Arab Christians as Symbol
Disappearing Christians of the Middle East
Arabic-speaking Christians have been one of the main casualties of the destabilizing events of the twentieth century, and especially of the Western-created system of modern Arab states. This religious community found itself deeply immersed in a series of global changes that it could not influence, let alone shape.
We shall identify the major Christian groups in the Arab world, touch on their plight, and propose an agenda for their full integration into their own countries.
A Long-standing Problem
The Christian problem in the Arab world did not begin recently but has deep and antique historical roots.
The original Muslim conquests of the seventh century caused a dominant population to be rendered first powerless and then turned into a minority. On the eve of those Muslim conquests, there were more than 15 million Christians in the Near East: 9.1 million in Iraq, 4 million in Syria, and 2.5 million in Egypt. In percentage terms, Christians represented more than 95 percent of the population in West Asia and Egypt. Christians dropped dramatically around the period of the Ottoman conquest in 1516, but credible population estimates are not available. Famine, plague, and population migrations have sharply reduced the population of Egypt and Syria toward the end of Mamluk rule. In Egypt, Coptic percentages remained constant at nearly 8 percent, but the percentage of Christians in Syria and Iraq grew to 20 percent before the breakout of the First World War. Today, the less than 12 million Christians in Arabic-speaking countries, including the nearly two million recent converts in southern Sudan, constitute less than 6 percent of their population.
Christians became a minority in the Arab East for a variety of reasons: the forceful advent of Islam, and the Arabization of West Asia, North Africa, and much of the Nile Basin. It also resulted from the rise and fall of indigenous and conquering empires, massive population migrations, and arbitrary state formations by European powers. The European Crusaders in the twelfth century put Arab Christians in the unenviable situation of having to choose between their coreligionists and their compatriots. Ironically, the Crusades ushered in Christianity's decline in the region of its birth. The diversion of international trade from the Near East and the inception of Western colonialism accelerated the retreat of Christianity from the region.
Numerically significant Christian minority groups include the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, the Assyrians of Iraq, the Greek Orthodox and diaspora Armenians of Syria and the tribal members (Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk) of the southern Sudan. But numbers tell only part of the story. Copts and Assyrians gradually declined over the past millennium from the predominant population groups into minorities with little or no political power. The Maronites of Lebanon, long aloof and dominant in the rugged Lebanese mountains, have since the beginning of the nineteenth century come into direct political contact with other confessional groups having different historical and spiritual experiences. In fact, it is the Maronites, the spirit and soul of Lebanese nationalism, who give shape and meaning to modern Lebanon. There is nothing more illustrative than the recent call, in September 2000, of the Council of Maronite Patriarchs, upon Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon. The African tribes of the southern Sudan have since independence in 1956 resented their political marginalization and the efforts of the dominant Muslim north to assimilate the Christian and animist South religiously and culturally.
Christianity's decline has accelerated to the point that in recent years many Christian communities fear for their demise: some have responded to this perceived danger by taking up arms (as in Lebanon and Sudan), while others languish under increasing persecution (as in Iran and Egypt). Should the current rate of attrition continue, Christians could decline to less than 6 million by the year 2025, or just half of their numbers today.
Civil Wars and Low Intensity Conflicts
Considering the magnitude and intensity of the problem surrounding the persecution and decline of Christian minorities in Arabic-speaking countries, it is surprising that the world community and statesmen in Arab countries have paid scant attention. It is ironic to note that the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has received infinitely more media coverage, has taken a far smaller human and material toll than the civil wars in just three Arab countries (Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon). The combined Arab-Israeli wars since 1948 have resulted in the death of 150,000 Arabs; those civil wars have lead to the deaths of at least one million. In terms of material losses, the toll is even greater. Take just the Sudan, which is potentially the breadbasket for the entire Arab world; it finds itself stricken by a severe food shortage that has decimated much of the population of its embattled south.
