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The Arab Christian Dilemma


The wheels of our plane touched the asphalt of LAX on the night of December 13, 1978, and I stepped out, only to drown in that vast ocean called America. I am an Iraqi Christian immigrant, born in Baghdad, although earlier generations from both sides of my family came from the smaller towns in northern Iraq. We came to America before hummus was Americanized and sold in every grocery store, before the “Mediterranean” diet become a fad, and before fast-food restaurants started selling pita pocket sandwiches. But for all this, there is still a wide gap in the American understanding of the Arab world and of Arab Christians in particular.

I’ve got a dog in this fight, as the American idiom goes. After all, my ancestors are from Mosul, and are a mixture of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians dating back to who knows when.

The Arab-Christian immigrants in America are a motley crew of Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Egyptians. And as a product of that Arab-Christian immigrant sub-culture and in light of the Sen. Ted Cruz fiasco of last week I thought it was time for a fairly Americanized Arab Christian to point out an issue previously overlooked. (And when I say Americanized, I mean all the way. I am for our country supporting Israel and I happen to care a great deal for the well-being of the Jewish people, here and abroad. As a Catholic I am called to love my neighbor, this means all of them—no matter their ethnicity or economic status.)

I’ve looked on at the destruction of the city of my ancestors—Mosul—now razed, sitting in sack-cloth and ashes weeping and mourning. I’ve asked why my president didn’t raise a finger to help my brethren in Iraq until a small tribe of a Muslim sect was also targeted. I’ve wondered when the hearts of Arab Christians would soften to Israel and turn and ask them for help.

Arab-Christian Immigrants Love America

After all, when an average American on the streets is asked about the Middle East all they can tell you is, “Hummus, shawerma, and baklava are tasty, but man those people are all crazy terrorists.” If this administration’s desire is truthfully for global co-operation, multiculturalism, and understanding people who are different from us, then it may behoove our president (and Cruz, for that matter) to set an example by getting to know real Arab Christians. What is their distinct culture? Who are they as a people? Although many Arab countries have a population of Christians, the Arab Christians as a whole feel united amongst themselves—not only because they are a minority, but because they perceive themselves as caught between radical Islam on one side and Israel on the other.

It may behoove our president (and Sen. Cruz, for that matter) to set an example by getting to know real Arab Christians.

With the possible exception of Dearborn, Michigan, where they are part of a functional majority, most Arab Christians try to fit in to this country as a quiet immigrant minority culture, seeking better education and economic opportunities for financial flourishing. In other words, we came for education and jobs. The overwhelming majority of us come through legal channels. We study, work hard, pay taxes, and raise families. We love this country. The majority of us don’t try to grasp for special privileges from the government. We’re not known for taking to the streets as yet another special-interest group seeking special privileges. We assimilate as best we can, but keep the distinctions of our Arab-Christian culture as we gather, make friends, and socialize, building small communities. In spite of our maintaining local Arab communities we are embedded and involved to the best of our abilities as quiet citizens of this exceptional country, which was kind enough to take us in, saving us from war, destruction, and famine. In some ways, America, with its “golden roads”—as the phrase I heard so many times as a child goes— was our savior.

This is precisely why Arab Christian immigrants feel a peculiar sting and a sense of betrayal when America discounts their contributions and overlooks their calamities by ignoring the needs of Arab Christians in the Middle East. President Obama was quickly moved to action when the Yazidis were being killed, but for weeks prior to essentially ignored that Christians endured violent persecution and Mosul, which used to be a Christian city, was for all intents and purposes sacked and looted.

The Open Wound Cruz Hit

Cruz hit a nerve when speaking to Arab Christians. The point here is not to apologize for Cruz’ awkward and floundering remarks, but to bring out into the open the dilemma and possibly even hidden prejudices that have been a stumbling block to Arab Christians in that part of the world. There is an undercurrent of animosity and hostility between Arab Christians and Israel. But that’s still not the complete picture. Arab Christians here and abroad feel caught between Muslim interests on one side and Israeli interests on the other. And the only voice who has come to defend these beleaguered people, really the only voice who seems to recognize these people, is the Church.

Voices can only go so far in an arena so acculturated to strongman politics.

Voices can only go so far in an arena so acculturated to strongman politics. No one is coming to their aid. For years, Arab Christians have suffered in many ways and throughout that entire region, as Muslims and Jews have been the power players on the regional stage. It should be no surprise if some people are bitter. After years of their cries being drowned out and their plight passed over, is it any wonder they resent the conversation opening in this country with a seemingly reflexive defense of both Israel and Muslims?

Given their life experiences, this is probably what Cruz’s audience felt when they voiced their confusion and pain through boos. I want to give Cruz the benefit of the doubt. I believe him when he says he cares about Arab Christians and wants to stand by them. But he chose the wrong time to address a deep wound in their souls. That was not the time nor the place to address this thorn. It was the time to sympathize, unite, show compassion, maybe even throw out some practical, if small, ideas that could bring short-term relief. He could have even gone to bat for them against this insensitive, politically correct, and morally lax administration. But it was no time for pulling the bandage off such a deep and old wound. Bringing fruitfulness to the Arab-Christian relationship with Israel will need many long private talks and a gentle coaxing. And it was certainly no time for grand-standing.

For lasting, long-term progress in the Middle East, there has to be real healing—soul healing. Only the Church can lead the way in that arena. No form of government, no matter how healthy its citizenry is, can truly heal wounded souls and age-old scars. Isn’t that, after all, one of the big differences between us conservatives and progressive liberals—we know who our Savior is, and it’s not the government.

And so what is a persecuted minority group to do? Disregarded and ignored here, persecuted and killed there. And although I was not at the In Defense of Christians conference, I know they are working hard to bring awareness to the West, especially here in America, of the existential crisis the Middle East Christian communities are in. America, in its archetypal form, claims to stand for the downtrodden, the poor, the abused, the forgotten, the hungry, the naked, and those in peril. If that is the case, then our leaders need to listen to the voices of a community that is always getting overlooked and passed over. This community has no power to negotiate or threaten, no money to buy arms, and no land to cultivate and build. The Arab-Christian community, powerless, poor, and now homeless, like an attention-starved middle child, needs real help. Today. Now.