I’ve not been a target of religious prejudice during my 73 years– except today, as I identify with growing tragedy in the Middle East.
“Are you Jewish,” I’m asked.
“Are you Arabic?”
The questions, natural and obvious, point up the problem: a hidden religious prejudice. It has less to do with bigotry than with simple historic and religious illiteracy among Americans. The impact on me grows because I was born and raised in this country as a Greek Orthodox Christian. I left the institutional church because of its patriarchal prejudices. I’ve come to recognize something even more destructive common to almost all faith-based sects: the belief they are god’s chosen people– having a direct line to what “god” tells them (or that they tell him?) is the truth.
Few in the evangelical church are free of such misconceptions. If they choose to be what I view as delusional, that’s their privilege in free societies. When it is forced on others, it becomes dangerous and unjust.
Victims of such attitudes today are vulnerable Christian minorities in Lebanon and Palestine, where entire societies are being attacked by Israel armed by the United States. Over the centuries, these minorities got benign treatment for their religious faith from Ottoman overlords during a long period of Islamic dominance. There is nothing benign about their contemporary mistreatment at the hands of what they see as Western religion: Christianity with a fundamentalist jaundice, and Judaism colored by Zionist extremism.
It’s a misconception to assume Lebanon and Palestine are exclusively Islamic. More than 30 percent of Lebanon is Christian, virtually all of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Most of Palestine’s four million people are Islamic. 50,000 are Eastern Orthodox, 25,000 Roman Catholic, 25,000 Protestant and 1,000 Armenian Orthodox.
It has reached the point where the normally uninvolved Archbishop of Greece’s Orthodox Church, Christodoulos, said in early August: “Israel’s actions within its right to self-defense have long exceeded any rational limit . . . This is not in Israel’s interest. Fear God’s wrath.”
He failed to acknowledge what makes possible such “excessive” actions by Israel: unstinting support from the United States. That is what justifies– in fact, demands– I speak out.
The enmity of Arabic peoples toward Judaism dates from antiquity, the days of the pharaohs. That with Christianity is more recent, inspired by the Medieval Crusades, when Knights of Christendon used the cross as a symbol to justify pillage and rape of Muslims defending Jerusalem.
Islam was not the only victim. Eastern Orthodox clergy were slaughtered and their churches looted by Western armies identified more with ambitions of war than goals of Christianity. That does not make it easier for me to understand how avowed Christians from the U.S., with their Israeli allies, can today freely victimize Orthodox Christians as if they did not realize they exist in Islamic lands.
The true tragedy is Israeli policy, approved if not fomented by the United States, that results in death for Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, and in retaliation, death for innocent Israelis. Myopia of the U.S., which identifies itself as Christian, is apparent in many Christians being killed, even if Americans callously assume targets are exclusively Muslim.
Though I’m of Greek heritage, I’ve long valued and interacted with Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians. They were members of St. George Anticochian Orthodox Church, which my family attended in Oak Park, suburb of Chicago. Some of those close friends now face each day with fear for relatives living in Beirut.
Such fear is not rooted in threats from Muslims, although that reailty grows as civil war begins to engulf Lebanon and Iraq. Its true source fuels my identity with the victims, and a sense that I must speak out against actions of my country. My anger and suspicions are directed toward leaders of my country and of Israel who devastate many with preemptive war. Their actions suggest bigotry that threatens me personally.
Irony of this destructive collaboration is that Israel welcomes support of Christian fundamentalists for short-term advantages it offers. All the while, Jews are familiar with historic betrayal at the hands of Christians who have found various ways to disguise their hatred of the so-called “Christ-killers.”
Most Jews know that in the long term, their evangalist benefactors are interested only in setting the stage for what they see as the second coming of Christ. That, they believe, can occur only when Israel gains full control of Jerusalem. On that day of “rapture” in the Christian lexicon, the church will offer Jews a choice. As a minister of a church in Eugene, Ore., was quoted earlier this summer (The Register-Guard):
“Jews will have a chance to convert to Christianity and be saved with us. If they refuse, they will be condemned with all other unbelievers.”
Few in America realizes how the Eastern Church, along with innocent Muslims, is under attack in Lebanon and Palestine by this rare alliance between Judaism and fundamentalist Christianity. I also am a target, and am overdue in speaking out.
GEORGE BERES, retired in Eugene, Ore., once was executive director of the Hellenic Foundation in Chicago in the mid-1970s. He can be reached at: email@example.com