Survival of Middle East Christianity: Remarks at In Defense of Christians

Robert Nicholson | October 26, 2017

On October 25, Executive Director Robert Nicholson delivered the following remarks at the annual summit, In Defense of Christians, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, everybody for coming today. Good afternoon to our distinguished clergy members and members of the press, welcome. I want to talk a little bit about why I, as president of the Philos Project, am supporting this conference. And to do that, I want to talk a little about IDC.

The purpose of this conference is to defend the Christians of the Middle East, but it’s more than that: it’s also strengthening them. We’re honored to support the conference and the mission of IDC because it aligns directly with our mission at the Philos Project, which is to promote positive Christian engagement—particularly western Christian engagement—in the Middle East.

There was a time, and it wasn’t really all that long ago relatively speaking, when the Middle East was actually mostly Christian – as hard as that is to picture. That time is no more. Today, the Maronite, Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, Coptic, Armenian, and other Christian communities have become a super minority in their own homeland – caught between rising religious violence, expansionist regimes, and sectarian warfare.

I met Christians in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon who have been traumatized by recent events; and I’ve heard many awful stories. I heard many of them say something like, “the Middle East doesn’t want us anymore, we don’t have a future here.” While I understand that sentiment and I can’t imagine the events that led to them saying that, I’m not so pessimistic.

Christians belong in the Middle East as indigenous minorities who predated Jesus Christ, as faithful carriers of that revelation that began at Sinai: that revelation that changed history, that gave birth to the Abrahamic traditions, and that first brought ideas about freedom and equality, and pluralism into the world.

I—and I think everyone present here—think that Christians do have a future in the Middle East – that we collectively have a duty to work toward that future. And that together we can move toward an era where Christian communities don’t just recoup their losses, which is sometimes the way we talk about this, but where they can actually begin to grow.

That may sound overly optimistic, but I would suggest that there is tangible evidence that such things are possible. Three years ago when ISIS overran Iraq, I and a handful of other people walked around Washington D.C talking about the need to prepare for the day when ISIS would be defeated, when Christian areas would be liberated, and when Christians would be able to return to their homes. We talked about what governance and security would look like, what U.S. government policies were needed to move toward that governance, and how we (as leaders in civil society) could help.

People all over this town said I was crazy. That I was delusional. That me and this small group of people were being idealistic. And that, in reality, Christianity in Iraq was over. The best solution was to airlift them to the west, and maybe they’ll find a comfortable life in Chicago. Even last year when I stood here at the IDC press conference and delivered a similar message, I came down from the stage to find people—some of them quite prominent—tell me that I was essentially off my rocker. I want to put Christians in even more danger? Christians returning to their homes in Iraq? Impossible. It’s over.

Of course, that was then, and this is now. Within the last months and weeks, we’ve seen ISIS largely defeated and the Iraqi army take huge portions in Northern Iraq back from ISIS and from Kurdish soldiers who are occupying areas of indigenous minorities like the Christians. And the Christian towns in Iraq—at least most of them—are now free.
Now everyone is scrambling to figure out what comes next. We could have had three years of planning for this under our belt by now, but instead, we fell victim to this defeatist and fatalistic mentality. We must break out of that mentality for good.

This isn’t to say that Christians in the Middle East are now living in calm and tranquility. Even today as I stand here right now, Iraqi forces are battling Kurdish Peshmerga to retake the Assyrian village of Teleskof. As President of the Philos Project, I call on both sides to respect civilian life in the midst of this terrible conflict. I toured Teleskof just a year ago, and I know firsthand how much the residents have suffered—I think they’ve suffered enough.

Let me come back to why the Philos Project is supporting this conference. The first reason, as I said, is that the mission of IDC and the mission of the Philos Project are directly aligned. Both organizations are working together to prompt constructive western engagement on behalf of Christians and other minorities in the region.

The second reason has to do with the spirit of IDC. Three years ago when we were talking about creating a self-administered province for Christians and planning for post-ISIS Iraq, one of the only organizations standing by our side was IDC. Toufic Baaklini, Andrew Doran, the board, the staff had not thrown in the towel, and were ready to think big about the future of Christians in the Middle East. IDC, like Philos, is not a defeatist organization. They aren’t willing to just give up. They’re ready to think creatively, strategically, to build coalitions, to lobby governments, to move the ball down the field. It is that spirit of resistance, of determination—even of optimism, tempered with realism—that makes me proud to partner with IDC on this conference and many other things. […]

The Middle East used to be Christian. Perhaps it will never be Christian again. We just don’t know. But Christians belong in the Middle East as indigenous minorities who predated Jesus Christ, as faithful carriers of that revelation that began at Sinai: that revelation that changed history, that gave birth to the Abrahamic traditions, and that first brought ideas about freedom and equality, and pluralism into the world.

As a Christian, I know that I cannot be any less optimistic than the faith that drives me. Christianity is a religion of hope, and we must tap into that hope as we labor in this—what sometimes feels like the most hopeless—region. But hope is not enough. We must muster the knowledge, the skills, the vision that has been given to us by God to deploy that hope in practice. In navigating the material interests and the geopolitical currents that shape this part of the world in our day, we must be realistic. And, we must be wise.

That’s the third reason I support IDC. IDC is strategic. They are driven by deep values, but they are savvy about interests, about the political process, and about actually getting things done. They understand the importance of security, stability and sovereignty of Lebanon, and what that means not only for the country’s Christian population, but also the wider region, and US foreign policy. They understand the need to hold our regional allies accountable on key issues. They understand the need to provide recognition and relief to victims of genocide as well as call out and punish those who victimize them.

Lastly, we partner with IDC because they treat Middle East Christians as friends, and more importantly, as agents in their own story. Unlike some organizations in the West who see Eastern Christians as mere victims who need western help, IDC sees them as equals and gives them a platform to speak. […]

Christians of the Middle East will survive. They will survive because we maintain hope, because we insist on truth, and because we work hard to develop values-based friendships that we leverage in strategic ways. Between our organizations, between our organizations and the U.S. government, between eastern Christians and western Christians, and between Christians and our non-Christian friends who also believe in the vision of a pluralistic Middle East.

May we live to see that vision become reality. But even if we don’t, we must not give up hope. On the contrary, we must plan for success. We must imagine a day when Christianity—and not just Christianity—is once again flourishing all over a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Middle East. Thank you.