And I’m very angry because Donald Trump’s actions are hurting the well-being of that Church in general and the Christian minorities of the Middle East in particular. Like all human relationships everywhere, Christians and Muslims have had some occasional problems over the years. But the largest historical truth is that Christians and Muslims have generally been living together peacefully for the past 1,300 years. I have personally often experienced that. I have visited Christian churches in Egypt, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and I can personally testify to the peaceful co-existence of the two faiths. In fact, I learned that Christians in the Middle East have often been affectionally referred to by their Muslim neighbors as “flowers in the garden of Islam.”
But in the past century or two these friendly relationships have eroded because of the repeated military invasions, occupations, and colonization of the Middle East by the “Christian” West. By insulting Muslims, Donald Trump is further harming interfaith relations and increasing the possibility that a minuscule number of extremist crazies will take out their anger against the “Christian” West on local Christians in the Middle East. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in any way justifies the recent horrific attacks by ISIS on Egyptian Christians, several of whom I had the great honor of meeting. But the truth is that Mr. Trump’s vitriolic rhetoric against Muslims had a small contributing role.
But let’s not spend any more time talking about Mr. Trump. He’s already receiving vastly more attention than he deserves. He’s just an exaggerated version of the arrogance which has characterized American and Western “Christian” military actions in the Middle East as we have repeatedly invaded and occupied the region. And it is primarily our U.S. military actions — not Muslim theology — which have strained the ancient bonds of friendship established between Middle East Christians and their Muslim neighbors. Another reason for anger at the West has been the building of settlements on the West Bank of Israel/Palestine with the help of U.S. “Christian” tax dollars on land which is being stolen from the Palestinians.
The U. S invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a particularly tragic step in the deterioration of the relationship between Christians and Muslims. I visited Iraq several times before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and during one visit I had the distinct honor of leading a prayer at a church in Baghdad where I worshipped a number of times. The children in the picture accompanying this article are singing in an Easter service there. How many of these dear children are now refugees? I wonder. Before the U.S. invaded in 2003 there were some 1.5 million Iraqi Christians, many of them participating in the professional and business life of the nation. Now that number has fallen precipitously to 400,000 — only a quarter of what it was.
The clearest and saddest example which I have personally seen of this linkage of Christianity and aggression was a Christmas tree I saw in Baghdad in 1998. At that time in the decade before the U.S. invasion, the United Nations, at the urging of the U.S., had imposed extremely severe sanctions on the people of Iraq — so severe that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were dying because of malnutrition and lack of medicine. I was in Iraq in December, 1998, on a humanitarian mission to study the effect of the economic sanctions. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were dying and as if that weren’t enough, while I was there the U.S. subjected Iraq to four nights of bombing which I endured in a bomb shelter near the Tigris River.
Christmas is celebrated by many Muslims around the world including in Iraq, but because of the circumstances of that particular Christmas I was told there would be few public Christmas celebrations that year except in the churches. Thus it came as a great surprise to me as I was driving near the Tigris River to see a large tree — unmistakably a Christmas tree — in the middle of the boulevard in front of a United Nations office in Baghdad. “So Christmas hasn’t been entirely forgotten here after all!” I said.
We stopped and I walked over to it. Covering the tree were dozens of pieces of cardboard hanging from branches. It struck me that they looked more like upside down teardrops than bulbs. My friend translated what was written on it and it seemed appropriate for me to take one. I brought it back home with me and I’ve kept it ever since. On one side is written: Risharah Hamed Abadi, 15 months, 1995.
That was my saddest Christmas ever. My “Christian” country had imposed policies on Iraq which were killing Muslim as well as Christian children. If we want to do something to end this Forever War we’re in we should stop blaming Muslims and instead examine our hearts and acknowledge the part we’ve played in creating this mess. Instead of sending more guns to the Middle East we should be embodying the spirit of Christmas and sending relief supplies instead. By doing so we would be helping not just our Christian sisters and brothers but all of the frightened and hurting people there.
New York City
April 22, 2017
Photos: Mel Lehman