Saturday marked the first day of the General Assembly of the Disciples of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination with approximately 600,000 members. The agenda for the Assembly, which is taking place in Orlando, Florida, includes a resolution calling on members to meet with Palestinian Christians as they trek to the Holy Land.
Interestingly enough, the Assembly does not have any resolutions before it regarding the tsunami of violence against Christians in the Middle East, nor does it have any resolutions addressing the ongoing violence in Syria, where approximately 100,000 people have been killed in a civil war that began in March 2011.
By way of comparison, since 1948, approximately 60,000 people have died as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been the subject of numerous resolutions passed by mainline churches, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
As a denomination, the Disciples has largely been silent about the Middle East since 2005, when it passed a resolution calling on Israel to take the down the security fence – without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that preceded its construction.
This resolution, written in large part by the Rev. Dr. Peter Makari, who serves as the point man on the Middle East for both the Disciples and the Untied Church of Christ, encapsulated just how obsessed mainline Protestants were with Israel and how indifferent they were to Palestinian violence.
The passage of this resolution generated a substantial amount of blowback for both the Disciples and for the UCC.
Subsequently, both churches have been relatively quiet about the Arab-Israeli conflict and about the Middle East in general.
In 2011, the national assemblies of both denominations passed resolutions condemning Islamophobia, but said nothing about the obvious and undeniable increase in violence against Christians in the Middle East.
They said nothing about the attack on Oct. 31, 2010 attack on Christians in Baghdad and they said nothing about the New Year’s Attack on Christians in Alexandria in 2011.
The silence of these churches is remarkable in light of the obsession these and other mainline denominations exhibited about the Arab-Israeli conflict, which as tragic as it is, represents a very small proportion of the deaths caused by war since World War II.
Approximately 85 million people have died as a result of armed conflict since the end of World War II. Twelve million of these deaths have resulted from violence between Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia. As stated above, approximately 60,000 people have died as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948. By any reasonable measure, attention to the conflict has been disproportionate, especially by mainline peace activists.
One justification for the mainline concern for the Arab-Israeli conflict is that it takes place in the Holy Land, where according to the Christian faith, Jesus Christ walked, preached, performed, was crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven.
But the Holy Land is not merely limited to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Jesus also walked in Egypt along with his mother and Joseph, who is described in some traditions as the “Foster Father of God.” Mathew 2:13-12 describes how Joseph brought Mary and Jesus to Egypt – and then back to the land of Israel – to avoid death at the hands of King Herod.
As it turns out, the Coptic Church – whose members have been under siege since Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster – has memorialized the sites where, tradition has it, Jesus and his family rested and hid while they were in Egypt.
Egypt is part of the Holy Land and Coptic Christians are some of the “living stones” in this land. Nevertheless, for one reason or another when it comes to addressing violence in the Holy Land, mainline churches have largely ignored violence against Coptic Christians.
When it comes to using the Holy Land as a lens to focus people’s attention to violence and conflict, mainline churches direct their gaze at Israel and not its Muslim and Arab adversaries – even when they are perpetrating terrible acts of violence against Christians. It has been like this for decades.
It is no surprise to see that the Disciples of Christ’s General Assembly is considering a resolution encouraging its members to visit Palestinian Christians when visiting the Holy Land. Couldn’t the denomination at least offer up a churchly word on behalf of Coptic Christians living in Egypt? Apparently not.
To be fair, calling on churchgoers to stand in solidarity with Coptic Christians in Egypt is a completely different thing than asking Disciples of Christ members to smear some hummus with Palestinian Christians. Coptic Christians are getting murdered in the streets of their homeland on an almost daily basis.
It happens every once in a while to Christians in Palestinian society, but not nearly as often as it happens in Egypt, even Palestinian Christians are subject to regular acts of intimidation at the hands of the Muslim majority.
