A community is a group of individuals who put aside differences in the interests of mutual protection and benefit. Working together, members of a community endure hardships and adapt to new conditions. But like a tree besieged by waves of gypsy moths or a coral reef beset by ever-warmer seas, a community hit by too many setbacks can fade. The world is littered with the relics of once-thriving communities: the jungle-choked Mayan cities of Central America, the ghost towns of the American West, the abandoned villages around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex.
The Christian communities of the Middle East – especially of Iraq and Syria – are fading. Long ago eclipsed by Islam, Christianity in the Middle East is practiced by a dwindling minority. Where they are not directly oppressed, Christians in the region face social pressure and discrimination.
Recent years of war and unrest have pushed Christians in the Middle East to the brink. In particular, the brutal reign of the Islamic State group has battered the once-substantial Assyrian Christian communities of Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, as Kristen Chick details in a Monitor cover story (click here). Many Christians who either fled the IS onslaught or suffered through its tyranny are now reluctant to rebuild, fearing future intolerance.
Their fears are not unfounded. While IS’s days are numbered, Islamist movements are unlikely to disappear. Radical Islam’s foot soldiers are young, disaffected men who believe they have little opportunity in the greater world community. They are bankrolled by rich patrons in fundamentalist countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even in relatively moderate Muslim countries, official preference is given to Islam, with economic penalties and restrictions on worship directed at Christians and other non-Muslims. If you are a beleaguered Christian in Qaraqosh or elsewhere in the Middle East, you see the writing on the wall. Some say they will stay. Many are emigrating.
The Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, and the smaller Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities salted throughout the Middle East – along with Jews, Yazidis, Bahais, Hindus, Buddhists, and other non-Muslim groups – have endured much over the centuries. They won’t disappear completely. They have friends and protectors among their Muslim neighbors. But as these minority communities fade, the Middle East becomes culturally poorer. Forced conformity not only robs the region of diversity and possibility, it robs the dominant religion of its legitimacy by casting its success as the product not of reason or example but of coercion.
The theologian Paul Tillich argued in his book “Theology of Culture” that religion is at the center of every culture and that culture is the expression of religion. (That’s true even for societies that no longer see themselves as overtly religious.) A religion that seeks to be exclusive and monolithic begets an inbred, fearful culture. Religions that are inclusive and diverse – as Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and every other religion have been and can be – build cultures that are self-assured and adaptable.
Humanity is a community of communities. It thrives on tolerance.