The Immigrant Mind: The Deadly Side of Middle East Christian Sectarianism

Luma Simms | August 8, 2017

My mother is Chaldean Catholic; my father is Syrian (some say it “Syriac”) Orthodox. They’ve always had an ecumenical marriage. When we lived in Greece as refugees, my dad met American evangelical missionaries who told him that his and my mom’s faiths were only “traditions” – that they were not really Christian. In order to be a real Christian, they said, he and my mom had to be “born again.”

That was my parents’ first exposure to that particular type of American evangelical dogma – the kind that views the ancient Christian churches as mere cultural forms bereft of zeal for the Lord Jesus Christ. This is only one manifestation of the ignorance of Western Christians about their brethren in the East; until the genocide of Iraqi Christians made some news in recent years, many didn’t even know there were any Christians in the Middle East. They thought it was a land of Muslims only. Some of the Middle Eastern sectarian fighting, in part, happens as different sects try to educate the West about the context and the landscape of Christianity in the Middle East. I don’t think it’s going well.

Because at that time of their lives – as refugees in an intermediate state – my parents were vulnerable, they took those statements from the American evangelicals to heart. After our arrival to America, my parents took us to a few evangelical churches, especially since we lived far away from the few Iraqi churches in Los Angeles. That is when I was first introduced to the evangelical milieu, including this thing called “Sunday School,” which took children away from their parents during the worship of God.

But it didn’t take long before my mom said to my dad, “This is more like a Bible study. There’s no liturgy. It’s not like a church.” My dad had mixed feelings; there were parts of this evangelical thing that he appreciated, but he admitted that my mom was right in the sense that in that setting, the immanent overshadowed the transcendent.

And so my parents returned to their baptismal faiths. One week we would go to the Chaldean Catholic church and the next week we would attend a Syrian Orthodox church. To this day, some in the Iraqi Christian subculture oscillate between different churches, especially if the husband and wife are from different sects. That’s how I spent my years from the age of 9 until 19. At 19, I decided to rebel by going to a nondenominational Evangelical (and very anti-Catholic) church. The story of my ecclesiastical wanderings is long, but eventually I returned to Catholic Christianity.

In A Statement About Our Work With Middle Eastern Christians, Robert Nicholson, The Philos Project executive director, outlined 10 points on the principles that guide our work here. The fact that he had to write such a piece in the first place does not surprise me, and as I read it, I couldn’t help but think about the hard, ingrained sectarianism in the Middle Eastern Christian subculture.

First, a blunt word: If you don’t stop cannibalizing each other, you will all die. I don’t mean only physical death, although we have certainly seen that. I mean the death of Christianity in the Middle East, and especially in Iraq.

Christianity belongs in the Middle East – everywhere and anywhere; but the bickering, infighting, and grudge-keeping will ensure that it will eventually be nowhere. A house divided will not stand, and neither will the Middle Eastern Christian community if it doesn’t come together.

Some accuse certain sects of Nestorianism. It’s true that strains of the heresies of the early centuries – Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism – still exist in the Middle East. Many years ago, I overheard one priest tell my mother that Jesus wasn’t completely human, in the sense that he didn’t have certain bodily functions – as in he never had to go to the bathroom. I can’t seem to remember which sect the priest was from. My concern at the moment is not the theological doctrine of the non-Chalcedonian churches; the Middle Eastern Christians will eventually have to deal with the East-West Schism and the historical theological differences. But now, in this era of ISIS and a resurgent Islamism, is not the time. This is the time to think of survival – because all Middle Eastern Christians deserve to live!

Middle Eastern Christians have been under the rule of Islam for so long that they have developed unhealthy thinking patterns, sometimes out of either religious inactivity or corporeal self-preservation, but sometimes these patterns have been thrust upon them as tools of their oppressors.

First, favoritism is used by authoritarian governments to divide the Christian community and keep them subdued. If the different sects continue to quarrel with each other they won’t unite to stand against oppressive rule.

Second, a victimhood mentality sets in.

Third, this victimhood becomes a competitive victimhood, where certain groups (in our case different Christian sects) will compete for recognition and help, often for material help in the case of Christians in the Middle East who have been uprooted.

The first step on the road to better cooperation and survival is for everyone to acknowledge that all Middle Eastern Christians have been victims – all of you have been hurt, tremendously. You have all suffered much, and you all need help. But you are not as helpless as you think, and you don’t need to wait for American organizations – whether it’s Philos or any other group – to begin rebuilding.

Do not get trapped into thinking that relief funds is what you need. Relief is temporary to make sure you don’t die, but no community can be built on or flourish through relief help. Your greatest strength, after our Lord himself, is each other – it is the community working together to rebuild your churches, homes, and towns. This strength will be necessary as you regroup and learn to thrive again.

And lastly, remember the words of the person you profess, the Lord Jesus, who said that his disciples will be known by the love they have for one another.