BOOK SHELF - "After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East".
by Elizabeth Kendal - Review by John MorrisseyPublished by Resource Publications, Eugene, OR 97401. RRP $47.00, available at Koorong and other Christian book stores; also available through Amazon (which also has an e-book for kindle) and Book Depository. Best price for Australians is $45, free postage, through Elizabeth Kendal's website: www.ElizabethKendal.com
The title of Elizabeth Kendal's very readable warning to her readers is derived from an Arabic war-cry, a threat meaning that first we'll kill the Jews and then the Christians. Her early chapters provide a description of the birth and spread of Islam by conquest, an account of the Crusades and the later threat of the dominant Ottoman Empire to Western Europe. She shows how close the Turks came to overwhelming Christendom as late as the C17th, and the slow decline of this empire right up to the Great War.
The Sunni-Shia divide is described, along with the Arab nomad origins of the former, in contrast to Iran's more sophisticated Persian culture and resources, as we see in the Middle East today. Two power axes are identified, one that of Shia Iran, which includes Lebanon and the Assad government in Syria, and the other the Arab-Turkey one, which includes the Saudis and the ill-advised West. She characterises the basic issue today as a struggle for leadership over the Islamic world, with all its resources. In this she sees Turkey, where there is enthusiasm for a Caliphate, as a very unreliable player, whichever side it appears to support.
Elizabeth Kendal draws on the work of historian Bat Ye'or and others to explain the growth of large Jewish and later Christian populations in the Assyrian lands, dating back to the captivity in Babylon in the C7th BCE. She illustrates her After Saturday... theme with the story of Iraq, where Jews numbered 256,000 in 1906, but only 149,000 in 1949 and are but a bare handful today, after surviving pogroms and oppression for over 1,000 years. There were also 1.4m Assyrian Christians in Iraq in 1987, who were reduced by "Islamic zeal" after the First Gulf War to perhaps as few as 800,000, of whom most are now dead or living elsewhere as refugees. The same pattern can be seen in Syria and its neighbours, even Egypt, where as many as 250,000 Copts may have fled persecution following the so-called "Arab Spring" after the downfall of the Mubarak government.
While the author explains how Middle Eastern grievances and a strict interpretation of Muslim doctrine have fused to create the toxic world in which Christians find themselves, it is the blindness of the West to the obvious realities that she outlines which attracts her greatest scorn. She states that the US has no clear goals in the region, contrasting the muddle under President Obama, with the single-minded support from Russia's Vladimir Putin for the Assad regime in Syria. Harking back to 1979 in Iran, Elizabeth Kendal scoffs at the US embassy's ignorance of the Farsi language and the Carter administration's naive hope that the Ayatollah Khomeini might become some sort of Ghandi and a bulwark against Communism. This was CIA thinking, seeing everything through a Cold War prism and ignoring the obvious.
As she strides across history, the author notes its turning points for her theme: the gates of Vienna in 1683, when the Polish army saved Europe; massacres of Christians in the Balkans during the C19th, culminating in the Armenian genocide; the perfidy of Britain and France in the Crimean War to block Russian expansionism, at the expense of the Orthodox Christians whom the Czar was trying to protect; and the events of 1979, which she regards as pivotal. While many are aware of the rise of Khomeini amid the religious reaction to the Shah's modernising reforms in Iran, the de facto regime change of 1979 in Saudi Arabia is not so well known. There, a failed occupation of the mosque in Mecca by a splinter Wahhabist group was settled by the House of Saud's deal with the clerics to issue a fatwa disallowing the claims of the dissidents, in exchange for shared power and access to the regime's oil revenues. From this stem the huge resources deployed throughout the world to spread militant Islam.
Many in the West demand a reform of Islam and echo the call of President el-Sisi of Egypt for this to take place, but are unaware that a reform has already taken place in the opposite direction during the 20th century. Seeing its fortunes relative to the West decline over 200 years, reformers became convinced that it was the result of a failure to observe a strict practice of Muslim tenets. There followed Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. It was from these quarters rather than moderate ones that the "Arab Spring" so beloved of the blinkered West arose. Kendal takes us through its origins in insignificant events in Tunisia and Algeria to the dramatic happenings in Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood stole an election from ill-prepared military and democratic interests, through Iraq and into the conflict in Syria today, where the issues involved are still so badly understood in the West.
