Iran And Christians In Middle East – OpEd


By Mohammad Masjed-Jamei*

Lack of respect for the rights of Christians has been a regular item on the list of the Western countries’ outright criticism of the Islamic states during the past years and even decades. Due to my diplomatic mission to the Vatican and later contacts with various Christian circles and personalities, I have been witness to such criticism and those who claim that Islamic governments do not deem themselves committed to safeguarding the rights of their Christian citizens.

Most surprisingly, the policy adopted by big Western powers toward the situation in Syria has been an exact example of the same criticism that they regularly raised about Muslims. Among regional countries, Syria followed the most proper and less discriminatory policy toward its Christian population, and was a much better place for them compared to Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. This point has been confirmed by both Syrian and Arab Christians, as well as Western Christian personalities and scholars specializing in religious issues of the Middle East.

Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, it was clear that a large part of the opposition, especially those armed opposition groups that were inclined toward the Muslim Brotherhood, was not tolerant of Christians and was going to exact revenge on them. Since early days of the unrest, this was their slogan: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to Coffins.”

Western countries did not think about the consequences that their unbridled support for the Syrian opposition and their absolute hostility toward Syria’s ruling regime would have for Christians both in that country and in neighboring countries. They not only did not think about this issue, but also scoffed at and ridiculed those who warned them against it.

I have reminded Christian dignitaries of this points on various occasions. In September 2011, Cardinal McCarrick, the then Archbishop of Washington, headed a religious delegation, which visited Iran upon Tehran’s official invitation. During a conversation, I discussed with him issues related to Syria and the situation of Christians in the region and also pointed out the above facts. A while later, the former French minister of housing, who was among famous and influential Catholic personalities of the country, paid a visit to Iran accompanied by two scholars to discuss similar points. Apart from these two personalities, the aforesaid facts were discussed with many other people, but they generally noted that those in power were inattentive to these issues. Of course, Cardinal McCarrick frankly told me in his last year trip to Iran that I was right and the developments in Syria have caused a lot of problems for all Christians across the region.

Of course, I must admit that the incumbent Pope has taken bold and laudable personal positions in the face of this crisis. Certainly, his anti-war positions as well as categorical positions he has adopted in protest to aerial raids on Syria by the United States and its allies, as well as his initiative to invite people to prayer and fasting over Syria were among the most important factors that prevented a military strike against Syria.

In the early days of the Arab Spring, popular uprisings pursued freedom-seeking goals and were against corruption, discrimination and dictatorship. However, due to various reasons, especially weakness of their underlying revolutionary and reformist ideology and also due to absence of suitable social and historical institutions, and as a result of the power swayed by tribal structures, those uprisings finally turned into some form of revenge game and civil war.

The unrest emanating from the Arab Spring actually threatened all regional regimes, including rich sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The highest threat was posed to Saudi Arabia, especially after the unrest escalated in the neighboring Bahrain. As a result, Saudis and their allies tried to take advantage of various religious, media, political, financial and propaganda tools to polarize the existing atmosphere and channel popular protests along the lines of religious and ethnic rivalries and hostilities.

Such measures proved more successful than expected due to available grounds, the most important of which included general backwardness, especially intellectual and cultural underdevelopment in regional countries. As a result, in a country like Syria, the main goal of the opposition was no more achieving freedom, welfare, progress and establishment of a healthy government. On the opposite, they fought against the ruling regime due to tribal and religious reasons. A while later, a large number of religious bigots from neighboring countries and also from all corners of the world, who were helped and abetted by Saudis and other sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and their ideological allies such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups, joined the Syrian opposition. In this way, Takfiri groups came into being and managed to capture large swathes of territory through financial and arms support of the same sheikdoms and their Western allies.

In this way, the region became deeply polarized and negative memories of the past came back to life, of course, in a much more negative way than actually existed. According to new demarcations and groupings, Sunnis stood on one side, while all other groups stood on the other, including Twelver Shias, Zaidis, Alawites, Druze people, Christians, Izadis, and Sabians. The party responsible for this demarcation was not Sunni masses or even their scholars, but was Salafist Takfiri groups as well as Wahhabi religious establishment. The conditions, however, turned in such a way – and in better words, were engineered in such a way – that nobody could oppose them officially and openly, and those people like Mohamed Said Ramadan Al-Bouti who did, lost their lives over it.

According to this new demarcation, Iran turned into the gravitational center of one pole of the existing bipolar reality of the region. In fact, we had no hand in creating this situation and were even opposed to it. Iran’s axial motto was Islamic brotherhood and fraternity in addition to doing away with religious and ethnic frontiers, but external realities usually do not adapt themselves to your intentions and even practical measures.

Under new conditions, all religious minorities in the region, especially Christians, feel they are sharing the same fate with Iran and some of them have said this clearly. And of course it is a reality that the sole regional power to stand against the Takfiri current is Iran. Even a country like Turkey, despite its Kemalist backdrop, preferred to stand not only on the side, but also behind Takfiri groups.

Of course, this is also true about Egypt, though the North African country is so entangled in its own domestic problems that it is actually less prone to turn into an influential factor in this regard.

Another point that must be mentioned here is that presence of official religious minorities will finally benefit the region as well as its social and political balance. As said before, such minorities have been present in the region since the advent of their religions and even at certain junctures, they have played a major role in the evolution of science and civilization and culture in their respective territories. In contemporary times, most of them have been actively involved in independence seeking activities and are still deeply attached to their land, culture, and identity. Therefore, this is their inalienable right to enjoy an honorable life as original citizens of their territories, and be able to play a role in social, economic and political processes in their countries as well.

Their active presence in such areas will be an exercise for increasing individual and social tolerance in those societies and, in turn, will be the most important factor leading to social and political stability and paving the way for achievement of sustainable development. At present, these are two major factors of whose absence the Arab world is currently suffering, because it has no well-established institutions that would be able to realize and guarantee them. Therefore, political and social reformist movements in the Arab world are usually channeled in other ways, which generally lead to destruction.

* Mohammad Masjed-Jamei
Iran’s Former Ambassador to Morocco

Iran Review

Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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