A Christian response to the challenges of modern Middle Eastern history – Part 1
Middle Eastern Christians have endured historical, political, economic, and religious adversity since the formation of the early church, but for the purpose of this paper, I would like to focus on the events that have taken place since the early 20th century. I will highlight how these events along with their challenges played a major role in shaping the history of the modern Middle East. I will then propose a theological and ethical response for us as Middle Eastern Christians.
For more than 500 years, a majority of the Middle East was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, one of the largest and most influential empires in history. Christians under Ottoman control lived as second-class citizens, but were granted some freedoms under the millet system. The millet system was a separate court of law, applied to non-Muslim minorities, mainly Christians and Jews, who were allowed to rule themselves under their own laws. This gave Christians the freedom to worship according to their own practices and traditions as well as have their own legal courts to address mainly family and religious issues. The millet system also required non-Muslim inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire to acknowledge the supremacy of Islam and pay several taxes while additional restrictions were imposed upon them. The millet system was challenged as a result of major changes in the Middle East.
Though the Ottomans had a once vibrant and thriving empire, they were unable to match the growing economic, technological and military organization and power of western European nations. Western imperial powers aimed to exploit the weaknesses of the Ottomans, competing amongst themselves for colonial control the Middle East due to its strategic location. With control of the Middle East, these European nations would gain access to resources like oil as well as the major trade routes between Europe and East Asia. At a time where Islam was perceived as weak, European imperial powers believed that the Middle East was ripe for spreading Western Christianity and did so through establishing Christian missions, schools and churches. They would gain access to the Holy Land for the purpose of finding archaeological evidence for the biblical narrative, and as a place for Christian pilgrimage and devotion.
Among British leaders and politicians were those who embraced a theology (mostly associated with what is known today as Christian Zionism) where they believed it was the role of the Christians to assist the Jewish people in re-establishing the Davidic Kingdom within the borders of Palestine. This included rebuilding the Temple in hopes of expediting the return of Jesus. Those who propagated this theology sought it as a historical opportunity to influence British politicians, which came in light of Jewish suffering in Eastern Europe and was used as a means for gaining political leverage with America to draw them into the war in Europe.
Western powers ventured to divide the Middle East among themselves through a number of agreements. The first was the McMahon-Hussein correspondence where the British agreed to recognize Arab independence in exchange for launching the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France next arbitrarily carved up the Middle East through the secret Sykes-Picot agreement. The Sykes-Picot map created new political state-lines that divided the Middle East without taking regard for geographical location, tribes, families, or the wishes of the local ethnic peoples of the land and brought about instability to the region. Following these events, Britain announced the Balfour Declaration where they would support and assist the Jewish people in establishing their own homeland in Palestine. This combination of theological, political, economic and ideological endeavors brought new elements of instability to the Middle East. This culminated in the formation of the State of Israel, the tragedy of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian struggle and several wars between Israel and the Arab states.
With the end of the Ottoman Empire, the imposition of imperial powers and broken promises, the Middle East was shadowed by another movement, that of nationalism. As lands were divided into countries, people were identified according to their nation-states rather than their religion. This appealed to Arab Christians as it was seen as a unifying thread where they could no longer be discriminated against by their religion. Arab nationalism freed the Arabs from the Turks, the British, and aided in countering imperialism and Zionism. They could join together with others in their country and seek national freedom as “Iraqis” or “Syrians.” By the mid-1950s most countries with the exception of the Palestinian people were liberated from Western control. 
Unfortunately, Arab nationalism began as a liberating movement that later resulted in military dictatorships. Many of these dictators were unable to meet the needs of the people in the areas of employment, education and healthcare or provide a good quality of life for their people. Soon there arose great distrust, dissatisfaction, eventually exposing the weaknesses of Arab nationalism and states. The failure was due, ultimately, to two major factors: internal issues and ongoing external interventions of western powers in the Middle East.
This paved way for the competing ideology of the Muslim brotherhood to gain credibility in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged around the same time as Arab Nationalism in the early 1920s, founded by Hassan al-Banna as an Islamic religious response to social and political injustice. It began as an education and charitable focused organization but morphed into a political force. This ideological movement also sprung out of dissatisfaction at the dictatorships being unable to catch up with or counter the West. It began in Egypt as a movement to propagate “true Islam.” They believed that by going back to the early formation of Islam in its golden age and embracing an Islamic lifestyle according to the Shariah they would be able to counter challenges Middle Eastern Muslims were facing. A major clash between Arab Nationalism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt manifested itself with the imprisonment and execution of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, causing some branches of the Muslim Brotherhood to embrace militant power.
The 1967 military victory of Israel over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria further exposed the weaknesses of Arab nationalism and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to gain popularity. The Muslim brotherhood and its different branches took this as their opportunity to show to the masses the inability of Arab nationalism to solve the challenges of Muslim Middle Eastern people and propagated slogans that Islam is the solution. Their power grew following the 1973 war between Israel, Egypt and Syria with the success of gaining the Suez Canal and later during the Iranian Revolution with the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For Middle Eastern Christians the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood created further complications. It brought them back to an era of discrimination based upon their religious identity. There was now a different interpretation of Islam that wanted to impose a lifestyle based on certain interpretations of Shariah Law that was different to what they had previously experienced. This was accompanied with hostility towards Middle Eastern Christians who were looked upon with suspicion and perceived as a vehicle for western ideology and politics in the Middle East.
