By Peggy Eastman

Christians need to defend their faith amid increasing persecution, said Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm, Jr., a scholar on the Middle East.

“I think our faith needs to be bolder and stronger,” said Gnehm, an elder in the Presbyterian Church who spoke on “The Middle East Today: The Religious Factor” in a lecture at All Saints Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Gnehm has served as U.S. ambassador to Australia, Jordan, and Kuwait, and has assisted ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.

“Our faith is not standing up as it should be for what we believe,” added Gnehm, who is Kuwait professor of Gulf and Arabian peninsula affairs and director of George Washington University’s Middle East Policy Forum.

“This is satanic, this is what Christ warned us against. He told us, ‘You will be persecuted,’’’ Gnehm said.

He decried the spread of Muslim extremism in Western Europe, where many self-identified Christians do not attend church.

Gnehm was active in Christian communities in the Middle East while he served there, and he tried to help Christian families in need. Asked by TLC if he felt threatened, he said, “Oh, yes. I was shot at twice. It’s not going to stop me from doing what I’m doing.”

The ambassador emphasized that Christianity is not the only persecuted religious group in the Middle East. Other religious minorities, including Muslim minorities, are also targeted: “The smaller minorities are vulnerable to the larger factions.”

Ghehm noted that in Iran, 50 percent of citizens are Persian, while the other 50 percent are members of various religious minorities. He predicts that atrocities and turmoil in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, will boost the number of refugees and change the character of the Fertile Crescent.

“The Fertile Crescent, so rich in history, will never be the same,” he said. “In fact, it may get worse before it gets better. It is impossible to reconstruct the area as it was before.” In addition to Syria, countries in the Fertile Crescent include Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine.

What makes the chaos in the Middle East particularly troubling is that “leaders lusting for power invoke religious sensibilities to inflame passion,” Gnehm said. Once that occurs, governments cannot keep order and instability increases.

“I think we can expect continued displacement fueled by religious zealots,” Gnehm warned. ”I would tell you that there is a crisis within Islam, and that can’t be resolved from outside.”

The crisis Gnehm cited stems from a division that occurred in Islam between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, and it dates back to Muhammad’s death in 632, he said. The Wahabi movement calls Shia Muslims apostates, and considers them subject to death.

The United States is not responsible for the division within Islam, Gnehm said, but when it toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it destroyed the prevailing political system there. Sunnis saw an alliance with the Islamic State as a way to gain power, he said.

Today, he noted, there is a dramatic expansion of the Islamic State, which wants to create a worldwide Islamic caliphate. Many Islamic State militants were part of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Gnehm said, and they use similar tactics of intimidation and persecution, including kidnapping and beheading.

While there is concern among some today that radical Islam will eventually achieve world domination, Gnehm said he is not in that camp. “I’m not in the all-danger mode,” he said.

He pointed out that in some Middle Eastern countries Christianity has simply gone underground, a tactic that hearkens to the early Church.

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