Donald Trump’s Effect on Christian Minorities

Instead of ornaments, this Christmas tree, guarded by an Iraqi soldier outside the United Nations office in Baghdad in 1998, holds the names of Iraqi children who died during the deadly economic sanctions imposed on Iraq at the urging of the U.S.

What is the effect that Donald Trump’s hostile rhetoric and actions against Muslims is having on Christians in the Middle East?  And what is the effect his actions are having on the reputation of the global Christian church?  Sadly, the answer to both of these questions is “deeply hurtful.”  We’ve been seeing the grave concerns raised about the effect that Mr. Trump’s reckless actions are having on our country and indeed the world, but we haven’t heard much about how he’s affecting the global Christian Church.  That’s a topic I’m concerned about.  To be totally clear:  I very much believe that we are all children of God and that all of us — Christians, Muslims, everybody — will make it to heaven.  But meanwhile on my journey here on earth, it is through the life and face of Jesus that I most clearly see the face of God, so the well-being of His church is a significant concern of mine.  

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.  

Iraqi Christian children singing Easter morning several years ago.

There’s absolutely no excusing ISIS and the horrors they have perpetrated on Christians and other minorities in Iraq and elsewhere.  But we have to remember that ISIS didn’t exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.  We learned in Sunday School that it’s wrong to bear false witness against our Muslim neighbors.  We also learned that confession is good for the soul.  It’s time we admit the fact that our U.S. invasion — not Muslim theology — caused the chaos and outrage in Iraq out of which ISIS grew.  As reported in the New York Times (Nov. 19, ’15) and elsewhere, ISIS began in Camp Bucca, an American army prison set up to contain insurgents who began violently resisting our illegal invasion of Iraq.  If the U.S.had not invaded Iraq, ISIS would not exist and the million Christians who fled Iraq would still be there.  It was perfectly clear to me during my seven visits to Iraq that the Muslim people of Iraq were perfectly happy to have Christians living with them as they had for centuries.  They just didn’t want Christian “Crusaders” invading their country.

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.

Christian Children in Iraq

Sadly, my Arab Christian friend who accompanied me explained that the tree I was seeing was not a usual Christmas tree.  The decorations were pieces of cardboard cut out in the shape of ornaments and on each one was written the name of an Iraqi child who had died because of the sanctions — something the American public was then and still is hardly aware of.  

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.

Mel Lehman
New York City
April 22, 2017

Photos: Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.