In 2010 an al-Qaeda front group attacked one of Baghdad’s main cathedrals during Sunday mass. More than 50 people were slaughtered. The militants had a clear and simple explanation for this atrocity: “All Christian centres, organisations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the muhajideen wherever they can reach them. We will open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood.”
In this environment, it’s no wonder that Christianity is dying in the land of its birth.
What’s more puzzling is why the Western world couldn’t care less. As recently as a century ago Christians made up 20 percent of the population of the Middle East, with thriving communities in what is now Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. Today thanks to persecution and instability, that estimate has fallen to less than 5 percent. But instead of alarm bells- or even a flicker of interest — this calamitous decline has been greeted with yawns by the Western media.
The United States, where 76 percent of the population still describes itself as nominally Christian, has been surprisingly indifferent. Absent from most news stories of the revolution in Egypt for example, was the plight of the Coptic Orthodox Church- one of the oldest Christian communities in the world- which has increasingly become a casualty of the Arab Spring. More than 100,000 have been forced to emigrate since the fall of Mubarak, with no signs of slowing down. But this neglect isn’t limited to Egypt or places beyond the reach of a Western military. The position of Iraqi Christians- whose presence dates back to the time of the Apostles- has been if anything, worse than the Copts. Two thirds of them have fled since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
These attitudes aren’t simply the result of navel gazing or ignorance; they are the legacy of the central divide in Christianity, a linguistic and religious fissure between East and West that has its roots in the waning days of the Classical world.
As late as the seventh century, there was still a common Greco-Roman culture around the Mediterranean. A sightseer could travel around virtually the entire basin- from the coast of Spain, to North Africa, Palestine, the Balkans, or Italy- and be ensured of a comforting familiarity wherever he went. There were local variations of course, but he could relax at the same baths, be entertained in the same hippodromes, and dip his bread in the same olive oil. He was subject to the same laws, paid his debts with the same coins, and spoke the same languages (Greek or Latin) as other educated citizens wherever he went. The great dividing line wasn’t between east and west but between civilized (Roman/Christian) and barbarian.
But as time went on this cultural unity disappeared. Political unity was the first to go. In the third century the Empire was divided down the middle, creating a western half ruled from Rome and an eastern half ruled from Constantinople. Of the two, Constantinople proved the more durable. While the West collapsed under the weight of barbarian invasions of the fifth century, the East survived until the fifteenth. The Eastern Romans — Byzantines as they were derisively nicknamed later — made one serious attempt to reconquer their western half, but in the mid seventh century the forces of Islam arrived and permanently shattered the political unity of the Mediterranean.
The emperors of Constantinople never forgot that they were Roman, but untethered from their Western counterpart, the cultural drift accelerated. At first Latin remained the official language in the east, but Greek was more commonly spoken, and by the middle of the seventh century the imperial government gave up the pretence.
Religious and cultural unity lingered on, but they were clearly dying. Greek was virtually extinct in the west by the year 450, and the greatest eastern scholar of the 9th century couldn’t read Latin. In 864 the eastern Emperor Michael III even went so far as to call Latin a ‘barbaric tongue’. In such circumstances a common identity couldn’t survive. The Byzantines dismissed westerners as barbarians- whose language wasn’t suitable for serious discussion- while westerners responded with charges of eastern softness and sybaritism. (This mutual contempt- and its disastrous consequences- are traced in my book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization).
Religion still acted as a thin veneer unifying the two halves of Europe, but it too was drifting apart. Of the five major Christian centres of the Mediterranean world four were in the East (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople) while only one (Rome) was in the West. Since they all had venerable roots, the emphasis in the East was on the equality of all bishops- the Pope was merely the “first among equals”, and any points of doctrine had to be decided by the unanimous voice of the whole church. The West, on the other hand, viewed the bishop of Rome as more of a monarchy, and the Pope became the sole arbiter of doctrine in the West.
Without a common language, these divisions soon escalated into a full-blown schism. In 1054, emissaries of the Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, and he responded in kind. Most Christians at the time were unaware that the faith had been split in half, but in 1095 the First Crusade was launched- ironically to aid eastern Christians- and it made the divisions and bitterness between East and West permanent. In many cases the Crusaders failed to distinguish between the native Christian populations and their Muslim masters, killing both indiscriminately. They then appointed Latin bishops to replace the existing Greek ones in cities they conquered. It was one thing for distant church officials to quarrel and quite another for there to be duelling bishops and congregations in one’s home city. The Crusades brought the schism to the everyman.
But much worse was to follow. In 1204 a Crusader army attacked Constantinople itself and managed to smash their way inside. The East has never forgotten the three appalling days that followed. The mighty bulwark of Christendom that had sheltered the West from the armies of Islam for centuries had been shattered by men wearing the cross of Christ. As far as the East was concerned, Westerners could no longer be considered Christian.
When the final hours of the Empire drew near and only the aid of Rome offered a chance of survival against the Turk, one Byzantine summed up his compatriot’s feelings succinctly by commenting “better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s mitre”. The two halves of Christendom no longer wanted anything to do with each other. With all too few exceptions, it’s been a story of mutual contempt ever since.
Nor does it look likely that attitudes will change any time soon. Culturally the Christians of the Middle East are as alien to Western sensibilities as the populations that surround them. In order to survive, they’ve had to blend in, often becoming firm supporters of minority Baathist governments who depend on coalitions- like Bashar Assad of Syria. These governments depend on brutality toward their own people to maintain power, and when they attract Western attention and are condemned, their partisans don’t generate a lot of sympathy.
In June of 2012, Western-backed Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s government troops entered the city of Homs and desecrated its churches, some of which date back to the 6th century. Bibles were torn up for use as toilet paper, soldiers posed for pictures wearing looted priests robes, and the sacramental wine was used to celebrate. The story- unlike the Koran burning by a Floridian pastor that same year- didn’t produce even a ripple of journalistic interest.
Most Protestants or Catholics have never heard of a Chaldean or Melkite Christian, and there appears to be a certain intellectual laziness in the press which doesn’t seem able to process the idea of Christians as a persecuted minority. So for the most part they are simply ignored, and the eradication of 2,000 year-old Christian communities passes without comment in the information age.
“To be ignorant of our past,” Cicero warned, is to “forever remain a child”. This is an apt description of our continued silence in the face of the deteriorating situation of the minority populations of the Middle East.
Lars Brownworth is the author of Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization. Visit his blog.