A Muted Hallelujah for the New York Times Magazine

By running a 5,000-plus word piece about the murder and enslavement of Christians by ISIS, the New York Times Magazine has given bien pensants in the United States permission to think seriously about the human rights catastrophe of our time. It might even encourage them to do something.

The piece, “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” written by Eliza Griswold, which appeared online on July 22, 2015, documents horrific acts perpetrated by ISIS and describes some of the policy decisions facing U.S. officials in the years ahead.

To her everlasting credit, Griswold has given Christians who have suffered under the lash of ISIS in Iraq a chance to tell their stories to a Western audience. Readers are given a glimpse of a man speaking to his family by cell phone for the last time before he was escorted to parts unknown, probably to be murdered. “Let me talk to everybody,” he said. “I don’t think they are letting me go.” No one can be unmoved by this and other stories that Griswold has uncovered.

Griswold’s first-hand reporting puts the issue of anti-Christian violence on the agenda in an undeniable way, but there are problems with her story that undermine its value as a source of information for policy makers in the U.S.

Griswold falsely reports that the population of Christians in Israel has declined -- like Christian populations in Egypt, “Palestine,” and Jordan -- between 1910 and 2010 when in fact the indigenous Christian population in Israel has increased substantially since the middle of the 20 th century. In 1950 there were about 34,000 Christians in Israel. Today there are more than 130,000 native-born Christians in Israel, most of them Arabs. Israel should not be lumped in with other countries in the Middle East that are suffering significant declines in their Christian populations.

Griswold also promotes the notion that violence against non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East is a problem rooted mostly in recent events, and that historically Christians and Muslims got along fine with each other, and that while Christians were forced to pay a special tax, called the jizya, they were oftentimes allowed to do things that Muslims weren’t -- such as drink alcohol and eat pork. “Muslim rulers tended to be more tolerant of minorities than their Christian counterparts,” Griswold writes, “and for 1,500 years, different religions thrived side by side.”

This is a distortion of the historical record. Under Sharia, Christians were denied the right to fully practice their religion and were designated as “dhimmis.” The word “ dhimmi” is derived from dhimma, an Arabic word for what has been characterized as a “treaty of protection” historically offered to non-Muslims whose countries have been conquered by Muslim rulers.

This treaty or pact accorded non-Muslims limited protection from violence, but only if they acknowledged Muslims as their social superiors and showed proper deference toward Islam and its adherents. In some instances, dhimmis were required to wear stars denoting that they were not Muslims and were not allowed to build or repair churches that had fallen into disarray. Moreover, they weren't permitted to sing too loudly in their churches nor summon the faithful to worship by ringing church bells.

If non-Muslims agitate for freedom and equality, they lose the protection afforded by the dhimma pact and arouse great hostility on the part of their Muslim neighbors and governments. They were regarded as eternal and natural inferiors by their Muslim neighbors and as a result were low-cost, no-cost targets of hostility and violence.

Historically, this hostility manifested itself in great acts of violence against Christians during the collapsing Ottoman Empire where huge numbers of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians were murdered in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These massacres took place after these groups advocated for their freedom and equality in the 1870s.

To further obscure historical realities, Griswold mischaracterizes the Armenian Genocide. She described this genocide -- which resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million Armenian Christians and thousands of Assyrian and Greek Christians between 1915 and 1922 -- as being “ waged by the Young Turks in the name of nationalism, not religion.”

The Young Turks' notion of what they wanted the modern state of Turkey to look like was informed by Muslim theology and jurisprudence regarding Christians. The Young Turks were brought up to view Christians as inferior to Muslims, and this played a role in justifying their destruction. Moreover, the techniques used to perpetrate the genocide were taken out of the jihadist playbook that ISIS is using today – beheadings, forcible conversions and the sale of women into sexual slavery. The people who did the killing were not intent on creating a Kemalist state, but were seeking to reestablish Muslim dominance over Christians in the Anatolian Peninsula. The Armenian Genocide and the murder of huge numbers of Greeks and Assyrians had a lot to do with religion. A lot.

The notion that Christianity thrived alongside Islam in the Middle East for the past 1,500 years is simply untenable to anyone who is familiar with the sources. Christians were terribly and regularly mistreated.

Griswold gets it wrong when she tries to address why the plight of Christians in the Middle East has not gotten the attention it deserves.

Griswold wants it both ways. On one hand, she claims that support for Christians in the Middle East is a purview of Evangelicals whose leaders have used the issue to whip up their base, somehow preventing the Obama administration from getting involved in the issue. On the other hand, she claims that pro-Israel evangelicals don’t support Eastern Christians because they, the Eastern Christians, tend to side with the Palestinians. She writes that “because support of Israel is central to the Christian Right -- Israel must be occupied by the Jews before Jesus can return -- this stance distances Eastern Christians from a powerful lobby that might otherwise champion their cause.”

Which is it? Have evangelicals come to the defense of Eastern Christians to such an extent that the Obama administration will not touch the issue, or have evangelicals abandoned Eastern Christians because of their alleged anti-Zionist proclivities?

The fact is evangelical Protestants have been at the forefront of the campaign to draw attention to the mistreatment of Christians in Muslim-majority environments. They are the primary supporters of groups such as the Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors and Samaritan’s Purse, all of which have drawn attention to the mistreatment of Eastern Christians while mainline church and secular human rights organizations remained silent.

My employer -- the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) -- organized two conferences about the plight of Christians in the Middle East. The first took place outside of Chicago in 2011 and the other took place outside of Boston in 2012. The vast majority of attendees at both of these conferences were evangelical Protestants who had come to hear Orthodox and Catholic Christians speak to them about the plight of their co-religionists in the Middle East.

At one of the conferences, an evangelical attendee asked, legitimately, “Where are the Catholics?” About the best I could do was to invoke the presence of Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, and myself. We were some of the only Catholics in the room.

Evangelical Christians have led the fight to protect Christians suffering under Muslim persecution and have been for years. More rigorous reporting on Griswold’s part would have revealed that fact.

 

Dexter Van Zile is Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).