Book Review: The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire

MITRI RAHEB WACO, TX: BAYLOR UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2021. VII + 207 PP. ISBN: 978-1-4813-1440-4. $52.65

The subtitle of this book is the important element in the theme of Raheb’s argument. Indeed, while the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians is somewhat covered, the main story is that of the changing fortunes of Christians in the Middle East over the past couple of centuries. In fact, in the Epilogue, it emerges that “Christian persecution is a Western construct…a perception rather than an actual description” (143). In recent times, it has been particularly promoted by an evangelical constituency in the United States and the political establishment under the Trump administration, to promote an anti-Muslim agenda. But over the course of the colonial period, it has served the interests of Western imperial and colonial diplomacy and politics.

The book begins with a brief overview of the situation of Christians and the churches under the Ottoman Empire. Here a “millet system” (recognition of ethnic or religious communities) provided the churches with autonomy over their religious and social affairs, so long as they accepted the political supremacy of the Ottoman rulers (11). However, after the departure of Napoleon from Egypt, an Albanian Ottoman called Muhammad Ali seized power in Egypt. The upshot of his actions and those of his son, led to the destabilization of the millet system, and opened the way for foreign missionaries to operate in the ME. Subsequently, land became available to missions, and several established themselves in the ME over the next half-century. Unfortunately, an element of sectarianism was introduced to the region.

A further effect of the rise of Muhammad Ali was the replacement of the millet system with individual citizenship in the Ottoman Empire. While persecution under the Ottomans had been rare and localized, a massacre of many Christians took place on Mount Lebanon in 1860, as a result of tensions between different religious groups. This was seen by many Western commentators as persecution and massacre of Christians, but by a local Protestant Christian, Butrus Bustani, as a civil war where sectarian identities were “instrumentalized” locally and exploited internationally (46).

European penetration into the Middle East through education, trade, and political treaties brought major socio-economic changes to the Ottoman Empire. Much of this was positive, as different types of agriculture, e.g. silk production, and the growing of oranges brought a growth of the middle class (many of whom were Christians). Education provided by Christian organizations also became important.

However, this period also saw the rise of Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism preceded Jewish political Zionism by half a century, and it was “Anglo-Saxon Christians and British politicians who encouraged Jews in Europe to think of their religious identity as a basis for a political claim over Palestine” (57). Consequently, an imperial colonial project took place in Palestine, under the auspices of the Zionist movement, “with catastrophic implications for the whole region” (64).

In chapters six to nine, Raheb essentially explores how “two contradictory yet interdependent movements: colonialism and nationalism” (65), shaped and influenced the character of the Middle East. For example, German complicity enabled the Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians, while Russia encouraged Armenians to push for independence. The upshot was the displacement and genocide of Armenians; and the annexing and incorporation of Armenia into the Soviet Union in 1922. “No wonder many Middle Eastern Christians do not trust Western sympathy for ‘persecuted Christians’” (72).

The development of nation-states, in the inter-war years, saw the “minoritisation” of many religious groups. Colonial powers encouraged sectarian impulses, with various groups identifying with different European powers. Christians became involved in movements for nationalization and political independence, and in the churches, Christians also pushed for indigenization. “An important feature of the sectarian colonial politics of the inter-war years was the weaponizing of the majority-minority discourse” (84). “Minority treaties” were developed along religious lines, and “gave colonial powers a reason to interfere in Middle East affairs”. At the same time, the push for independence and nationalism united Christians and Muslims against the colonial powers (85).

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 dealt a huge blow to the Palestinian Christian community as many left the region never to return. The decline in Christian demography stems from that time. At the same time, much church property was taken over by the Israeli state. There were major changes to the Palestinian political landscape as new political groups arose, and nationalism, socialism, and Arab identity became more pronounced. Many local churches became more national, and a certain amount of ecumenical co-operation developed. Pan-Arabism, however, meant the nationalization of companies owned by Christians and the impact of Coptic Orthodox education diminished as schools came under state control.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war marked a significant turning point. After the Arab defeat, disillusionment with pan-Arabism set in, while there was a sense of triumphalism in Israeli society. Israel shifted toward more reliance of the US than France, and the nation shifted from secular to religious Judaism. Powerful lobbies supporting Israel were established in the US and across Europe, and Christian Zionism experienced a renaissance. Meanwhile, Islamism grew in the Arab world, and Arab petrodollars boosted both Islamism and terrorism.

Following the 1973 attack on Israel by Sadat (a war that ended in “a ceasefire without a loser”, 115), Arab oil-producing revenues grew enormously. Many migrant workers moved from poorer Arab countries to oil-producing ones (among them many Christians). Wars in the latter years of the twentieth and early part of the twenty-first centuries, the influence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as Western political interference, led to a decrease of Christians in the Middle East. Islamization has marked and changed the region’s mores and political landscape. Christians, though not widely persecuted, feel “alien at home”. At the same time, interfaith dialogue has grown along with the establishment of study centres and conferences.

Raheb concludes with a chapter on ten challenges facing the Middle East today: population growth, conflict and wars, the rule of law, state security versus human security, the management of human and natural resources, the role of religion in the state, the place and fortunes of youth and women, climate change, and human dignity. The “Epilogue”, as already noted, deals with the role of Western empires in both promoting the idea of the persecution of Middle Eastern Christians for political purposes, and their promotion of imperial interests under the guise of concern for such Christians. He looks at the varied response of such Christians to their history.

This is an important book. The history of the region’s Christian population is clearly and compellingly recounted. The importance of a continuing Christian presence is stressed. The final Epilogue needs to be read and pondered by Christians in the West.

Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.