The recent beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian workers in Libya by Islamic State (IS) affiliates prompted a conversation with Joseph Hakim, President of the International Christian Union (ICU), an umbrella organization that seeks to secure the wellbeing and survival of Middle Eastern Christians. Hakim is a Lebanese-born Orthodox Christian and a proud American.
Joseph Puder: You're the President of the International Christian Union, an organization that focuses on the plight of Middle East Christians; as such, what would you ask our US government to do in order to alleviate the suffering of Christian minorities in the Muslim Middle East?
Joseph Hakim: In the Middle East today, Christians are getting killed daily, their homes are being destroyed, young girls are raped by Muslims, and Christian refugees are escaping ISIS terror to Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey, living in leaky tents during the cold winter. While all this is happening, President Obama and his administration are silent, along with the rest of the world. We do not expect the President to take action to alleviate Christian suffering in the Middle East. The ICU however, would like US Congress to be true to its commitment to uphold religious freedom, and safeguard the lives of our Christian brothers in the Middle East with an extensive humanitarian rescue action.
JP: The Lebanese constitution set up the presidency to be occupied by a Christian. For almost a year there has been no acting president in Lebanon; can the Christians in Lebanon regain their constitutional prerogatives? And how did the Taif Agreement change things for Christians in Lebanon?
JH: Lebanon’s independence in the 1940’s meant to give Christians a safe haven in the region. The Christian architects of the state thought that if they could build a nation based on equality and human rights, a secular nation would emerge that would impact the surrounding states. The Muslim nations, on the other hand, were thinking of how to Islamize Lebanon. Since the 1950’s, Christians in Lebanon have been under siege. When Israel and the US came to help the Christians in 1982, the Arabs lobbied the US to refrain from helping the Christians. President Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, and his brother Amin Gemayel who succeeded him, refused to engage with Israel as his brother did. At that point, Arab-Muslim petro-dollars bought off Christian politicians such as Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea, Elie Hobeika, and General Michel Aoun. These figures under different patrons fought with each other, and damaged Christian community interests. It ultimately led to the decline of the Christian power and position.
The rivalry among these Christian figures enabled the implementation of the Taif Agreement, which split the Lebanese Parliament into 50% Christian - 50% Muslim. Most importantly however, the constitution allocated the presidency to a Christian, but under the Taif Agreement, the office lost its executive power, which in turn was given to the Prime Minister who is constitutionally a Sunni-Muslim. Now, both the Sunni and Shia Muslims are playing the Christian political leaders mentioned above, with the goal of dividing power by thirds between the three major confessional groups: One third Christian, one third Sunni, and one third Shia.
To the question of whether the Christians can regain their constitutional power, the answer is no. To maintain the Christian character of Lebanon, the world Christian powers must commit their resources to it, and seek to replace the current corrupt Christian political leaders who do the bidding for Islamic Arab and Iranian petro-dollars.
JP: Is Hezbollah destined to be the major force in Lebanon, or do you predict changes to come as a result of the war in Syria?
JH: I believe that as long as the current US administration is in power, nothing will change regarding Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon. The bottom line is that as long as Assad’s Syria is strong, Hezbollah will be on top. If the Assad regime is defeated, it will lose some power in Lebanon. Hezbollah is committed to controlling Lebanon at all costs. While the Christian youths are partying in the cafes of Beirut, the Islamists, Palestinians, IS, and Hezbollah maintain heavily armed and trained militias.
JP: Daesh or the Islamic State (IS) just overran two Christian villages in Syria. Previously, Christian clergy have been kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by IS. How do you see the situation for Syrian Christians in the coming months and years? Can the Christians in Syria survive Daesh? What must be done to save them?
JH: News sources reported that 300 Christians have been seized in the Hassakeh province of Syria recently by IS, who raided as many as 33 villages. The ancient Assyrian Christian community has been the primary victim of IS brutality. It seems as if history is repeating itself. One hundred years ago it was the Ottoman Muslim Turks who, like IS, perpetrated genocide on Christians.
Recently, Christians began to defend themselves, but it is too little, too late. They are fighting IS with few weapons and no training, and they are no match for IS’s arms and fighters. The ICU has requested the international community to send either UN or NATO troops to protect the vulnerable Christians from being massacred by the bloodthirsty savages of IS. We also demand that the governments of Turkey and Qatar stop their financial support of IS.
JP: The Washington Post had an opinion piece on September 19, 2014 titled; Christianity in Iraq is finished. It described the horrific plight of Christians in Iraq. Do you believe that Christian life in Iraq could be revived?
JH: Anytime and anywhere non-Muslims live under Sharia Law, the system will classify and treat the non-Muslim as second-class citizens. In the 1950’s my dad was working in Iraq, and while riding in a bus on a hot day, his sweat dripped from his arm onto a Muslim sitting next to him. At the same time, his tattoo with the image of Christ on his arm was exposed. The Muslim called him a kafir, and publicly insulted him with impunity. Unless Islam goes through a liberal transformation, Iraq’s Christian community will die a slow death, and ultimately disappear. Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Kurdish areas, Turkey, and when possible, the West. Christian life in Iraq is unlikely to be revived.
JP: The Islamic Republic of Iran has cracked down on religious freedom. It accuses converts to Christianity with apostasy, and many of them languish in prison. What should the US government do in this regard while the negotiations with Iran are ongoing?
JH: The US Commission on International Religious Freedom reported Christians in Iran face harassment, intimidation, discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment. Dissidents and human rights defenders are increasingly subject to abuse and several were sentenced to death and even executed for the alleged capital crime of “waging war against God.” The number of Christians imprisoned for their faith increased last year. Iranian authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained about 400 Christians throughout the country. As of February, 2014, at least 40 Christians were in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs.
In January, 2013, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American pastor, was sentenced in a trial without due process to eight years in prison for “threatening the national security of Iran” for his activity in the Christian House Church movement. Pastor Abedini had been in Iran since June, 2012, to establish an orphanage and was arrested and imprisoned in September, 2012. He is presently in solitary confinement and was physically and psychologically abused. The US government is aware of it, but has continued to dialogue with Iran without attempting to alleviate the condition or protect the Christians in Iran.
JP: How do you see the future of Christians in the Middle East?
JH: Christians need a state of their own and an alliance with the US, and Israel. Otherwise, being leaderless and without a military force, Christians have no chance to survive.
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