The Agony of Nineveh

In his magisterial study of Eastern Christianity published in 1968, historian Aziz Atiya ends his book on a melancholy note, noting the passing of the “lost Churches” of Carthage (Present Tunisia) and Pentapolis, the five cities of present Libya, and Nubia. Fifty years after the Arabs conquered Egypt,  they came to North Africa. Overnight, the Carthage Church, once the home of Tertullian and Augustine , those of the Trinity and the City of God, vanished with nary a trace. Atiya attributes this loss to its shallow roots in native soil, having always looked to Rome. The disappearance of Christianity in Carthage was the first, but not the last, of Muslim-induced ending of Eastern Christian communities.

A dozen years after the publication of this work, in the summer of 1980, Atiya was in a happy and expansive mood. Earlier that year, in Lake Como, an editorial board was formed for the Coptic Encyclopedia and authors were identified and assigned tasks. The project that had eluded him for the better part of thirty years seemed within reach. He was determined to dedicate his ninth decade to its completion. He was especially proud that a majority of authors might not be Egyptians or even Copts. He had always wanted to free the study of Coptic history from the clutches of hagiography and turn it into a full-fledged field of scholarship. “Coptology” would now stand as a younger sister to Egyptology.

The mood turned darker when discussions drifted to the fate of Eastern Christianity. It was a time of rising sectarian tensions in Egypt, and President Sadat adopted something less than a statesman’s stand. But Atiya did not fear for the Copts, as he seemed to share in the common, and almost mystical, belief that Christianity will always exist in the land of Egypt. His fears were for other Eastern Christians, what he called the Jacobites and Nestorians, the Christians of Syria and Iraq. With scholarly precision he identified three factors that threatened their precarious existence. First there was the internecine fighting between various Islamic groups. The Lebanese civil war was still raging and he, disregarding borders created in his lifetime, lumped Syria and Lebanon together. The Iran-Iraq war had not yet started, but the revolution in Iran had clearly rattled the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Second was the choices made by the local groups, who let their intellectual leaders lead them astray toward false directions, such as Arab nationalism, which were not bound to prove a refuge. Third was the bumbling of the West. The last reason was a curious one, and somewhat surprising for him to consider. This was a man who lived more than half of his long life in the West, studying and teaching in its institutions. He had great respect for Western culture and admiration for its accomplishments. He always warned that scholars in the East need to rise to Western standards. He had also done a great deal to smooth the occasionally touchy relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the mainline Protestant Churches of the West.

Atiya was a rare bird; a Coptic scholar of Islam, who knew it intimately, respected it greatly, but saw its present dangerous course clearly. He had done seminal work on the Crusades, which allowed him to have a measured view of the enterprise. While he believed that many Crusaders where imbued with true religious, rather than purely mercenary, fervor, he also saw that as a dangerous conceit. He identified the role of the European Catholics in the destruction of Byzantium, beginning with the Fourth Crusade, 250 years before its final fall to the Ottomans. Eastern Christians had to be wary of Western enthusiasm, especially if coupled with uncertain or indifferent execution of goals.

Those sentiments ran coldly true in 2003 as good Christian men from a far away continent sought to bring democracy to Iraq. Their pursuit began the suffering of over 2 Million Assyrians, Iraq’s Christians. Today Nineveh, for 2000 years the home of Arab Christianity, has none. A band of psychopaths may have delivered the final blow, but the weakening started earlier. Now these Christians must contend with the pain of exile and the deracination of their people due to cultural adjustments. Nor were the Americans the sole culprits in this. British recruitment of the Assyrians in the 1920s was a foolish policy, especially when the grand men in Westminster turned their heads at the massacres of the 1930s.

But why should we care about the fate of Eastern Christians? The disappearance of Eastern Christianity is a loss to both Western Christianity and Islam. If Western Christianity is deaf to its roots, it will suffer a slow death at the hands of its most tenacious enemies, blind secularism, vapid materialism, and the choices of “life styles”. As for Islam, if it cannot live with its religious brethren, close relatives theologically, then it will not be able to live with the world at large. A fortress Islam, simmering in anger, is hardly the vision of a bright future. There is a lesson in the very history of Islam. It was born in Arabia after a century of brutal religious struggle between the Christian kingdom of Axum (present Ethiopia) and the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (present Yemen). These kingdoms had become proxies for Byzantium and Persia in their imperial struggles. In the end, the Arabs adopted neither religion. Religious warfare is rarely a benefit to even the winning side, if there is such a thing.

The agony of Nineveh is the agony of both the Christian West and the Muslim East, though neither recognizes it.

 

— Maged Atiya

 



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