Christians in the Middle East
On Friday 9th December 2011, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks spoke in a debate in the House of Lords on Christians in the Middle East.
My Lords, I must begin with an apology for the fact that I must infringe the convention of this House by not being here at the end of this debate. As darkness falls early in these winter months, the Jewish Sabbath enters very early and I must have ceased work in time to observe it. I hope that your Lordships will understand that, given the topic, I felt it important to be here in support of the most reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to thank him for his wise and moving words.
It was Martin Luther King who said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. That is why I felt that I could not be silent today. As a Jew in Christian Britain, I know how much I, my late parents and, indeed, the whole British Jewish community owe to this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear. Shall we not therefore as Jews stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?
And fear is what many Christians in the Middle East feel today. We have already heard today about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Christians in Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon, of the vast exodus of Christians from Iraq and of the concern of Christians in Syria as to what might happen there should there be further destabilisation. In the past year, we have heard of churches set on fire, of a suicide bombing that cost the lives of 21 Christians as they were leaving a church in Cairo, of violence and intimidation and of the mass flight of Christians, especially from Egypt. I believe that we must all protest this series of assaults-some physical, others psychological -on Christian communities in the Middle East, many of which, as the most reverend Primate has reminded us, have long, long histories. I, and I hope all other Jews in Britain, stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, as we do with all those who suffer because of their faith.
I have followed the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, appalled at what is happening and surprised and distressed by the fact that it is not more widely known. We know how complex are the history and politics of the Middle East and how fraught with conflicting passions, but there are two points that I wish to make that deserve reflection.
First, on the Arab spring, which has heightened the fear of Christians in many of the countries affected, we make a great intellectual mistake in the West when we assume that democracy is, in and of itself, a step towards freedom. Usually, that is the case, but sometimes it is not. As Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 19th century, it may merely mean the “tyranny of the majority”. That is why the most salient words in the current situation are those of Lord Acton, in his great essay on the history of freedom, who said: “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities”. That is why the fate of Christians in the Middle East today is the litmus test of the Arab spring. Freedom is indivisible, and those who deny it to others will never gain it for themselves.
Secondly, religions that begin by killing their opponents end by killing their fellow believers. In the age of the Crusades, Christians fought Muslims. Between the Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Christians fought Christians-Catholic against Protestant. Today, in the Middle East and elsewhere, radical Islamists fight those whom they regard as the greater and lesser Satan, but earlier this week we mourned the death of 55 Shia worshippers at a mosque in Kabul and another 28 Shia who were killed in a terror attack in Iraq. Today, the majority of victims of Islamist violence are Muslim, and shall we not shed tears for them, too? The tragedy of religion is that it can lead people to wage war in the name of the God of peace, to hate in the name of the God of love, to practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and to kill in the name of the God of life. None of these things brings honour to faith; they are a desecration of the name of God.
May God protect Christians of the Middle East and people of faith who suffer for their faith, whoever and wherever they are.