Religion has been a decisive factor in most civil wars in Arabic-speaking countries. In Algeria, fundamentalist Islam has pitted itself against a secularizing, albeit inept, state. In Iraq, the religious underpinnings of the 1933 massacre, in which hundreds of Assyrians lost their lives, seem to have redefined the status of Iraqi Christians as victims of persecution. The three main civil wars touching on Christians have been in Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt.
Lebanon. The source of the problem lies in the Christian, essentially Maronite, sense of particularism and distinction. Since 1840, Lebanon has succumbed to four religiously-inspired civil wars, the latest (1975-90) being the most ferocious and destabilizing. Independence in 1943 did not bring even a modicum of political stability to this inherently tormented country. Most Christians feel that they had already made a significant compromise when-according to the 1943 National Covenant that regulated confessional relations in the country-they accepted that Lebanon had an Arab face. Persistent pressures from the Muslims for greater identification with Arab nationalism and a more aggressive involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict threatened the majority of Lebanese Christians. They saw in the demands by their Muslim counterparts, including new ones for a revised formula for sharing the system's meager political and economic resources, an abrogation of the terms of the 1943 National Covenant, and a recipe for renewed sectarian conflict. In 1975, Lebanese Maronites took up arms against the Palestinian-supported leftist-Muslim alliance in a spectacular, yet perplexing, demonstration of anger and frustration that is only now being sorted out. The Lebanese conflict today centers on the bitter legacy among Christians concerning societal disenfranchisement and Muslim domination.
Sudan. Christian fears in the Arab world are best epitomized by the behavior of the Sudanese central government since independence in 1956. At the heart of the problem is that missionary-minded, Arabized, and Islamized northerners shattered the fragile unity of the country as they sought forcibly to convert southerners to Islam. The tribal peoples of the south, Christian and animist, are convinced that the Muslim North is intent on dominating them politically. There is indeed evidence to suggest that northern politicians have not been entirely sincere in recognizing an autonomous role for the South or in treating its inhabitants on an equal basis. The Muslim North has consistently approached the non-Muslims of the South with an assumption of superiority; the problem of the South's political differences and wishes for autonomy would be solved through its Islamization and Arabization. The entrenched notion among the ruling elite in Khartoum perceives southerners as their "lost brothers" who must find redemption in Islam at the hands of the northern Muslims. This attitude reflects the fact that Muslims, devout or otherwise, tend to believe that Islam, the ultimate divine truth, is destined to prevail at the expense of other religions. As a result, Sudan has been engulfed in a civil war between its northern and southern regions since 1964, just eight years after the country's independence from Britain (although the country did enjoy a period of relative tranquility in the years 1972-83).
Great Britain and Egypt, the condominium ruling countries, had already agreed to Sudan's right to self-determination and called for a national plebiscite to determine the country's future. Prime Minister Isma`il al-Azhari maneuvered "whereby the Sudanese parliament bypassed the projected popular plebiscite and confronted the condominium powers with a proclamation of independence." The military government of General Ibrahim ‘Abud in the early 1960s strikingly displayed such a mentality when, simultaneous with pursuing outright secularist policies in the North, it insisted on a comprehensive Islamization of the South. Furthermore, the Sudanese government displayed ill-will in the implementation of the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972 that called for southern autonomy. The central government in Khartoum manipulated the southern vice-president and eviscerated his power. In addition, its exploitation of the South's oil reserve alarmed politicians there; the decision to build an oil refinery in an area under full northern control only confirmed these worries, for the refinery would have made much more sense located near the oil-fields. To add insult to injury, the government of Ja‘far an-Numayri, beset by intense opposition from northern parties and the intelligentsia, chose in 1983 to implement Islamic law (Shari`a) in the South, a measure that re-ignited the civil war which has not yet subsided and that has taken a huge number of lives. The continued practice of slavery, in which northern merchants are actively involved, has aggravated tensions and spurred southerners actively to seek an alternative cultural, political, and religious course separate from the Arabized North. This is the Christian nightmare made real.