Violence against Copts has gotten worse in the aftermath of Mohammed Morsi’s ouster as Egyptian President. Just recently, the Washington Post published an AP story about the murder of four Coptic Christians and the hands of a pro-Morsi mob. The story started as follows:
“With a mob of Muslim extremists on their tail, the Christian businessman and his nephew climbed up on the roof and ran for their lives, jumping from building to building in their southern Egyptian village. Finally they ran out of rooftops.”
“Finally, they ran out of rooftops.” What a horrifying image.
Eventually, the Christian businessman and three others were murdered in the village of Nagaa Hassan. The nephew of the businessman survived to tell the story.
Of course, in the shadow of violence like this, the General Assembly could consider and pass an “emergency resolution” condemning violence against Christians in Egypt. In 2005, the assembly passed an emergency resolution condemning suicide bombings. The denomination’s President Sharon Watkins used the passage of this resolution to defend against the blowback from Jewish groups over the passage of the Tear Down the Wall resolution in 2005.
The assembly might pass an emergency resolution condemning Muslim violence against Christians but it probably won’t.
The main obstacle to the passage of resolution is the previously mentioned Rev. Dr. Peter Makari. Makari’s official title is Area Executive for Europe and the Middle East for Global Ministries for the United Church of Christ and The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
It’s a long title that conveys an important fact – Makari helps frame what two denominations – the United Church of Christ and the Disciples – say about the Middle East. (By the way, Peter’s father, Victor, held a similar position with the Presbyterian Church (USA).)
Following in his father’s footsteps, Peter has used his influence to convince the two churches he works for to target Israel for condemnation while downplaying Islamist hostility against Jews and Christians.
The egregious manner in which Rev. Dr. Peter Makari has downplayed Islamist hostility toward Israel and Jews was particularly evident in his book about Christian-Muslim relations in his father’s homeland – Egypt. This book, titled Conflict & Cooperation: Christian Muslim Relations in Contemporary Egypt (Syracuse University Press, 2007) depicts the now-dead Grand Mufti of Cairo’s Al Ahzar University, Sayyd Tantawi, as a proponent of good interfaith relations despite the fact that he called on Christians in Egypt to pay the Jizya, or the poll tax historically imposed on non-Muslims in Muslim-majority societies.
Makari even went so far as to describe Tantawi as remaining “steadfast in his call for good relations between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, and among all people generally.”
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Tantawi was an inveterate anti-Semite who portrayed Jews as the enemy of Islam. He also endorsed suicide bombings against Israel. (I’ve written about Makari’s praise for Tantawi here and here.)
For all his connections and expertise (which are impressive), Makari’s testimony about what’s going on in the Middle East is simply not reliable.
And yet he will nevertheless serve as a resource person for the people attending the Assembly in Orlando. Anyone who has any questions about what’s really going on in the region will be directed in Makari’s direction by denominational leaders.
Makari appears to have worked his magic in the materials submitted to the General Assembly. In his report to the body (which begins on page 9 of this document), he speaks in vague terms about the need for dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, but makes no direct reference to the violence endured by Christians in the region. By way of comparison, James Vijayakumar, Global Minstiries’ Area Executive for Southern Asia (whose report follows Makari’s) speaks directly about attacks on Christians in Pakistan where anti-blasphemy laws are used to terrorize Christians.
In his defense, it can be argued that the uptick of violence against Christians in Egypt took place after Makari’s report was sent to the printers, but it has been an ongoing problem for years, especially since Mubarak’s ouster, which took place more than two years ago. Surely the violence against Christians is deserving of more attention than some vague statements about the need for dialogue.
The question facing the delegates attending this week’s General Assembly in Orlando is if they will follow Makari’s example or break the pattern. Will they ignore or downplaying the violence against Christians in Muslim-majority countries? Will they obsess about Palestinian Christians who blame Israel for their suffering?
Or will they break the pattern and speak clearly and prophetically about Islamist violence in the region and in the rest of the world?
Dexter Van Zile (@dextervanzile) is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (@cameraorg).