Andon Iskandar sees religion in a negative way and would rather build his relationship with God in a free way. Photo by Michael Swan

Some fear what religion is doing to Middle East

  • June 18, 2014

I met a man in Bethlehem who has dedicated his life to compassion, justice, enlightenment and hope. He respects God and tradition and loves the poorest and the weakest among human beings. And he refuses to go to Church.

“I’m Christian. I’m born into a Catholic family. Part of my beliefs and attitude and ethics come from my wonderful family. But I don’t pray. Because I see religion in a negative way,” Andon Iskandar told me. “I don’t want to find myself in this corner or that corner. I would rather build my relationship with God in a free way. And I believe He will be fine with me, He will be a friend to me, however I pray.”

His is not the usual disaffection with self-important clerics, ritual divorced from real life, arrogance and self-serving agendas. He works for the Sisters of Charity at Holy Family Children’s Home and is full of admiration for the sisters. When he takes me on a tour of the orphanage our last stop is the chapel, where he genuflects before the altar and crosses himself with holy water.

His whole career path as a social worker is quintessen-tially Christian. He laughs at the machismo of Arab culture and simply accepts the taunts of other men who deride any man who would spend his days caring for children and defending the rights of women.

He understands why Christians in another time and another place would gladly go to church, but he can’t.

“Religion in my country is something awful — something awful,” he told me.

Iskandar blames religion for the twisted and fruitless political life of his demi-country. He blames the Israelis and the occupation, as well. But he blames religion more.

“It’s not a liberal country. It’s not a country of free choice. It’s not a country where you can live your life in a free way. You have to be a follower,” Iskandar said. “And being a follower is something very, very wrong — even for us as Christians.”

All over the Middle East, people confuse citizenship with religious identity. The Middle East did not evolve from empires to kingdoms to city states to federations to the nation state as in Europe. When the Ottoman Empire was swallowed whole by history during the First World War, the Middle East had the nation-state imposed on it by British and French diplomats with rulers and maps. The Sykes-Picot line separating Iraq from Syria was supposed to somehow forge two nations out of a dozen ethnicities, religions and languages.

The dire consequences of weak national identity combined with strong religious identity are on show right now as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — an effort to make a giant Sunni-Muslim caliphate out of Iraq, Syria and possibly Lebanon, to be followed by war to erase Israel from the map and add Palestine to the caliphate — slaughters its way down to Baghdad.

As long as Palestinians have the Israeli occupation to distract them, they aren’t going to embrace the ISIL vision, but Iskandar still fears what religion is doing to Palestine.

“Christians cannot affect anything,” he said. “They are the last minority of this country. This creates lots of difficulties and problems.”

Biblical literalists in the United States and throughout Latin America wield the awesome and often destructive power of their enormous media empires, twisting religion to serve their economic interests. But in the Middle East Islamic literalists have control of political parties and militias.

“We talk about people who are slaves to the script. We don’t deal with this script in an open way, a liberal way, to interpret it in a way that will help the people to walk with modernity. For this reason, we have lots of fights and wars,” said Iskandar.

Iskandar loosely aligns himself with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which launched in the 1960s with a Marxist formula for liberation. He claims the party should now be thought of as a sort of liberal party. What Iskandar really wants is a secular country with a consti-tution, rule of law, freedom of ex-pression, freedom of movement, freedom of association and a basic solidarity rooted in citizenship.

It would be nice to be able to convince Iskandar that these are indeed Christian ideals based on a Christian understanding of humanity made in the image of God — both free and responsible. It would be nice to be able to show him that his ideals are meant to be shared first and fought for second-arily — that Church, community in the Spirit, is the way to transcend bitterness and division. It would be nice to demonstrate a kind of religion that is alive to our human reality here and now, that carries its Scripture forward and uses it to understand who we are rather than dictate what we should be.

But we can’t do that for Iskandar or any of the Christians in the Middle East unless we believe it ourselves. 

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