Egypt. Bonds of brotherhood and a strong sense of ethnic homogeneity and national identity brought Muslims and Copts together at the inception of modern Egyptian nationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, under British occupation, these bonds slowly eroded. In 1911, for example, the organizers of a Coptic conference demanded equality with their Muslim compatriots (such as the recognition of Sunday as a holiday, government spending on Coptic schools, and including Coptic deputies in the national parliament). Unfortunately, these basic Coptic demands fell on deaf Muslim ears. While participation in national politics and preoccupation with getting rid of the British occupying power overshadowed religious differences and inequality, the rise of Islamism in Egypt and the writings of prominent Islamist thinkers who spoke negatively about Christianity (such as Sayyid Qutb) antagonized the Copts, who saw in this the roots of political vegetation and second class citizenship.
The arrival of Anwar as-Sadat to the presidency following the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 coincided with the ordination of the dynamic and charismatic Pope Shenouda III as the 117th successor to St. Mark a year later. The Islamist policies of Anwar as-Sadat antagonized the Copts and exacerbated religious tensions that continue to the present. In Egypt, a low intensity assault against Copts has been advancing for the past thirty years. Islamists equipped with medieval religious zeal (such as jihad) and coming from marginalized and poverty-stricken societal strata, have been involved in frequent bloody attacks against their Christian compatriots. The most recent major attack occurred in January 2000 in the village of Al-Kosheh in southern Egypt, in which twenty Copts lost their lives.
A clash with a defensive Islam, be it the official or the militant variety, lies at the heart of the plight of Christian minorities in Arabic-speaking countries. At least in part, this is attributable to the universalistic and exclusivist nature of the Islamic faith which, among other things, emphasizes conformity through uniformity. During the intifada that began in 1987, for example, most Palestinian Muslims refused to consider fellow Christians shot dead by Israeli troops as martyrs. This points to a fundamental divide between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, one that nurtures suspicion and fosters confrontation. Mutual Fears
The legacy of discrimination against Christians-one that is hardly moderated by the Muslims' religious tolerance of the "peoples of the book"-has culminated in a series of bloody confrontations over the past few decades that served to pull Muslims and Christians further apart. Segregation at virtually every avenue of human interaction engendered an atmosphere of mutual fears.
Christian. In the absence of the rule of law as established in Western democracies, Christian minorities in the Arab Middle East tend to fear the preponderance of Sunni Arabs. Their fears are rooted in history. They worry that Christian well-being depends on the good will of the ruling elites as well as the ability to maintain friendly relations with the Muslim majority. This puts severe strains on their behavior, forcing Christians to be continuously conscious about the possible implications of their actions. Thomas Michel dwells on this matter and notes that Christians feel that Muslims associate them with the West, a perceived identification that makes Christians vulnerable in times of international crises. He succinctly remarks that "when Muslim public opinion is indignant at the actions of one or another Western power, their anger is frequently directed, not at those distant Christian nations of the West who are safely beyond their reach, but towards local Christians." Drawing on consequential historical events, Christians have apparently not forgotten the fall of Constantinople and the destruction of invaluable Christian art, nor the practice of Ottomans capturing Christian boys and forcing them to adopt Islam and serve the sultan as Janissaries.
Levantine Christians feel small and isolated among the huge populations of Muslims among whom they live; and in the eastern countries, they are also swamped by great numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians. They are wary of secular Europe, concerned that its historical predisposition of concern with Arab Christians exists no more. Copts in Egypt feel especially isolated: first, they are overwhelmed by their Muslim compatriots; second, they never sought or enjoyed European patronage. To the contrary, their experience with the British during the colonial period was often caustic. And yet, commitment to Egyptian nationalism and involvement in the national struggle against the British did not put the Copts on a par with the Muslim majority. Restrictions on church building, limitations on political participation and allocation of public posts injured the Copts' collective pride, causing them to lose faith in the integrity of Egypt's political system.
Levantine Christians, pioneers in fostering Arab nationalist tendencies in the nineteenth century and disproportionately over-represented in its various twentieth-century manifestations (such as the Ba‘th Party and the Arab nationalist movement), eventually grew wary about its radical and assimilationist tendencies, for many Arab Muslims perceive Arab nationalism and Islam as the same thing. The ease with which Islamism has supplanted Arab nationalism simply attests to Christian frustrations and identity disorientation.
