimonious to give a lot of spiritual wisdom.  I want to address a complex issue that has been on my mind for some time, and this may promise to be a lengthy. The recent tragic church bombing of an Assyrian church in Baghdad on Sunday, October 31, has gotten my attention, which is why I write this now.  Please keep the families of these victims in your thoughts and prayers, as these are a precious people of few numbers and every loss is a great tragedy for their people. 

For close to 20 years now, I have worked closely with Middle Eastern Christian minorities - Assyrians, Copts, Armenians, Maronites, and others - and as I have done so I have learned much.  And, it has not been easy in some cases, for at times the issues surrounding these groups can be such that it is like stepping into a hornet's nest for an outsider to their communities.   My desire has always been to see a united front among these Christian minorities, and at one time I actually thought there was such a unity.  However, due to meddling by the largely Islamic societies they have been forced to live in, oftentimes fracturing and factioning has caused inter-Christian disputes that have gotten violent, in particular regarding Lebanon.  And, unwittingly, I have sometimes gotten caught in the crosshairs of these conflicts, and there have been times I have wanted to just chuck it all and say "the heck with it," but I couldn't - these people mean something to me personally, and just when I am ready to give up, many of the good friends I have made among them are there to encourage me to press on, and I appreciate that so much.  One in particular I want to recognize is an Assyrian-American gentleman by the name of Ashur, with whom I have been talking about these issues over the past few days.  Ashur's encouragement and friendship have really been a godsend, and people like him make these efforts worthwhile.  I can only pray I get the blessing of knowing more like him.  That being said, I want to begin to tackle this to the best of my ability, as it is important to my own understanding as well as making others aware that many of these people, fellow Christians, are up against an evil that potentially could destroy their nations.  Of course that won't happen, as the Bible actually prophesies that many of them will be restored as nations, but at the same time we need to uplift and encourage them, as Islam is evil and if given the chance it will destroy all vestige of Christianity in that region, the very region that gave it birth and where many of its oldest churches still survive today.  Therefore, please bear with me as I struggle to write this.

Besides the Baghdad church tragedy last week, a couple of other things made this article necessary to write.  The first is the most recent.  There is a show on Thursday nights we watch called The Smoking Gun Presents the World's Dumbest, and a week or two ago they did an episode called "Dumbest Brawlers."  Most of the clips, interspersed with hilarious commentary by people like Danny Bonaduce, Tanya Harding, and Leif Garrett, are just amusing clips of normal people making jackasses out of themselves because they have had too much to drink or something.  However, one clip on that particular episode disturbed me - it was a clip of a gangfight between Greek and Armenian monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during an Easter Liturgy.   One would think that Church leaders and clergy would set a better example for their people based on their positions as religious/spiritual leaders for some Christian communities which are living under constant threat of bullying and terrorism by Islamic radicals, but this was just disgraceful; it made these monks, supposed holy men, look like fools while the Western world laughed at how stupid they really looked.  The Holy Sepulchre is a shrine that is equally shared by I believe seven Eastern Christian communities and the Roman Catholics, and therefore if any place should be a symbol of Christian unity, that venerable church should.  To have fights breaking out among the clergy is the height of blasphemy to me, and sadly this isn't the first time.  I read a magazine article a few years back about a similar skirmish breaking out among Coptic and Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem over similar territorial spats, and it broke my heart.  I have been a staunch advocate for all these Christian communities for over 20 years, and to see them fighting among themselves like that over stupid things makes me not only sick to my stomach but is simply embarrassing.  Unfortunately, a lot of this goes back to Islamic manipulation - I am convinced that the Muslims plot this to keep the Christians fragmented so that Islam can prevail in the region, as a united front against Islamic oppression would probably overcome Islamic control of the area.  Also, these same Islamic influences have tainted indigenous Christian attitudes towards the Jews and the state of Israel.  For all intentions, Israel and the native Middle Eastern Christians are and should be natural allies, as they face the same enemy.  However, they sadly are not, and anti-Semitic, anti-Israel hate speech is present among Christians there.   There is an evident pattern of this Islamic "divide and conquer" mentality over centuries that Bat Ye'or documents in her book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh-Dickinson, 2005) on page 35:

1.  The gradual erosion of resistance within the societies targeted but not yet conquered by jihad - this is accomplished by fostering economic reliance on Islamic overlords, forced abductions and slavery of religous minority populations, and deportation.
2.  As indigenous populations face a growing hostility, many are forced to immigrate as their societies are gradually altered and replaced by an Islamic lifestyle.  For those that remain, life becomes hell.
3.  The emergence of powerful collaborationist parties among the minorities that are economically and politically tied to Islamic sources.

