A major part of The Philos Project’s mission is defending the rights of minority communities in the Middle East. As Christians, we work especially hard to advocate for our brothers and sisters who continue to struggle in the region. However, our efforts to help Middle Eastern Christians are often hampered by internal arguments over names, rights, rituals, and political positions between the different Christian communities. These arguments are unfortunate and counterproductive, but they are not our arguments.
The tension is especially strong between some members of the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac communities. At times it seems like particular community leaders are more interested in attacking each other than in confronting the myriad of problems that face them in the region.
I have taken criticism from all of these communities (in addition to others), but have always taken it in stride. Working in the Middle East is not for the faint of heart – I know that. But there is a point where criticism rises to a level that necessitates response – and that point is now.
I write these 10 points to clarify, once and for all, the principles and priorities that guide Philos in our work with Middle Eastern Christians:
1. We affirm the right of all Christians of the Middle East to live and flourish as indigenous people of the land. Some Christians want to leave, and that is understandable. We support them. Others want to stay, and we defend their right to do so.
2. We care about all Christian communities equally: Coptic Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant; Greek and Arab (Rum) Orthodox; Latin Catholic; Greek (Melkite) Catholic; Syriac Orthodox and Catholic; Assyrian; Chaldean; Maronite; Aramean; Armenian; and Protestants from various ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately we cannot advocate for every community equally at the same time. Our support for one community at any given moment cannot be construed as an insult to another.
3. All Middle Eastern Christians on the Philos staff, including our fellows, have committed to affirming the existence and rights of other Christian communities without exception.
4. We recognize that different communities have been historically associated with different countries and regions within the Middle East, and that many have migrated between countries over the past centuries. We reject any one community’s “ownership” of a particular country or space.
5. We believe that in an ideal world Christians should be able to live in any part of any country. Given the reality of marginalization and persecution, however, we believe that Christians and other minority communities deserve, where possible, unique protection in those geographic areas that they consider uniquely and ancestrally theirs.
6. We hope that Christians in the region will respect each other’s communal identities without feeling the need to disparage, criticize, or undermine the communal rights or claims of others. Each community is different, and each contains internal disagreements over identity, language, and politics. Respect, respect, respect – this must be the slogan of Christian revival in the region.
7. We reject any individual or organization that seeks to demonize others. Our goal is to find commonalities between communities and other ethnic and religious groups in the region. Strength lies in unity – not a unity of sameness but a unity of difference. This is the Philos approach.
8. With respect to internal controversies between Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs, we take no position on the merits. Some members of these communities say they are all one people; others say the opposite, affirming very distinct cultural identities. Philos has no opinion on the matter. Occasionally one of our writers or speakers will use only one cultural label; other times they may use all three. Occasional inconsistency in the use of names – something members of the communities themselves still deal with – cannot be construed to reflect some overarching policy of The Philos Project to favor one group over the other. In every public forum we call on all governments to recognize the unqualified right of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs to live and prosper in their ancestral lands.
9. In all of our work, we seek to build strategic alliances around common values and interests. We certainly believe that this is the only way to ensure long-term survival of Middle Eastern Christians. Continued infighting will only enable their enemies to ensure the eradication of our faith from the region. We call on our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters to focus on alliance-building rather than infighting.
10. No one can accuse us in good faith of prejudice against any one group. We have worked to help secure recognition of the Armenian genocide; push for political and cultural autonomy for Christians and Yazidis in Northern Iraq; raise awareness of the plight of Copts in Egypt; raise money for Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac victims of the Islamic State; fund Aramaic instructional videos created by a Syriac Orthodox group; host an international conference to help revive the Syriac language and culture of Maronites in Lebanon and the diaspora; raise money for Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem; restore and rebuild a Maronite village in Galilee along with an Aramaic cultural center to educate Western Christians about the Aramean heritage of Israel; deliver aid to Christian refugees in both Iraq and Jordan without asking denominational or political opinions; publish and speak and advocate often for Christian cultural and political rights around the region; host events and conference calls focused on the pressing issues of the day; lead trips to the region to expose Western leaders to the situation on the ground; establish roundtables and task forces to help stem the Christian exodus from the Middle East; petition governments and sub-governmental entities (including two U.S. presidential campaigns) to make Christian rights a top priority; and provide trips and leadership training to Middle East Christians of various backgrounds.
Our job is not to adjudicate old feuds and political disagreements. Our job is to educate the Western church about the ancient legacy and modern needs of the Eastern church in order to generate benefits for both sides.
We hope our Middle Eastern Christian brothers will understand the spirit of our work and accept our outstretched hand in friendship.