MONTREAL — The Western world has long gotten used to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, as if their bad lot is inevitable and has to simply be accepted. As if Christianity is destined to die or have no more than a residual existence in what used to be its cradle.
Christians have been rooted in the region for 2,000 years. And yet Islamists present them as invaders or foreign agents soiling a land that should be exclusively dedicated to Islam. And in our societies, people who express concern over the fate of those Christians are suspected of cozying up to the far-right, which has managed, apparently, to appropriate this cause and make it an ideological marker. Those same critics accuse anyone who feels passionate about the cause of Christians in the Middle East of actually concealing a shameful islamophobia or an identitarian view of Christianity. Justifiable outrage over what, in reality, is a steady massacre gets dismissed as reactionary whim.
But as the savage attacks against two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday reminds us, the war of extermination being waged against Christians in the Middle East is very real indeed. We know the result: at least 43 dead — a massacre. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack, the organization having made no secret of its goal to eradicate Christianity from the region, either by murdering Christians or by expelling them massively. For ISIS, it's about making Christians understand that this land is no longer their home.
For a long time, we've been saying that Christians in the Middle East needed a protector. This has never been truer. But who is willing to play that role? France was, for many years. Over the past few years, Putin's Russia has claimed that role, as if it was being called to take over as Europe renounces its Christian origins. Now, Middle Eastern Christians feel abandoned, especially when they refuse to leave a region of the world in which they put down their roots.
We need to have a comprehensive view of this gruesome undertaking. Because it doesn't just impact Christians. Think about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, blown up in March 2001; the destructive fury inside Mosul's museum in 2015; or in Palmyra the same year. For Islamists, it's about erasing all traces of what is foreign to Islam, as if the religion's reign can't endure the mere reminder that in these locations and in times gone by, men worshipped other gods, kept a different faith. How can we not see that this is a frightening form of nihilism, an annihilating enjoyment, a destructive exhilaration?
The most radical Islamism doesn't just want to make men disappear; it wants to erase the memory of men. The war against remembrance is the uninhibited expression of savagery. The old stones aren't just old stones: They are evidence of a human desire to immortalize oneself, from one time to another. They represent the trace of lost worlds that we refuse to sacrifice altogether to oblivion.
But in the case of Christians, it's also about getting rid of a people, as if their submission is no longer enough. We know that in less than a century, the demographic weight of Middle Eastern Christians has dropped in an unprecedented fashion. They'll soon be limited to a residual presence and will be condemned to keep a low profile.
Inside the ancient cathedral St. Mark in Alexandria, Egypt — Photo: Asmaa Abdelatif/Xinhua/ZUMA
Despite the official indifference of Westerners, the fate of Middle Eastern Christians affects the most intimate corners of what we could call our consciousness of civilization, and those who, one way or another, are getting into action for them call to mind the highest ethical demands of civic commitment. The Middle East's Christians are the witnesses of the origin of a religion, the memory of which they keep through a liturgy that's as diverse as it is splendid. To put it differently, they are the keepers of the living origins of a religion that went on to transform Europe's historical being. And you don't need to be a believer to acknowledge this.
I hope I'm not abusing this conventional term, but shouldn't the issue of Middle Eastern Christians wake up European civilization to its core identity? Shouldn't we in Europe and the West be telling ourselves that these attacks are also aimed at us? At the very least, European civilization should foster a special relationship with Christians in the Middle East. It should feel a form of existential closeness towards them, knowing that part of its own origins comes from there.
The spiritual momentum that once infused Europe and gave it its specific genius comes from a world that's pretty much sunken and of which Middle Eastern Christians are the last guardians. This implies, however, that Europe must finally acknowledge its Christian core, or to be more precise, that it stop trying to erase that legacy as if it were an existential stain keeping it from fully embracing the universal. Europe needs to stop, in other words, imagining that it can only build itself through deconstruction.
The double attack of April 9 probably won't awaken minds: We've become numb to the most extreme savagery and violence. But this shouldn't stop us from calling things as they are: What we are witnessing is no less than an attempt to exterminate a people and, in a certain way, a civilization. And yet, because we decided a long time ago that Christianity was the religion of the dominating West and that it can't be anything other than a persecutor never persecuted, we can't imagine it as a victim.
Our ideologically-tainted glasses distort our relationship to the world: We're refusing to hear the pain of communities we're sentencing to death, to the most humiliating submission, to exile. Nobody claims to have the perfect political solution to defend Middle Eastern Christians. When it comes to politics, there is no such thing as a magic wand. But European civilization should know that in its relationship with Christians in the Middle East and its reaction to their persecution, what's also at stake is its own soul.
*This article was originally written in French for Le Figaro by our Worldcrunch iQ expert contributor Mathieu Bock-Côté, a lecturer at HEC Montréal with a PhD in Sociology. It was translated by iQ language contributor Marc Alves.
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