Muslim. Muslims have their own apprehensions which must not be viewed as irrelevant, even if they may be exaggerated, or even if more imagined than real. To begin with, Muslims are highly aware of the educational, professional, business, and cultural edge enjoyed by Arabic-speaking Christians. This gap results from the Christians' historically greater exposure to Europe and their greater readiness to accept Western values and norms, as well as the solicitous attention of Western missionaries.
Ironically, their minority status as dhimmis (Jews and Christians, the two "peoples of the book" given a protected but secondary status in Muslim-ruled countries) had the effect of excluding many Christians from political participation - and may have channeled their energies to more educational and mercantile goals, which served them well in the long term. Although this gap has been significantly narrowed during recent decades, Christians still have a proportional qualitative edge in education and greater across-the-board wealth.
In addition, Arab Muslims, who for centuries fought Western domination and eventually succumbed to it, tend to find it convenient to identify Arab Christians with European colonialism. Although many Arab Christians-with the exception of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon- disassociated themselves from the Crusaders, they nevertheless began increasingly to identify with militarily and economically triumphant Europe, as Levantine Orthodox identified with tsarist Russia. Also, there are other historic memories: Damascene Christians developed relations with the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and Catholic, Maronite, and Protestant Christians' acceptance of Western secular education and cultural values, as well as economic collaboration with France and Britain; these were probably sufficient to aggravate the apprehensions of defensive and historically-conscious Muslims.
Conspiracy theorists among the Muslim majority go further and see Arab Christians as Western agents, while condemning Christian missionaries from the West as spies for their governments' intelligence agencies. Abu Nidal, leader of an extremist underground Palestinian organization, even accused the Vatican of conspiring against the Palestinian people "possibly in league with Middle Eastern Christians." Most Middle Eastern Muslims, arguably with the exception of Turks, find themselves devastated by a decline in their economic and political standing that has lasted for centuries. This is one reason why they have fallen victim to conspiratorial fantasies; and local Christians provide convenient scapegoats premised on largely baseless fears.
Obstacles to Change
The predicament of Christians in Arabic-speaking countries will continue until many obstacles have been overcome:
Communal identities in most parts of the Arab world are characterized by the prevalence of religious, tribal, or local leaders who exercise disproportionate influence among their followers. The preeminence of communal leaders retards inter-group interaction and intensifies the primordial differences (such as sectarianism) that predominate in Arab societies.
The novelty and complexity of the Western concept of the nation-state makes popular identification with the state difficult, especially in Arabic-speaking countries. Accordingly, communal commitments continue to demonstrate a far greater vitality than national and crosscutting interests.
Even in the more liberal Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, the government makes it exceptionally difficult for truly independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to form or function. This weakness of NGOs precludes the possibility of the populations identifying with broader interests, such as human rights and political accountability.
Expatriate workers in the Persian Gulf states have a difficult time because most governments there do not appreciate the importance of ordained priests for the performance of religious functions in the Christian faith. Since religious hierarchy is absent in Islam, especially among Sunnis, Gulf Muslims appear to believe that Christians can exercise their religious duties privately without ecclesiastical intervention. This absence denies spiritual guidance to the large expatriate Christian community working in the Persian Gulf and adversely affects their faith.
Governments prevent Christians from building churches. In Egypt, for example, the authorities rely on a nineteenth-century Ottoman ordinance restricting the number of churches that can be built by Copts.
Middle Eastern Arab elites (and Western ones, too) have largely ignored the debate among liberal and moderate Islamists on issues relating to improving the status of Christians in a modern Arab-Islamic state, disproportionately focusing instead on problems of Islamic radicalism. Preoccupation with the adverse impact of Islamism on Middle Eastern regimes and Western societies has distracted attention from physical attacks against Copts in Egypt, starvation and violence that decimate the largely Christian population of the southern Sudan, and the unabating Christian emigration from Lebanon. Furthermore, it has not enhanced the integration in society of Christians in Syria and Jordan beyond business activity and superficial social transactions.