When at the close of 2013 the US was proclaiming the end of the threat of al-Qaeda, now compromising with Shi'ite Iran, which was effectively backing jihadists on both sides of the war in Syria, two affiliates of the movement were fighting side by side against the Assad regime. One of these was Jabhat al-Nusra, accepted as an ally by the Syrian National Coalition, which the Obama administration recognised as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. The other was ISIS, under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and both defied the old al-Qaeda leadership. When ISIS ousted its rival from their base in Raqqa and began to inflict horrors such as crucifixion on the population, President Obama dismissed its significance with a baseball analogy, contrasting amateurs with professionals! Nevertheless, al-Baghdadi demanded and received pledges of allegiance from emirs in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and elsewhere, as global leader of the struggle for a Caliphate.
"For us Middle Eastern Christians," stressed the Syriac Patriarch, Ignace Joseph III Younan, "religious liberties come first... Western leaders don't want to understand this. Christians in the Middle East have been not only abandoned, but we have been lied to and betrayed by Western nations, like the United States and the European Union. And I believe that there will be a time coming when the Christians of the Middle East will no longer look to the West for support." This was a clear reference to Russia and even China. Deaf to everything except its own dreams of an Arab Spring, the Obama administration was withdrawing its troops from Iraq, lifting the sanctions on Iran, providing military aid to rebels in Syria and Libya thought to be the "good guys", and using its diplomatic clout against the Assad regime. Elizabeth Kendal has a different view of forces such as those of Free Syria, showing how they have even committed atrocities on the ground, to pin on Assad's army. Even so, it is hard to imagine that it is actually the Free Syrian forces carrying out indiscriminate aerial bombing on civilians in rebel-held towns.
The author describes in some detail the sufferings of Christians under ISIS in such cities as Mosul, a city of 1.8 million mostly Sunni and Christian inhabitants, which fell in 2014 to a few hundred jihadists when Shi-ite military forces panicked and fled. The victory gave ISIS an armoury, an airport, banks full of cash and access to nearby oilfields. Cleansing of all Christians followed, by confiscation, expulsion, murder, rape and forced conversion.
Neighbouring Qaraqosh followed, although Kurdish forces evacuated at least 50,000 Assyrian Christians from this city. In 2015 "A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross" said it all of the intentions of ISIS in a professionally produced video of the choreographed murder of 20 Coptic Christians and one Ghanian on a Libyan beach. Its spokesman delivered a declaration of total war, quoting from Islamic texts.
"After Saturday..." details the experiences of some of the survivors, but the destruction of property and the atrocities which were witnessed in these once cradles of Christian civilisation mean that church leaders' pleas for them to return when ISIS is defeated may fall on deaf ears. And this, in addition to despair of help or even understanding from the West, is the call from some Christian religious leaders. One unnamed pastor maintained, "You cannot leave your heritage just because you got hurt or a disaster happened... Jesus said, 'you are the light of the world.' If you take that light from the world, what do you think is going to happen here?" However, as a Fr Bazi countered, "I care about my people. I don't care about the Middle East. The Middle East for about 2,000 years has been the same... So why do I have to put my people inside that war? Why?" Dennis Dragovic, an Australian expert on refugees, adds that in conflict areas the wealthiest always have the resources to flee first, and that Syria, for example, will lack a middle class of engineers, doctors and administrators necessary for reconstruction when a cease-fire is achieved. The fighters will get the jobs, while a generation of children remain uneducated. His solution is that people should stay, if not in their own country, at least in the region, with the hope of returning.
And this is what the Middle Eastern church leaders like the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda are appealing for - security for displaced people.
Nevertheless, lest the reader gathers that Elizabeth Kendal is in despair after her analysis of the plight of the Middle East's Christians, and the lack of help from either governments or even churches in the West, she turns the foreboding title of her work on its head and views the situation through the pascal mystery of Easter. After the Cross comes the Resurrection! The God of the Bible is present in the world and even in the House of Islam. In spite of the death sentence for apostasy, which she believes is the chief reason for the 1,400 years survival of Islam, there are numerous instances of movements to Christ, from Algeria to Bangladesh, and even in Iran itself, where Persian culture persists and that of Islam has failed. However, the well-known Tertullian reference to the "blood of the martyrs" as "the seed of the church" should not excuse inaction from those outside the Middle East. Sacrificial giving, intelligent advocacy and passionate prayer are all needed.
Elizabeth Kendal's work is a valuable resource, superior to anything else which I have found on this subject, in its depth of understanding and ease of access. It is painstakingly footnoted and has an exhaustive bibliography. (Unfortunately, it does not have an index.) She makes very clear her condemnation of the West and Christians across the world for their apathy in the face of the picture she paints, and is especially scathing of the former US administration. Whether her qualified defence of Syria's President Assad or her faith in the real politik of Vladimir Putin is justified remains to be seen.