In addition to Western Imperialism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab nationalism was further provoked by the US invasion of Iraq, creating chaos and the collapse of the state structure. This chaos and vacuum from law and order made room for more radical and militant Islamic groups to take control and begin creating what later became known as the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has had a devastating impact on Christians and other minority groups primarily in Syria and Iraq. They have committed atrocities against Christians, the Yazidi people and demolished some of the oldest existing churches. There has been mass migration of Christians from these areas, most of whom are fleeing for their lives.
The breakdown of these Arab states and the invasion of Iraq moved the young and educated Arabs to take action, prompting a revolution called the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings by primarily the young and educated who used social media and other means to fight against their country’s oppressive regimes. This began in Tunisia, next to Egypt and then spread into other countries throughout the Middle East. These young people wanted to see major changes in their countries in the areas of democracy, economy, and in addressing corruption. In countries such as Tunisia there were drastic changes, but for others like in Egypt, the people ended up under a military dictatorship. In Syria, the Arab Spring turned into a civil war with one of the most devastating impacts on civil society, forcing millions of Syrian refugees to seek asylum in other parts of the world. The disheartening and disappointing failure of the Arab Spring greatly affected Middle Eastern Christian who were hoping to see more freedom, democracy, and equal opportunities.
The shockwaves from of all of these events caused many Christians to migrate, primarily to the west, while others closed themselves off from the outside world, embracing a ghetto mentality. Church leaders and Christian institutions or establishments continue to live their lives with little engagement in society and politics as they have done for centuries. Many, especially among the Evangelical community have adopted a two citizen identity who recognize their earthly citizenship, but emphasize their heavenly citizenship as a means of escaping their involvement in the present reality. They continue to demonize and dehumanize Muslims. This form of thinking is in contradiction to Jesus’ teaching for us to be salt and light in society. Therefore, in the second part of this article, I will address how we as Middle Eastern Christians need to engage with the political situation.
The Church’s Role in Political Engagement
Many Christians struggle with political engagement. We act as though political matters are worldly or sinful, and if we engage in them the grime and dirt of politics will rub off on us. But this, of course, depends on how you define politics. John Stott offers a definition that is helpful, saying that politics is “the art of living together in a community.” By this definition, it is impossible to avoid politics since in some way we are all part of a community.
The teachings of Jesus were very political as he spent much time dealing with issues such as how we are to relate to each other and live together. Almost everything Jesus said and did was political, and took place in the highly politicized context of the Roman Empire and its occupation. Even Jesus’ incarnation was a political act, for he came “into the world, in order to share in the life of the human community. He sent his followers into the world to do the same. Moreover, the Kingdom of God he proclaimed and inaugurated was a radically new and different social organization, whose values and standards challenged those of the old and fallen community.”
Saying this, however, is not the same as saying that Jesus was involved in power politics. He did not form a political party, and was against strictly political interpretations of his teaching. Instead he created a new paradigm through which to view the world. He did not allow himself to be drafted into the agendas of the political parties of his day. However, he did have an important political agenda – to bring about the Kingdom of God and to reconcile all of humanity with God.
As Christians and as members of the Church, we are not called to be separate from the world, but to be a model for what a redeemed and restored creation will look like. John Howard Yoder writes, “the will of God for human socialness as a whole is prefigured by the shape to which the Body of Christ is called. Church and world are not two compartments under separate legislation or two institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of the pertinence of the same Lordship. The Church is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.”
Clearly political involvement is not something that can be avoided by anyone who cares about the values of justice, peace, equality, and fellowship. Stott writes that we do need to be involved with the world, and our hands should be “dirty, sore and worn,” as we turn “our faces towards the world in compassion.” In fact, as Yoder points out, the word ecclesia, which we translate as “church” is actually a political term. “The original meaning of the word ecclesia is political; it is literally a ‘called meeting,’ an assembly, such as a town meeting, convened to do business, to deliberate on behalf of the entire society.” Our question is not “Should we as believers and followers of Jesus be involved in politics?,” for we most certainly are involved, whether we are aware of it or not. The questions we need to ask are: “How should we be involved in politics?,” and “How can we, as followers of Christ, engage our communities and bring about positive transformation?”
American professor Richard Horsley fittingly discusses this subject as related to Jesus’ first century context and the empire that ruled at the time. Empire is often legitimated through culture and religion. To see Jesus in his true context, we must see beyond the lens of Western individualism that portrays him as an individualistic Savior and a political figure speaking timeless truths. On the contrary, Jesus was leading a community renewal movement that clashed with the Roman imperial order as well as with the leading Jewish classes that colluded with the Romans. Jesus’ message, emphasizing that God’s renewal of his people was not bound to an exclusive ethnicity, was not only for the house of Israel, but for non-Jews as well. As a result, acting in accordance with Jesus’ message would also entail challenging empire and authority. This is part of living together in community, or, in other words, political engagement.
The community that Jesus taught us be needs to reflect his teaching in inaugurating the Kingdom of God. First, Jesus as King is Lord and Savior and as people of his community we need to demonstrate values and moral standards that reflect his kingdom. He is just and merciful regardless of gender, ethnicity or background. The community who embraces Jesus needs to be that community that is like yeast, having an impact on the society around them. Like yeast, though we may be few, many are impacted In this next section, I will address our role as individuals and a community and how we live our lives in the midst of the chaos and political instability and persecution.
 Stott, John, Issues Facing Christians Today, New Perspectives on Social and Moral Dilemmas (Glasgow: Marshall Pickering/HarperCollins Publishers, 1990) p. 11.
 Stott, ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’, p. 11.
 Yoder, John Howard, Body Politics, Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World, (Scottdale/Waterloo: Herald Press, 2001), ix.