The plane from Amman to Beirut carries a Catholic nun sitting on a window seat. Her eyes are full of unshed tears and she carries an object tightly in her closed fist. Her companion turns to her asking: "Why are you so sad sister?? "I am a Franciscan nun" she answers, "I just have come from Baghdad after closing down our century old girl's school that was in service of the Iraqi community. She opens her hand and shows a key. "We couldn't take it anymore, the facility was bombed so many times, we lost a couple of nuns, the students did not feel safe commuting and we have finally decided to close down. I am the last one leaving. What a shame. We educated generations of young modern Iraqi women who have all become prominent leaders holding important positions in the world. It's the end of an era."
"Christians are fleeing Iraq and Christianity risks disappearing from the country," says Archbishop Avak V. Asadourian of the Armenian Church of Iraq. "Because of the war, you see death and destruction, the manifestation of evil. Our people are lacking hope, and so they are leaving." More than 40 Assyrian churches have already been bombed since June 2004.
In the poorer suburbs of Beirut, around than 3,000 Chaldean Iraq families are clandestine refugees waiting from those who promised them democracy to at least grant them a visiting visa to the USA. In neighboring Syria and Jordan, the numbers soar to 40,000:
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] estimates the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan at around 2 million and those in Lebanon at between 20,000 and 40,000, 17 per cent of whom said they are Christians. This means that, in the highest estimate, the number of the Iraqi Christians in Lebanon is around 6,000, who live in the Christian areas there, especially where the followers of the Syriac, Chaldean, and Assyrian denominations live in Zahlah, Al-Matn, and Al-Ashrafiyah.
The Christians of Iraq did not get there on the Mayflower. These are the early Christians of the Middle East, the first churches after Antioch, the first communities that Christ's disciples converted and established. For hundreds of years they survived the Islamic caliphate, the Mongol invasions, the Ottoman Empire. Yet the violence of the past 5 years due to the "Liberation of Iraq" finally broke their backs and forced on them this uncalled for exodus.
The violence that post-Saddam Iraq has been subjected to since March 2003 has not only been responsible for thousands of Christians fleeing the country, but also has tolled the tocsin of alarm for the Christians of Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Many feel threatened and insecure and decide to leave their ancestral homes looking for greener pastures elsewhere.
What is the long term significance of this Christian emigration from Iraq and the Near East? What are its implications for the Western and American democracies?
For centuries, the Christians of the Middle East have been responsible for creating educational and cultural oases that raised and educated non-Christian generations of young men and women, instilling in them notions of Christian love (agape), tolerance, service, empathy and most of all forgiveness. Many of the current moderate politicians and ambassadors, i.e. the allies, who can build bridges with the modern world, are the product of these institutions. These Churches have been responsible for the multicultural and pluralistic ideas that made the Middle East such a wealthy cultural region. Unfortunately, since the American "liberation" of Iraq, the US has been viewed as enemy number one in the region. Even the staunch allies and partisans of American values are now suspicious and scared. Their ancestral homes have been destroyed, their churches and schools have been bombarded and the discourse about democracy or cooperation is regarded by many as high treason. The moderates are disappearing and the fanatics are becoming more and more entrenched in their extreme ideas.
The new Middle East unfortunately did not become the haven that every one aspired to and dreamt of. However, unless an immediate end is put the injustices of the region, including finding just and stable solutions for the Palestinian problem, one can predict that the 21st century will witness the fiercest and one of the most violent conflagrations in modern history. If the great powers are aspiring through their foreign policies to put an end to terrorism, I fear that instead they are creating new Frankesteins that neither the United States nor Europe will be able to contain. It is not enough to "smoke the terrorists out;" the important thing is what we are going to do with them afterward. Putting the genie back into the bottle has never been an easy task. Millions of dollars are invested annually on conflict resolution programs in Middle Eastern universities, yet war and violence seem to be always the only methods practically applied.
The time has come for the Christian churches to raise their voices and pleas. Christian love in the Middle East is a basic indigenous ingredient; if we totally eradicate it from its roots, the world will never be the same again. Let us put an end to war and violence in Iraq and diffuse the tension that so violently is threatening the entire region. Let us lend a hand to these refugees, support the local moderates and help them to remain in their lands, so they can act as the buffers and our future partners in the building of democracies and world peace.
Dr. Arda Arsenian-Ekmekji is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon. She is a member of the UCC and Disciples' Common Global Ministries Board of Directors.