Martin Himel's hour-long documentary "Persecuted Christians" will get its world premiere on VisionTV March 14. Photo courtesy of Martin Himel

Moving beyond the Mideast headlines in "Persecuted Christians"

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  • March 9, 2012

TORONTO - Every reporter wants what Martin Himel has — a story that could shift how people think and talk about global politics, a story rich with human drama, suffering, heartbreak and redemption.

Himel found that story among Christian refugees in Toronto and among the huddled and fearful Christians of Cairo and Baghdad where he filmed Persecuted Christians. The hour-long documentary will get its world premiere on VisionTV March 14.

Coverage of Middle East politics tends to be dominated by stories about the territorial conflict between Palestinians and Israel and the promise of democracy in the Arab Spring, said Himel. The trouble with those stories is they leave out far too much of what’s happening in deeply divided Arab societies, he said.

“Democracy is not really coming so simply to the Arab world. We’re seeing militias take over in Libya — rival militias, some of them backed by very extreme groups,” he said.

Despite elections in Egypt and what seems like the beginnings of post-Saddam democracy in Iraq, “it’s a much more complex picture,” said Himel.

To see that complexity, Himel looks at Christians — the canaries in the coal mine of Arab democracy.

“The Christians are caught in the middle of it, because they are identified with the West, especially in Iraq. They’re identified as either heathens, heretics or Western sympathizers — and they get in a lot of trouble,” Himel told The Catholic Register.

It amazes Himel the story of persecuted Christians in the Middle East isn’t in every newspaper every day. He blames fixed attitudes and simplistic story-lines about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It’s very easy to blame the Arab-Israeli conflict and say democracy will change all that,” he said. “They want to ignore the complexities of what’s going on here.”

Himel’s introduction to the world of Christian refugees comes through Cairo-born convert to Evangelical Christianity Rev. Majed El Shafie. El Shafie survived torture in Egypt and came to Canada as a refugee. With El Shafie, Himel travels to Iraq and Egypt, interviews Iraqi deputy prime minister Dr. Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraqi vice president Tariq el Hashimi, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Dr. Mahmoud Roslan. Each of these Muslim leaders speaks about building a democracy based on the idea of citizenship. But the survivors of torture, kidnapping and rape from Iraq and Egypt tell of trying to live in a society from which they are being purged by threats, intimidation and violence.

The pattern of pulling down dictators only to expose Christian communities to demagogic attack and organized violence seems to repeat itself over and over in the new Middle East, said Himel.

“The Assads have been brutal dictators (in Syria) by every stretch of the imagination, but they have been very secular brutal dictators. So therefore Christians were protected,” Himel said.

In the short term, the move to democracy exposes Syria’s 2,000-year-old Aramaic-speaking Christian community to serious danger.

“The Christians can be marked as having sided with the brutal dictator and there can be bloody consequences,” said Himel.

It turns out Toronto is an ideal place to begin the story because of the large, diverse and growing refugee population gathered in Canada’s largest city.

“Canada has opened its heart. So you find a lot of these people here,” Himel said. “This country has always had a great tradition of looking out for the little guy and being receptive to people who have suffered — whether it was Jews after World War II or a lot of Asians in Uganda after Idi Amin took over or the Balkans.”

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