Christianity, whose presence in the Middle East predates Islam’s by 600 years, is about to be cleansed from the Middle East. Egyptian Copts may have found respite under Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, but after persecution under the previous Muslim Brotherhood government, they know how precarious their existence in 90 percent Muslim Egypt remains. Elsewhere, it’s much worse. Twenty-one Copts were beheaded by the Islamic State affiliate in Libya. In areas of Syria and Iraq where the Islamic State rules, the consequences of being Christian are terrible – enslavement, exile, torture, massacre, crucifixion.
Over the decades, many Middle Eastern Christians, seeing the rise of political Islam and sectarian wars, simply left. Lebanon’s Christians, once more than half the population, are now estimated at about a third. The number of Christians under Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank has dwindled – in Bethlehem, for example, dropping by half.
Most endangered are the Christians of Syria. Four years ago they numbered about 1.1 million. By now 700,000 have fled. Those remaining are caught either under radical Islamist rule or in the crossfire between factions. As the larger Christian world looks on, their future will be determined by Iran, Hezbollah, the Assad dynasty, the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and regional powers seeking advantage.
Meanwhile, on a limited scale, there are things that can be done. Three weeks ago, 150 Syrian Christians were airlifted to refuge and safety in Poland.
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That’s the work of the Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund. It provided the flight and will support the refugees for up to 18 months as they remake their lives.
The person behind this is Lord George Weidenfeld: life peer, philanthropist, publisher, proud Jew (honorary vice president of the World Jewish Congress), lifelong Zionist (past chief of Cabinet to Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann) and the last person to duel at the University of Vienna – with sabers, against a Nazi. (No one died.)
Weidenfeld, now 95, once invoked Torschlusspanik, “a German phrase which roughly translates as the ‘panic before the closing of the doors,’” to explain why “I’m a man in a hurry.” Remarkably healthy and energetic, he appears nowhere near any exit doors. But he is deeply troubled by the doors closing on a community in Syria largely abandoned by the world.
In context, the scale of the initial rescue is tragically small. The objective is to rescue 2,000 families. Compared to the carnage in Syria – 230,000 dead, half the 22 million population driven from their homes – it’s a paltry sum. But these are real people who will be saved. And for Weidenfeld that counts.
Yet he has been criticized for rescuing just Christians. In fact, the U.S. government will not participate because the rescue doesn’t extend to Yazidis, Druze or Shiites.
It is an odd view that because he cannot do everything, he should be admonished for doing something. If Weidenfeld were a man of infinite means, the criticism might be valid. As it is, he says rather sensibly, “I can’t save the world.” The Arab states are surely not without resources. With so few doing so little for so many, he’s doing what he can.
And for him, it’s personal. In 1938, he was brought from Vienna to London where the Plymouth Brethren took him in. He never forgot. He is trying to repay the good that Christians did for him 77 years ago. He is not just giving hope and a new life to 150 souls, soon to be thousands. He has struck a blow for something exceedingly rare: simple, willful righteousness.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post.