The violence that has befallen Christians in Egypt is a crisis that threatens the most important bastion of the faith in the region. It falls on the heels of crises that have forced massive emigration of Christians from Iraq and the Palestinian territories over the past two decades. Indeed, there is much to be concerned about when we hear authors and journalists predicting "the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East", as quoted by Ed West in The Spectator a week ago.
But will Christian response repeat errors of the twentieth century, or aim instead for a more productive movement?
West calls out the international media for ignoring the plight of Christians in the Middle East, while they denounce the repressive actions of the Egyptian military against Muslim Brotherhood protestors. He repeats the calls of many observers for Western Christians to do something in the face of church burnings and attacks against Christians.
All well and good, but one line of West's analysis should raise alarm bells: "Without a state (and army) of their own, minorities are merely leaseholders." He goes on to wonder whether there is a way to align British foreign policy with defending the "interests" of Middle Eastern Christians.
It is common for Islamist extremists to think of Christians as leaseholders in their own societies. But at a time when ordinary Arab citizens are struggling to participate in the reconstruction of their societies, it does not help to fall into the trap set by radicals. Christians in the region have mistakenly done so in the past.
The flight of Palestinian refugees of the wars of 1948 and 1967 brought thousands of them to Lebanon. Their presence threatened to alter fundamentally the demographics of Lebanon, where government and policy were based upon a delicate sectarian balance established by the National Pact of 1943. Over the course of the 1970s, Christians eager to defend their perceived interests ratcheted up their opposition to the Palestinians and the PLO. What started for many as a principled defence of a multisectarian Lebanon devolved over time into armed resistance to their Arab neighbours. By 1982, elements of the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia, the so-called "Christian militia" of Lebanon, were engaging in wholesale murder in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps of Beirut under the negligent eyes of Israeli forces.
The LF had internalized the logic that unless they armed themselves to defend a state in Lebanon, they would only ever be leaseholders in their societies. And they did so to the great shame of Christians then and now.
Today Christians across the Middle East are struggling for something greater: a movement to make all such leaseholders into true citizens. They're joined by countless Muslims and others who also envision a new Middle East.
Speak with Arab Christians and you will find that in fact the best way to defend their interests is to empower them to be faithful to their calling: to love mercy, to do justly, and to walk humbly with their God; to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and mind—and their neighbour as themselves; to make disciples of all nations. And in the midst of conflict, war, and persecution, Arab Christians continue to seek to minister to their societies just as Christians always have.
True justice is not divisible. To demand justice for Christians is to demand justice for their entire societies. The best way to support Christians then is to support positive social change for all people—to end the violence, embrace pluralism, and build a society with healthy social capital. It will be a long struggle, but it is one that Arab Christians will embrace wholeheartedly, as they have already done.