Opinion

Unity In The Shadow Of Tragedy: An Opportunity Of Historic Proportions For Middle Eastern Christians

Richard Ghazal Air Force Intelligence Officer

By now, even the most casual observer of recent news is aware of the religious bloodshed taking place in the Middle East. This crime against humanity, conducted by the Islamic State (IS), is nothing short of genocide — and it has reached a critical tipping point. Absent drastic action, Christianity will become a bygone artifact in the very land of its origin.

Tomorrow, senior leaders of the Middle East’s various Christian churches will convene with American political leaders in Washington, DC to squarely address the existential threat facing Middle East’s Christian minority. Hosted by In Defense of Christians (IDC), the three-day summit will provide a forum through which this beleaguered community can share dialogue with American policymakers.

At the summit, the Christian patriarchs will likely champion one principal theme: “Western intervention, both military and humanitarian, is critically necessary to end the Islamic Caliphate’s reign of terror.” However, to ensure the enduring security of the Middle East’s Christian minority, a holistic change in direction is required to come from within this Christian community itself — an awakening, of sorts. The IDC Summit can serve as a starting point, specifically, through the cultivation of Christian unity.

Since the fourth century AD, the Christian church in the Middle East has undergone a series of doctrinal schisms, which caused it, and thus the community of believers, to divide along esoteric fault lines. As a result of these ecclesiastical schisms which occurred serially over the centuries, we are left with a wide spectrum of Christian traditions in the Middle East, each with its own hierarchical allegiance. Indisputably, denominational division has been a primary cause of weakness over the last fourteen centuries, and continues to render the Christians of the Middle East dangerously vulnerable to external threats, culminating in the genocide we observe today.

As a perennially threatened minority, Christians of the Middle East must astutely discern the lessons of history, lest they fall victim to its repetition, and the exponential magnification of its effects. Regrettably, over the centuries, the fading Christian community has customarily abdicated its historical course to be charted by external forces — enemies and emperors alike. Thus, they’ve become victims of a self-fulfilled prophesy. A perpetually reactive posture will only ensure the slow, episodic death of this community, and its cultural legacy and spiritual mandate.

The Christian community of the Middle East is at a critical juncture in history. In the wake of the Islamic State’s genocidal campaign, it has become plainly evident the community is now faced with a very simple, yet incredibly weighty, choice: reassert your right to exist, or disappear. The first step in reasserting its right to exist must be through the reunification of its various denominations.

Interdenominational interaction has taken place in recent decades, and has generally been limited to sporadic meetings. However, since last month’s total purge of Christians in the Nineveh Plain, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented level of interdenominational solidarity. For the first time in history, five patriarchs of sister denominations made a joint visit to Erbil, northern Iraq, in a laudable gesture of support and solidarity with the suffering faithful. This collaborative pastoral visit clearly demonstrated the enormous potential inherent in the patriarchs’ new approach toward pragmatic ecumenism.

In a joint press conference in Irbil, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II remarked on the common history, and desired unity, shared between the Syriac, Chaldean, and Assyrian denominations. Chaldean Patriarch Louis Rafael Sako added that “we are one church, with one voice … and together, we can be a stronger church, with a secure future.” In this spirit, hope for a secure future can be rekindled.

Understandably, reunification may be met with tremendous emotional resistance among faithful adherents of the respective denominations. Over the centuries, the multiplicity of Christian faith communities have developed their own rich traditions and rites. It is important to note that reunification would not require the abandonment of the respective time-honored traditions. Quite the contrary. Reunification could be as minimally intrusive as the formation of a federated Christian union. Each member-church of the federation would be encouraged to preserve its hierarchal structure, rites, and traditions. Such an alliance would enable a pooling of resources, and lend leverage to the voices of community leaders, while preserving the individual character of each Christian tradition.

Additionally, this union could have untold benefits for the scattered Middle Eastern Christian communities in the diaspora.

In light of today’s humanitarian crisis, clinging to centuries-old schismatic justifications for denominational divergence — which are irrelevant in today’s ecumenical climate — will only lead to the further devastation of the church in the Middle East. This week’s IDC Summit presents a monumental opportunity of historic proportions — to affirm and codify the shared intent to restore interdenominational fellowship.

We must remember; we are our brothers’ keeper.

Richard Ghazal is an officer in the United States Air Force, a Juris Doctor candidate at New England Law, Boston, and an ordained deacon in the Syriac Orthodox Church. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the official position or policy of the United States Department of Defense.