The New York–based Anglosphere Society recently pooled its efforts with the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture to host a forum titled “The Crisis for Christians in the Middle East.” The event, which was held on the evening of December 5, gathered a dozen scholars, priests, and activists (with some overlap among those categories) to address the ongoing mass murder of Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt—a one-sided war being carried out by sovereign states and militias alike, always under the banner of fundamentalist Islam. Among the night’s speakers were the retired General Raymond Odierno, who oversaw the latter stretch of America’s armed conflict in Iraq, and the Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan—both of whom addressed the crisis for Christians with a frankness that was uncharacteristic of their respective offices.
Neither the Sheen Center, which lent its Loreto Theater on Bleecker Street to host the event, nor the Anglosphere Society, which conceived of the event and managed logistics, seems at first to be a natural fit to host a forum on Middle-Eastern violence. The Sheen Center, which describes its mission as the promotion of “thought and culture,” has tended to construe culture as consisting of the visual and performing arts, with plays and concert series anchoring their daily programming. The Anglosphere Society, founded in 2012 to defend the “historic values of English-speaking peoples,” has, justifiably, tended to limit its scope to issues that directly relate to the lives of Americans and Brits—such as the threat of terrorism on our own shores.
And yet, as Anglosphere’s director Amanda Bowman mentioned in her opening remarks, the fate of the imperiled Christians overseas is as relevant to the missions of both organizations as any part of their regular programming. For Anglosphere, to honor the Coptic and Eastern Rite Catholic communities under siege is to commemorate one of the historic founts of the Western tradition that they cherish, while for the Sheen Center, to celebrate the peaceful and resilient way of life in those communities is to recognize “culture” in its most visceral sense.
Each panel addressed the crisis from a distinct angle, suggesting the organizers’ intuition that their audience would be varied and have differing reasons to connect with the cause. There was a discussion of the continuous, overlooked presence of Christianity in the Middle East: the Princeton historians Michael Reynolds and Jack Tannous described the centuries of tumult endured by Syriac Christians. The next panel critiqued the unwillingness of the State Department to pay heed to the crisis, even after Secretary John Kerry acknowledged in May that “genocide” is underway. And General Odierno closed the opening set of discussions with examples of actionable, immediate steps that American armed forces could take to aid the Christians who are currently living at the mercy of the terrorist militias of the Levant. Armed safe zones and a ramped-up airlift extraction program are both feasible by the general’s telling—if only more Americans with a grasp of the catastrophe, and particularly those in the media, would demand action.
In what became the unofficial keynote of the program, the business magnate and former Ambassador to Austria Ronald Lauder resumed the general’s theme of denouncing inaction—including both that of the government and of the many private Christian groups represented in the audience. Lauder has taken up the cause of persecuted Christians because of his own devout Judaism; in his 2014 New York Times article “Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?” Lauder compared the slaughter of Middle-Eastern Christians to the Holocaust, and lamented that America’s response to the more recent cataclysm has been nearly as half-hearted as it was to the former. The similarity between the two events—years-long campaigns of total systematic murder and cultural erasure—should be obvious to anyone with an awareness of both. And yet, as Lauder explained with contempt in his remarks, observers have spent decades solemnly repeating the phrase “never again” while averting their eyes from the countless episodes of sustained mass murder that have played out since the 1940s.
Cardinal Dolan used his closing remarks to acquaint the audience with the names and faces of Christians who have been killed since the violence spiked in 2014. Echoing the plea of a Libyan bishop who had tearfully asked him to remember his people, Dolan asked the audience at the Sheen Center to remember the “Libyan Martyrs.” The group consisted of twenty-one Coptic Christians who were kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS militants in 2015 after declining to renounce their faith—including Mathew Ayairga, not originally a Christian, who converted and chose death in his adopted brothers’ midst. As he spoke, Dolan held up an icon of the martyrs painted by the Egyptian Copt Tony Rezk—an appropriate reminder to the Sheen Center crowd of the way in which visual crafts can express the unspeakable.
It is natural that in covering today’s romp of terror groups through the Middle East, the media tends to focus on acts of physical violence. The murder and maiming of innocent victims make for arresting television and front-page stories which, in addition to building an audience, can draw uninformed observers into the cause. This focus on the physical, however, overlooks an entire dimension of loss that occurs when a people are persecuted to the point of disappearance. That dimension, the dimension of culture, was what “The Crisis for Christians in the Middle East” addressed with unique success. Rather than adopt the thin rhetoric of “genocide”—which locates the tragedy of mass murder in the loss of a particular pool of genes—the event emphasized the principle that the Libyan Martyrs embodied in their death: the insistence that Christian belief and traditions ought not be uprooted from their ancient home.