How Should Arab Christians
React to Persecution?
FAITH IN MINORITY
by Martin Accad
The bombing of two churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday last year, which claimed more than 44 lives, was a gruesome reminder that there are still many in this region who seek the complete demise and disappearance of Christianity from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Syrian and Iraqi Christians need no reminding of this as they line up at UN and foreign embassy doors, waiting for their turn to be resettled in Western countries. Whenever we mention one or two such tragedies, it feels like we are betraying hundreds of thousands of other Middle East Christians, whom we fail to mention every time – all those who have died and been displaced as a result of hundreds of other attacks, bombings, and targeted religious “cleansing” over the past few years, decades and centuries. In the midst of it all, Christians struggle to find the appropriate response to their suffering.
The media reported extensively on how Egyptian Christians have shocked the world by their ability to forgive their killers. Many MENA Christians feel that forgiveness is the most appropriate response to those who persecute them. Others argue that we need to do more to seek justice, and they call for spelling out a more robust “theology of liberation.” The tension between these two poles could be felt during our treatment of the topic even at our last consultation (the Middle East Consultation held in June 2017 at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut).
I would like to propose three possible responses that Christians might adopt in the face of persecution, and reflect on which might be the most appropriate in light of Jesus’ teaching.
The first response is revenge and victimization of others. In the Middle East, the call for revenge is the most common response to loss. Revenge killing is still common practice in this part of the world, where a feud between two families or tribes can easily last for generations. This background explains the perplexity of Amro Adib, the Abu Dhabi TV presenter who, on his program Kul Yawm Jumaa (“Every Friday”), expressed his amazement at the capacity of Coptic Christians to forgive. “The Copts of Egypt are made of steel!” he exclaimed, after hearing the moving testimony of a mother who lost her son, Naseem Faheem, who was in charge of security at St. Mark’s Cathedral during the Palm Sunday bombing. “These people possess this amount of forgiveness because it is founded on truth, it is based on doctrine.” What a powerful testimony forgiveness is to the message of Jesus, in a culture and world where our strong sense of justice invites us to exact revenge on criminals!
The problem with revenge is that it triggers a cycle of victimization, where the victim can soon become the victimizer. This does not, of course, negate the crucial role of the state to act as judge and punisher of criminals. But where the state fails us, does that give us as MENA Christians the right to take justice into our own hands? The Coptic Christian model offers us an example of how forgiveness against all odds provides for a much more powerful testimony to Christ than revenge.
The second response is self-victimization and the demonization of others. This response has been more common among Christians in the MENA. It is passive-aggressive and subtler, therefore, in the damage that it causes to the community in the long run. The question here is what do we do after we have gathered the capacity to forgive those who have harmed us? The tendency for all of us is to associate the perpetrator of harm with the group to which they belong. There were many responses available in the face of racism and segregation in the U.S. during the ’50s and ’60s when Martin Luther King Jr. led his historic campaign. The Black Panther Party, for example, called for armed resistance to segregation, and legitimized the use of violence against white people. The suffering of African-Americans led, in some circles, to the labelling of all whites as the “white devils.” Similarly, after 9/11 the fact that the 19 perpetrators of the crime were Muslims led, in some circles, to the incrimination of all Muslims for the crime.
In the case of Christians in the Middle East, the repeated suffering of our community at the hand of Muslims across history has led us to a wholesale demonization of Islam, following from self- victimization. Just as “whiteness” was not in itself the root of racism, but rather a certain interpretation of “whiteness” as equivalent to “white supremacy,” it is not Islam itself, I believe, that leads to the persecution of Christians. Rather it is a specific interpretation of Muslim texts that ignites a sense of Muslim superiority, which leads to a desire for global supremacy and exclusion.
The third response is forgiveness and the launching of active initiatives of change. This response is not an easy one, for sure, but it is the only one that can break the cycle of revenge and violence. When we forgive those who have harmed us, it is not then to be used as a platform for self-victimization and prejudice, or even less for flight through emigration. When MENA Christians forgive Muslim attackers of a church, it is then their responsibility to courageously launch initiatives of change as they seek to transform the unjust system in which they live. Martin Luther King Jr. would say that the lack of resistance to racism amounted to not loving our enemies, as we abandoned them to the evil power of their sinful nature. Active resistance to racism, even at the cost of his own life, was the only legitimate way he found to respond to the injustice of social segregation.
In the same way, as followers of Jesus, we are not to respond to violent persecution, either through active reflexes of revenge, or through passive self-victimization that leads to emigration or the wholesale demonization of Islam. Our response to persecution should be, first, forgiveness; secondly, the pursuit of justice for our Middle Eastern societies as we seek to bring perpetrators of violence to justice under the law; thirdly, the recognition that violence resulting from a sense of Islamic supremacy is the outcome of a demonic way of interpreting Muslim texts. It is this ideology that must be resisted both by Christians and Muslims who refuse this interpretation, working hand in hand to overturn these ideologies at their roots.