Bat Ye'or goes on to say that this fosters the dhimmi system, which forced religious minorities to submit and surrender to puppets of the Islamic authorities who basically sold out their people for status or financial gain.  Nowhere is this more evident than among the clergy of many Middle Eastern Christian communities, many of whom are mere "talking heads" and spokesmen for the dictators and would-be mahdis who subjugate and persecute their people.  Although not the only source, this is a reason why many Middle Eastern Christian leaders have taken a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel stance and have even went as far as to condemn what they deem "Christian Zionism" as a "heresy."  They even drew up a document to that effect actually.  It is really tragic that many of the Middle Eastern Christians - thankfully not all, as a growing number know better, which I will get to shortly - have been fed this garbage, and they are failing to realize that Israel may be their only friend - the Muslims hate them and want to kill them, the West doesn't acknowledge they exist, and they are so factional among themselves that Islamic insurgents can pick them off easily.  That recently became painfully evident when I had a debate with two ladies - one a Palestinian Arab Christian and the other an Armenian from Syria - who both condemned fellow Christians while extolling the virtues of both Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini.   The Armenian lady even had the audacity to say that the Assyrians in Iraq inflicted suffering upon themselves, which is absurd - she obviously didn't know the history of her own people, much less the Assyrians, as both nations suffered horrific genocides at the hands of the Turks and Kurds simply for being Christians.  It gets worse though, as an Armenian Catholic writer, Antranik Atamian, wrote a book called Middle Eastern Christians At The Crossroads published a couple of years back that more or less created something I had never heard of - an "Armenian Arab."  Anyone who knows even a rudimentary amount of information about Armenians knows that they are a people of great pride in their unique heritage, and they know they are distinct from Arabs - they are not even Semitic, for heaven's sake!  So, for an Armenian writer to say this is just unbelievable.  Both of these ladies were also virulently anti-Israel, and that amazed me even more; not so much the Palestinian girl as the Armenian though.  However, Islamic incursions are not the total cause of this prejudice, as many Christians have harbored a hatred of Jews that goes back centuries even before Islam due to poor discipleship and misinterpretations of the Church Fathers and their teachings.  However, are either the Catholic or Orthodox Churches really anti-semitic in their teachings, or is this a "tradition of men" that has been fostered by ignorance?  That is what I wish to discuss now.

In 1987, a Carmelite priest of Jewish heritage by the name of Fr. Elias Friedman wrote a small book called Jewish Identity, and what he says in it will blow a hole through almost any anti-semitic sentiment a professing Christian harbors.  Fr. Friedman begins by asserting that first off, "Jewish" is religious terminology while "Israel" or "Hebrew" is ethnic, and not every Jew is an Israelite, while many Israelites can be found among the nations (take, for instance, the 55 million Conversos/Anusim, of which I am a part).  That being said, he also says that although Israel was largely founded by secular Zionists, God still has a purpose and a prophetic plan for its existence.  Natural Israel, argues Fr. Friedman, still has a future place in God's plan, but it isn't the Church.  The Church and Israel together constitute the Chosen of God, and thus one day an "ingrafting" will happen - many Church visionaries, both Catholic and Orthodox, saw this too - in which the leadership of the Church will revert to natural Israel because of two things.  First, there is an Apostasy of the Gentiles coming.  Secondly, there is to be a mass conversion of many Jews to Christ when they realize He is their Messiah.  This has Biblical support too, as in Revelation 5:11-13 there is a direct reference to 144,000 of Israel sealed by the Lamb.  I personally believe this to be a class of priests of Hebrew blood who will arise in the end times in the Church and will lead it through its roughest time of persecution, the Great Tribulation, and they will be led by a prophetic leader of the Remnant who will be of Levitical birth but also ordained into the priesthood of the Church; that could be a future exiled Pope, possibly from Ethiopia, but his identity is not necessarily restricted to just the Latin Church either.  Therefore, based on these facts, I would caution many Middle Eastern Christians to read up more on the subject, because simply put one day the very people they are rejecting may lead them, and some of these nations also have a prophetic destiny as well (see Isaiah 19:23-25 for more on that) and will be in fellowship with natural Israel.

That being said, my own frustration and disillusionment with some among the Middle Eastern Christian communities I have advocated so strongly for has led me to re-evaluate some things, and as I did so a Bible passage came to me.  It is one of the parables of Jesus, and is found in Matthew 13:24-30, and it is about wheat and tares.  A tare is simply a weed that poses as a wheat plant, but in doing so it can overtake a field.  It is possibly a poisonous plant that cannot be consumed, and thus to ancient farmers it was important to discern the difference.  The harvest metaphor is used quite frequently of the end-times Church in Scripture, and what it says if it is taken at face value is this; the harvest is of souls, and there must be a sorting process at the harvest to root out the tares from the wheat.  "Tares" are evident in all churches today, and unfortunately in growing numbers; my mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, often says that many Orthodox churches are filled with what he calls "baptized pagans."  In other words, they identify as Christians, know the lingo and motions, but their hearts are far from God.  As hard as it is for me to come to this conclusion, Middle Eastern Christians are not exempt from having tares in their wheatfields either, and unfortunately many of the "tares" hold office as clergy in the Church, or they are people who, due to satisfying their own pride and ambition, sell out their identities to Islamic puppetmasters in order to cater some gain for their own selfish interests, and their people suffer for that.  A lot of the fighting, killing, and feuding among professed Middle Eastern Christians is the result of tares flourishing in the wheatfields - I have heard stories in particular of Christians of different communities killing each other by masses in Lebanese villages in particular, and the ones who promote Islamic interests exploit this in order to foster discord and mayhem, as Islam is controlled by Satan and Satan knows that if he can keep God's people divided, he will prevail.  However, the good news is that there are others among them who are sincere and godly people, and those people deserve great admiration and respect because they often become martyrs or exiles due to taking a stand for the truth.  One day, the tares will be sorted out, and the promises made to the Assyrians, Copts, and other Christian nations in the Middle East in Isaiah 19 and other passages will be for the faithful Remnant of their people, and the same also goes for Israel - there are many Jewish and/or Hebraic people who will also burn in the fires of hell for eternity unless they understand their need for Jesus Christ as their Messiah, and it is the faithful Remnant of Israel that will inherit the blessings God has promised.  Understanding that helps me to deal with some attitudes I come across on occasion, like those of the Palestinian Christian girl I mentioned earlier as well as the Armenian woman.  Compromise with the enemy may bring some temporal luxury, but in the end it has a high cost, and my advice to Middle Eastern Christian people today is to stand by your convictions, stand for your God-given identities, and stand against the demonic onslaughts of Islamic control.  Much more can be said on this, but I will leave it for now as I may have more to revisit in a future article.  God bless the Assyrians, Copts, Armenians, and other Christian peoples of the Middle East, and may He awaken in them the truth and a passion to stand for it.