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Three years ago, an Islamist sheikh in the Middle East met with a group of young Americans. When asked about local Christians, he said, “Christians are protected here. They’re our guests.” That answer might’ve sounded harmless to innocent ears. But it caused a Coptic Christian woman in the group to shudder. She later shared how his fork-tongued words evoked childhood memories as a “protected” Christian in Egypt before her family emigrated to the U.S. 

Only the most perverse mind could describe the Israeli hostages of October 7 as “guests.” The horrific images from and since that day, however, obscure subtler forms of captivity used by Hamas, which innocent outsiders might not comprehend.

A diplomat once told me about a Western traveler lost in Yemen who was welcomed as a guest by a local tribe, whereupon he was fed, feted, and lodged. After several failed attempts to depart, the traveler finally grasped that he was being held for ransom. Most hostages have it worse; a few have had it better. Ancient and medieval hostages were sometimes members of the nobility or even royalty, such as the grandson of the suzerain Herod, whose presence in Rome served as a surety against rebellion.

“Hostage” connotes inhospitality and captivity, but its antecedent, the Old French hoste, apparently meant both “guest” and “captive.” That etymology might perplex us but would be perfectly sensible to the sheikh: explicit hospitality coupled with implicit threat. The Coptic woman shuddered because she knew well his true meaning. She also knew that if one is both guest and captive, one is in truth a mere captive. 

Among the region’s millions of Christians, few are more abject than those of Gaza. Stories and photos and social media commentary have been frequent of late, with the invariable implication that if anything happens to them, Israel is to blame. As with the sheikh, there is much in the subtext. Hamas and its supporters aren’t only violent hostage-takers but subtle practitioners of the trade as well. Though few dare call it by name, Palestinian Christians are in essence captives—or, more precisely, dhimmi: contingent, second-class, “protected” minorities. As Habib Malik observes in his short 2010 book Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East, the rights of dhimmi are severely restricted—from marriage to employment to political and religious freedom. In times of war, dhimmi may be exiled, held hostage, or killed.

Malik’s work may help outsiders understand why, for example, statements by Catholic institutions are pointedly critical of Israel while cautiously vague about the conduct of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. Official Catholic statements often appeal to abstracted principles and in so doing convey moral ambivalence. This isn’t an accident: Such statements are crafted so as not to provoke the wrath of men like the sheikh against Christians. But these statements are misleading, for they imply a moral equivalence between the conduct of Israel and Hamas, which makes Christian dhimmi ever more useful—or the still more perverse implication that Hamas does indeed protect Christians from the Israelis, a kind of Stockholm syndrome by proxy. 

Noteworthy, but seldom noted: There are no equivalent fears of Israeli reprisal. Contrary to prevalent myth, Israel isn’t the reason Christians fled Gaza or the West Bank. The Christian exodus from the Middle East began long before even the Balfour Declaration in 1917, after decades of massacres, man-made famines, starvation, and ultimately genocide. For those who remained, the century that followed was marked by discrimination, persecution, and more genocide—none of it from Zionism. The few Christians left are, as in the past, mostly dhimmi. And where they cease to be useful dhimmi, they will, over time, face the choice between violence or exile.  

This isn’t the case in Israel. Anyone who’s traveled the Middle East knows Christians have it better in Israel than elsewhere. (Even Lebanon, where Christians were not dhimmi, has been brought to near ruin by decades of war, corruption, and Iranian influence.) That’s not to say that Israel or Israelis are above criticism. But when the world has one standard for Israel and none for those who hate it, it creates conditions that excuse every kind of moral perfidy—from manipulated footage to the publication of false reports to the exploitation of Christian dhimmi.

Over a decade ago, I cofounded a nonprofit to advocate for Christians and other communities in the region, and later worked on related issues at the State Department. It was demoralizing work. The truth could rarely be uttered for fear of giving offense or reprisal or simply because Christians weren’t a priority. Since leaving public service, I’ve spent significant time in Israel. Those who haven’t had occasion to observe Christians both in Israel and elsewhere in the region should withhold comment. It’s a world of difference. 

The Coptic woman told me that her time in Israel was liberating because she saw for the first time how it was possible to be a free person in the Middle East, liberated from dhimmitude. “Israel gave me to myself,” she said. If this is what Israel means to a Christian, how much more to Jews, dhimmi for most of their history in exile. Israel is, after all, a land of freed dhimmi—most of whom returned from the Middle East and Africa, not the West. Those who haven’t endured or at least observed dhimmitude can only imagine. And they should.

Dhimmitude is a lesser magnitude of evil from the hostage-taking of October 7. But the former has since subtly been used to enable the latter. It’s heartbreaking to see Christians used as pawns in this war, and shameful to see the media—and even Christian institutions—do the enabling. All one can do is name evil for what it is and refuse to cooperate, even as others do.

Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow with the Philos Project. He previously served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. 

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Image by CJCUC licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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