| The Storm on the Sea of Galilee |
Rembrandt's only seascape 1633, stolen from Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston, Massachusetts in 1990
Monday August 26, 2013
There are many reasons for this lack of attention to the situation of Arab Christians, with one principal factor being ignorance. Most Americans have so little knowledge of the Arab World, its history and people that they are unaware that these Christian communities even exist. This must be remedied, since without an understanding of the role played by Christians in the Arab societies of the Middle East, there can be no reasoned discussion about the past, present, and future of this region.
One striking example of this ignorance comes to mind. I once hosted a press breakfast in Washington for a visiting Palestinian priest from the Galilee. Since I had invited only reporters who covered religion issues, I hoped for an informed and thoughtful exchange.
A set of initial questions from the AP's religion reporter established, early on, that the conversation would not be as productive as I had assumed. His questions made it all too clear that he was simply unaware of the existence of a Palestinian Christian community. He began by asking, "You say that you are an Arab Christian. But how can that be - aren't they two different groups?". He followed up by asking "When exactly did you and your family convert to Christianity?".
The clergyman from the Galilee, without missing a beat or cracking a smile, replied quite simply "My relatives converted about 2000 years ago." He went on to describe the continuous Christian presence in the Holy Land since the time of Jesus, the role they have played in the region's history, and their shared struggle with their Palestinian Muslim brethren.
I have found that not only reporters were ignorant or dismissive about Christians in the Arab World. About two decades back, a high ranking State Department official told me that he was off to Syria and high on his agenda was his intention to challenge "Assad's and the Ba'ath's persecution of Christians". I cautioned him to drop that issue from his "to-do list" informing him that, in fact, Christians had been among the founders of the Ba'ath party and, for better or worse, saw the Assad regime as supportive of their rights—a history that had to be known if one was to understand Syria's political culture and society.
Just a few years ago, I had another disturbing conversation about Syria's Christians with a senior official—this time from the White House. We were in agreement about the brutality of the Assad regime and the need for fundamental change in Syria. But when I raised concern about the vulnerability of Syria's Christians, his dismissive response was "Maybe it's time for them to just pack their bags and leave". He said this without any sense of concern for this community or for what Syria's future might be like were it to lose its Christian population.
Even when their presence is known, the Christian's plight is ignored in our political discourse and press commentary either because acknowledging their situation might muddy up a simplistic story-line or conflict with what has been identified as a larger policy objective.
And so, for example, the West has been silent about the precipitous decline in the Christian population of the Palestinian West Bank and Jerusalem out of deference to Israeli sensitivities. Pro-Israel right-wing Christian groups from the US frequently make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to show their support for Israel, while completely ignoring the existence of an indigenous community of Christians and the hardships they are forced to endure with the rest of their Palestinian brethren living under occupation. "They come", a Palestinian cleric told me, "to look at the places where Jesus walked and don't even see that we are here. We are invisible to them"...READ MORE
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