From the burning lands of the Arab world… My Story
I made the exodus. I lived it to tell my story. It is the story of how millions of Christians have fled the burning lands of the Arab world. This exodus; this caravan of persecuted, humiliated and despised Christians from the Middle East is continuing today as history marches on and, we sometimes think, the Western world looks the other way.
Lend me your attention, and I shall tell you my story. My exodus story!
My village, Kfar Mishki, sits on a plain hill overlooking Mount Hermon (legend has it that the relics of Noah”s ship are present on top of the mountain), in the Eastern part of Lebanon. It is a place where the ghosts of history and caravans of emigrants and fearful Christians tell stories bound to make you weep.
They are stories of famine and ethnic cleansing, mixed with religious revenge and blood. Stories of burned churches and villages. Tales of dreams of the sea and aching feelings of reaching Europe, America, Canada or any safe haven.
From 1975 to1980 I lived the savagery of the “Lebanese War” where I witnessed first-hand the depth of depravity associated with religious fanaticism, dogma, and the barbaric practice of religious persecution. I saw Muslims kidnapping and slaughtering Christians and vice versa. There was the infamous practice of the “flying barricades,” where the militias would go from place to place, stopping ordinary citizens in the street, inspecting their identity cards, and killing them on the spot because of their religious sect, political affiliation or whatever arbitrary reason the militias deemed was just cause. God, according to them, was on their side and they were simply executing his will and message.
Being an adolescent in high school, in the midst of a sadistic sectarian war in a country like Lebanon, was no walk in the park. One Friday afternoon in 1977, I foolishly decided to hitchhike from the town where I went to school to a nearby city. A tough-looking man stopped and asked me where I was going. I answered awkwardly “to Zahle,” and he nodded his head to approve my getting into his car. His first question was, “Where are you from?” That question in Lebanon is a code language to discover one’s religion, family background, and possible political affiliation. When I told him that I was from Kfar Mishki he knew immediately that I was a Christian in a Muslim area.
On our way to Zahle, a Christian city, he stopped at a café along the highway, telling me that he would be back in a minute. The “minute” lasted close to an hour. All that time I was sitting alone in a stranger’s car, in an unfamiliar place in a strange country at war with itself, its political system, its history, and its neighbors.
I thought of the available options: escape, hide, do something? My destination was many kilometers away, and I didn’t know the area well. I could see men around the café intermittingly glancing at me as if they were checking my credentials and usefulness as a potential hostage. Many of the men inside were smoking cigarettes incessantly, walking nervously, going back and forth; discussing and arguing among themselves in an urgent and contested manner.
Twice a young tall young man approached to open the car door, but each time an elderly gentleman pulled him back. There was, it appeared to me, a power struggle of some sort, or a generational divide, playing itself out in front of me.
Then, suddenly, the driver came out of the café and told me to get out of his car and find my own way to my destination. I felt as if I’d been given a reprieve. I was given a second chance. I was the lucky one. I had been spared. It was this episode that set me on my way to becoming an immigrant to Canada.
Today, the Christians of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt are undergoing a historic depletion of their physical presence and long historical roots in a brutal region. “In any case it is the loss of ancient communities that most concerns church leaders. ‘Christians are not guests in the Middle East,’ says Father Paul Karam, the president of Caritas, a Catholic charity, in Lebanon. ‘We are the original owners of the land.’ But none of the Christian refugees who spoke with your correspondent plan to return home. ‘We don’t belong there,’ says Samir, who expects Iraq soon to be empty of Christians altogether.” (Footnote: The Economist, January 2, 2016, “And then there were none.” See the chart below.)
We all remember the slaughter of the Yazidis in Iraq during the Islamic State reign in parts of it. We also remember, or must, the video of the three Assyrian Christians in orange jumpsuits who were made to kneel and were then executed in cold blood. We should also recall the bombing of the Coptic churches in Egypt during the Christmas holiday few years ago. And do we still remember the civil war in Lebanon where Christians were once the majority and are now a minority. (Latest estimates conclude that 66% of Lebanon’s population is Muslim and 33% Christians.)
What about the Armenians and the genocide they endured in 1915 under the Turkish Empire, or the Ottoman barbaric rule? The lessons of history are all evidently clear: Minorities in the Arab Middle East are an endangered species. While the Western world is preoccupied with political upheaval regarding migration, immigration, economic policies, tweets and endless other vanities, the Christians of the Middle East are facing an existential crisis never seen in their long and glorious history.
While the caravans of migrants are heading America’s borders with Mexico, the caravan or the exodus of the Christians from the Middle East is continuing without fanfare or media coverage. Why? Because it is not sexy, provocative enough or does not make good TV.
During the Syrian civil war, one Syria’s most senior religious leaders, Melkite Gregory III, wrote: “Despite all your suffering, stay! Be patient! Don’t emigrate! Stay for the church, your homeland, for Syria and its future!” Rankling many, he then urged Europe not to ‘encourage Syrians Christians to emigrate.’ A refugee from Mosul says the pleas go ‘in one ear, out the other.’” (Footnote: Ibid., The Economist.)
Christians have lived in the Arab world for about 2000 years. They have survived many catastrophes, atrocities, tyrannies and barbaric practices. This one is different. This exodus is for real. This is the end of Christendom in the Arab world looks like.
Why? The low birth-rate is one problem facing Christian families. Compared to the Muslim birth-rate, it is a losing battle. Other reasons are: the lack of, opportunities for work, freedom, respect, belonging, safety, future for the children, and the chronic disorder and chaos in most Arab countries; absence of religious liberty and tolerance. The lack of respect for minorities has been a historic problem there. The lack of citizenship conception is another contributing factor in conflict. People value sectarian and tribal existence over any other form of social interaction in politics, society and at work.
The exodus is real; the end is near!
Article Author: Elie Mikhael Nasrallah
Elie Mikhael Nasrallah, born in Lebanon, graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa, with an honours degree in political science. He has written three books: “My Arab Spring, My Canada,” 2012, “None of the Above,” 2014, “Hostage to History,” 2016. He writes from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.