ANALYSIS: Can the Shi’ites Save the Christians?

A Vatican-sponsored summit suggests an attempt at a new alliance to protect Middle Eastern Christians. But Iran's nuclear ambitions threaten the project.

By John Zmirak Published on March 26, 2015

Can the West make common cause with Shi’ites against the explosion of intolerant Sunni Islam? The Vatican seems to think so, according to this piece that appeared at Crux, which cites a summit which the ecumenical group Sant’ Egidio (a movement beloved of Pope Francis) arranged between Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Shi’ite leaders Maytham Al-Salman (of Bahrain) and Hashim Al-Salman (of Saudi Arabia).

Certainly, Christians and Shi’ites share a common interest in stopping fanatical Sunnis from persecuting them and destroying their places of worship. Christians in the Middle East are in such a position of weakness that they have always been forced to rely on the kindness of strangers: Iraqi Christians depended on the tolerance of the secular despot Saddam Hussein, and millions of them were killed or evicted after America toppled him.

Today, Christians in Syria rely for protection on the secular dictator Bashar al Assad — which may explain why the leader of Syria’s Melkite Catholics came out recently in support of Assad as Syria’s “legitimate” ruler. Christians in Egypt are much, much safer under anti-Islamist dictator Mohamed el-Sisi than they would be under the Muslim Brotherhood which won that country’s democratic elections. In Israel’s occupied territories, some Christians make common cause with the secular PLO, seeking protection against the intolerant Islamists of Hamas on the one hand and Jewish settlers on the other.

One sad, rarely mentioned fact about the cause of Christians in the region: Except for some Lebanese movements such as the Phalange, Christians have often been militantly anti-Israel, adopting anti-Zionism as proof of their loyalty to the “Arab cause.” That secular “Arab cause” was a locus of loyalty that Christians hoped might sweep the region, instead of an intolerant, blanket devotion to Islam. Conversely, American Christians have rarely cared much about the welfare of Middle Eastern Christians.

Arab Christians’ anti-Zionism might not pay off in the long run, since Islam itself (especially Sunni Islam) is a more deep-rooted and potent force than fragile secular nationalism. That was the message the mostly admirable Ted Cruz ham-handedly tried to convey to a group of Christian clerics last year. Aware that Israeli concern for the rights of Christians is a recent phenomenon, and unwilling to alienate their remaining Arab protectors, these leaders of persecuted minorities booed Cruz off the stage.

Catholics who hope for a Shi’ite alliance against intolerant Sunni Islam will have to deal with one ugly fact: The standard-bearer of Shi’ite Islam around the world is the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose bid for nuclear weapons threatens Israel with instant extermination. Were the Iranians willing to tone down their anti-Zionist rhetoric, and come to a silent arrangement of peaceful co-existence with the Jewish state, America itself might be wise to quietly align itself with the Shi’ites, following the classic strategy of “divide and conquer” to counter the much larger, more dangerous movement of intolerant Sunni Islamism.

But Iran shows no signs of renouncing its genocidal intent toward Israel, so Christians will find that they play a dangerous game by allying with the Shi’ites. Indeed, the Obama administration (and the Democratic party) could reap an ugly harvest for trying to cut a deal with Shi’ite Iran that doesn’t account for Israel’s legitimate concerns. While we rely on Shi’ite militias to expel ISIS from Iraq, any threats to the Shi’ites’ sponsors in Iran on our part will ring pretty hollow.

Perhaps that’s the reason Israel is upping the threat that it might act against Iran unilaterally, bombing the sites of Iranian weapons development. That might be the best outcome, in terms of geopolitics and America’s national interest. But whatever happens, whoever wins, the Christians are likely to suffer. They are a helpless, convenient scapegoat for any anti-Western extremist in the region, with very few loyal friends this side of heaven.

It’s less than helpful that Andrea Riccardi, the founder and leader of Sant’ Egidio, which arranged the Vatican summit, blames today’s explosion of religious violence on … the free market. Riccardi said at the summit: “Global capitalism without humanism creates intolerable situations.” As I recall, nothing by Adam Smith or F.A. Hayek or even Ayn Rand called on people to “Kill the unbeliever.” That’s from the Q’uran. The Christians who live at the mercy of people whose scripture teaches them to do that need all our prayers and support. Until Muslims renounce that aspiration unconditionally, peace will never prevail.

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