Sunday

25th Feb 2024

Analysis

Europe is actually encouraging sectarianism in Middle East

  • The Pope holding a service in Iraq last week. It is mainly Christians from the Middle East who receive asylum. This makes their numbers in the region continue to decline dramatically. That is then used again as proof that they are being persecuted (Photo: Papal instagram)

Shortly after the Pope Francis' visit to Iraq ten days ago, the Iraqi prime minister issued a call for national dialogue, in the "papal spirit of love and tolerance".

This was welcomed by various groups, including - a few days ago - by the right-wing nationalist Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

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A strange reaction to the Pope's words in a 'land where Christians are persecuted', right?

'Iraq, or the Middle East - where Christians are persecuted' is a phrase that we often hear in Europe, including in the news. But is that really so?

I remember a vigil in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2013, organised by the European People's Party (EPP), in which it declared solidarity with the persecuted Christians in Syria.

After all, they reasoned, the rebellion in Syria was Sunni, against president Bashar al-Assad's Alawites - and the Christians he protected.

A few days later I was in Syria. I had tea there with two generals who had defected to the rebels. I asked them about the situation of the Christians.

"One of us is a Christian," said one. "Can you see who?" Of course I couldn't. They told me they were actually protecting Christian villages from attacks by Assad, who took advantage of the lack of knowledge in the West to accuse the rebels of sectarian war.

The young Syrian Christians who went to protest against Assad in 2011 were also imprisoned, tortured and killed by the regime - just like their fellow countrymen of other religions.

In Iraq, not a single church was attacked in the 20th century.

That changed after the invasion by the US and the "coalition of the willing" in 2003. Iraq sank into chaos and became the epicentre of extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq.

Numerous mosques were blown up. And dozens of churches too. Indeed, Christians fell victim to sectarian violence, just like everyone else in Iraq. Despite that, 'secular Europe' only seems to read the reports of Christian victims.

Saving Christians from ISIS?

It was this sectarian view that made the then Belgian deputy minister for migration and asylum, Theo Francken, decide to grant hundreds of Christians from Aleppo humanitarian visas to come to Belgium in 2017.

Although the operation appeared to be drenched in fraud, it was defended because it 'saved Christians from the claws of ISIS'. While not just the Christians, but especially the Yezidis, were targeted by ISIS.

As a result of this view, it is mainly Christians from the Middle East who receive asylum. This makes that their numbers in the region continue to decline dramatically. That is then used again as proof that they are being prosecuted.

European politics has even more cynical consequences. One is that it is fuelling sectarianism in the Middle East rather than fighting it. By calling attention only to Christians, Europe is creating resentment in other religious groups.

In other words, Europe's behaviour is sectarian and feeds sectarianism, even in places where it actually didn't exist. By only wanting to protect Christians, Europe makes the lives of Christians in the region more difficult.

Learning lessons from history

The history of Christians in the Middle East only makes the story even more cynical.

The majority of Eastern Christians were expelled from the Church by various councils in the fourth and fifth centuries and persecuted thereafter. While the Egyptian Coptic Church split off, many other 'heretics' had no choice but to flee to more tolerant Persia.

The Muslim conquests in the seventh century were seen by many Eastern Christians as a liberation from the Byzantine yoke. Under Islamic rule, Christians and Jews had to pay an extra tax, but at least they were free in their faith.

While wars of religion and heresy ravaged Europe, Eastern Christians lived in relative peace. That could hardly be otherwise given their number.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, half of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire were Christians.

The Ottoman rulers were therefore surprised when the French came to them in the same 19th century to tell them that they should treat the Christians better and that they, the French, would protect the Christians.

It is also Europe that invented religious representation in the region. France and Great Britain didn't just divide the Middle East between the two of them during World War I. Both countries have also introduced systems where administrators were elected according to their religion.

The consequences we see most clearly today in Lebanon, where everything is fixed according to religion, and decision-making has become impossible.

Of course, we do not have to answer today for what our ancestors did wrong. But it isn't too much to ask to learn from those mistakes, is it?

Pope Francis has already understood that. He acknowledged that in Iraq people of all religions were and still are victims of terror. That is also the reason why he is listened to there.

In this respect, we Europeans can perhaps learn something from this Argentinian.

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