Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch on the Persecution of Middle Eastern Christians

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch is Fellow of St. Cross College and Professor of the History of the Church, Oxford University. A few years ago, he wrote an excellent book, and made an equally good TV series, entitled A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

As the Elder of Ziyon notes, the Prof has a somewhat confused article in The Daily Beast which blames Israel and American Christians for indifference to the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Here it is in a nutshell:

Now American Evangelicals made common cause with the Jewish community in the United States, and they seemed to care little if at all for the opinions or the sufferings of their fellow-Christians in the ancient Churches of the Middle East. Israeli politicians have not been slow to exploit this political windfall, caring little for the fact that Evangelical apocalypticism expected the conversion of the Jews to Christianity.

This, incidentally, is essentially what MacCulloch says in his History of Christianity, too.

It is a familiar argument: but it is wrong. That is not to say that there are not “dispensationalists” who do maintain a baroque End Times theology along these lines – of course, there are. However, support for Israel in the United States has a broad base in the United States, and cannot be attributed to dispensationalism, whose theology in any case is pretty diverse and eccentric, and whose adherents certainly do not all share the same views.

Moreover, liberal Zionists have been at the forefront of those attempting to draw international attention to the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. Here’s an article by Ben Cohen in Haaretz, for example.

According to MacCulloch, it isn’t only Christians in the US who are to blame. As you might expect, the fault is also said to be Israel’s:

In the autumn of 2008, I was in Syria shooting a BBC TV series A History of Christianity. It’s painful to look back on that happy time, to think of the warm reception we had and wonder what has happened to all those people now. One moment I remember especially: my interview with His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, at his Church’s fine new seminary buildings in the hills outside Damascus. Before he would say anything else, the venerable Patriarch fixed me with a stern stare and told me to tell all Western Christians of the desperate plight which now faced the Christians of the Middle East. And that was when Syria was still one of the few countries in the Middle East where Christian Churches were strong and respected communities, taking their full part in national life. Elsewhere, things were desperate; and now they are in Syria too: Christians are scapegoated for their faith by an extremist militant minority of Muslims, who betray their own religion by intolerance, and who make other Muslims ashamed of what is happening.

I did my best to honour the Patriarch’s message, and since then, I have written a great deal about silence in Christianity—good silences and also the bad ones, which dishonour Christian faith. It was difficult to fit them all into my book, SilenceA Christian History; and one of the silences which I find most frustrating is precisely the lack of noise from Western Christians about the fate of ancient Christianities in the Middle East. At the heart of the problems in the Middle East is seven decades of unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine

No, this is not the heart of the problem. It is instructive, however, that Professor MacCulloch thinks that it is.

Here’s the irony. The “unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine” has essentially nothing to do with the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians. In fact, if anything, it has been one of the few factors uniting most people in the Middle East, and has been used for decades for that purpose by tyrants and political movements in that region.

Rather, Christians are the victims of the far greater and deeper tensions in the Middle East. The Sunni-Shia split, the conflict between the Arab world and Iran, and the conflict between Arab Nationalists and Islamists have left Christians particularly exposed. In Egypt, persecution of Coptic Christians peaked, following the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, and were again targeted by Islamists when the Muslim Brotherhood fell. In Syria, Christians are attacked – primarily by Sunni Muslim militias, backed by anti-Iranian Arab states – because they are seen as allies of the murderous Assad. All over the Middle East, Christians who had previously been safe in their identity as Arabs, playing prominent roles in Arab nationalist and Baathist politics, found that they were regarded as second class citizens by Islamist political movements, which put religion before ethnic identity.

There’s no discussion of this in by MacCulloch. And that, in itself, is interesting.

MacCulloch is an ex-Christian. He is an ordained Deacon and, I believe, the son of a vicar. Like Richard Dawkins, he is a cultural Anglican, who loves the history and liturgy of the Church, but doesn’t think it is true.

Christianity puts the doings of Jews, centre stage. Drawing on both the Old and New Testaments, it invests their actions with cosmic significance. So Professor MacCulloch is certainly not wrong to examine the fraught perspectives of various iterations of Christianity when it comes to Jews. But he should also consider whether his own conclusions on the subject of the causes of Christian emiseration are not themselves an equally distorted expression of that super-focus: stripped of its theological context, but maintaining an essentially similar form.

Everybody should be concerned with the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. However, to use it as a stick to beat American Christians and Israeli Jews, while completely ignoring the huge and far more significant shifts in religious and nationalist politics in the Middle East will help them not one jot.

Aloevera adds:

Having read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book on the History of Christianity–an erudite and learned book displaying a breadth of scholarship not often seen these days–as well as being a fascinating read–I am astonished that someone who I credited with such sophisticated scholarly capabilities could proffer such an over-simplified argument as he does for the silence of Westerners–especially Christians–on the plight of Middle Eastern Christendom–leaving out all sorts of factors in his considerations.

Even if it were true that certain American Christian fundamentalists who support Israel for their own religious reasons refrain from giving voice to the plight of Middle Eastern Christians (and I don’t really follow the logic behind why support for Israel would result in silence about Christians in the Middle East on the part of these fundamentalists)–these American fundamentalists are not the only Christians in the West. There are numerous others–including the so-called “peace churches” in the United States, the Quakers, the Anglican Church, the Lutherans–all, in various ways, not particular friends of Israel–along with many other churches of whatever attitude towards Israel–and yet–they, too, are largely silent about Middle Eastern Christians–certainly much more silent than many of them are regarding other political Causes in the Middle East, which they do support–so they are hardly lazy about certain concerns in the Middle East. How to explain this silence about the Christians there and the selectivity of concerns? And how to explain the silence on this matter by other people in the West, Christians or not, who support all manner of Causes when it suits them? Perhaps, at least in part, the answer to all this has something to do with ideological orientations on the part of some of these others in the West, which make it uncongenial for them to place any blame for the problems of Middle Eastern Christians on Muslims, because their ideologies require a simplistic black and white world in which only some parties fit into the black slot and others–Muslims–must fit into the white spot.

Even if I am wrong in my assumption noted above about ideological orientations, surely the silence of *all* the Christians and the otherwise concerned Westerners, deserves the attention of Diarmaid MacCulloch as well as the presumed orientations of American fundamentalists only. He should be able to manage a bit of complexity–after all, he wrote a massive tome connecting all sorts of factors together–surely he could consider more than one factor as the cause for another very complex situation in the Middle East today.