Some Muslims fear that close cooperation with Christians would result in revitalizing Christianity at the expense of Islam. Thus, they advocate introducing additional curbs on displaying Christian faith in Arab societies. The list includes restrictions on church building and the severe restriction or abolition of parochial schools.
Reciprocally, some Christians worry that interaction with Muslims will eventually cause the dissolution of the community. In Lebanon, for example, Christian clerics are adamantly opposed to the introduction of civil marriage. Apart from losing influence accrued to them by the political system's confessional arrangement, the clerics have reasons to worry about weakened bonds of communal identifications as a result of interfaith marriages.
Solving the Problem
Despite these long and deep difficulties, change is nonetheless possible. The agenda for improving communal relations involves two tracks, one immediate and another long term.
Immediate. The development of dialogue between moderate Christian scholars, intellectuals, and organizations and their Muslim counterparts, already under way, is the key. In a remarkable gesture of goodwill signifying Christendom's attitudinal change towards Muslims, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-65) sought to emphasize similarities between Christianity and Islam, rather than dwell (as in the past) on contentious issues. The council generated an atmosphere amenable to understanding and interfaith dialogue. This spirit continues: on August 24, 1990, an assembly of Middle Eastern Catholic patriarchs expressed intent to strengthen Christian-Muslim relations that recognized the sameness of their cultural heritage. Since then a spate of Christian-Muslim meetings, aimed at improving bilateral relations and inducing a favorable atmosphere of discourse, has taken place in nearly every corner of the globe.
But dialogue is not in itself an automatic solution; it must transcend formalities and tactful procedures to deal with difficult issues that will ultimately involve a fundamental change of perception in the Muslim camp, leading to an acceptance of Arab Christians as the political equals of the Muslims. Muslim clerics in turn need to pay more than lip service to interfaith dialog. Their real work lies in promoting a new value system among their constituencies, one that sees religious differences as an individualistic prerogative and as a source of cultural enrichment, not contention or antagonism. They should accept and teach their followers to accept that divine truth has different interpretations and to perceive them as mutually supportive, rather than exclusive.
Unfortunately, the Muslim political and religious elites have not prepared the masses for this eventuality, nor are they likely to any time soon. In states where political legitimacy is wanting, it is highly unlikely that the rulers will undertake consequential decisions that could erode their shaky control. Nevertheless, room continues to exist for well-meaning and organized individuals from all sides to work to build confidence and friendship, preferably without reference to the state. Members of both religions need to engage in reciprocity and cooperation, not exclusivity or confrontation.
Long term. Important as these measures may be, real progress will only come with genuine political transformation. Participatory democracy, sorely lacking in the Muslim Arab world, is the real answer to minority problems. Democracy allows for pluralism, which enables minorities to fully immerse themselves in their own cultural and/or religious preferences, without losing touch with the larger political arena.
Regimes in Arabic-speaking countries have displayed, however, an astonishing capacity for resisting meaningful political change. Unfortunately, the prognosis for political transformation is not good. If anything, Arab political systems appear to be rapidly decaying. Arab rulers seem more concerned about political survival than exacting genuine societal reforms. For example, President Husni Mubarak still refuses to admit that there is a Coptic problem in Egypt; instead, he reduces attacks against them to a security issue rooted in social and economic variables. The question of succession haunts many rulers and the Islamist forces of opposition seem predisposed to cause further instability. To avoid the specter of civil strife, Arab rulers must take measures to initiate gradual political reforms that, if successful, would ensure transition to representative democracy. If this happens, Christian minorities stand to gain as well.
Perhaps the best chance for Christians to stem the tide of their retreat and to assert themselves as citizens, not subjects, may result from economic changes now under way. The end of the cold war, the trend towards democratization in Eastern Europe, and the information revolution have ushered in a period of accelerating change in many places. The Arab world has not been entirely immune to the liberalizing effects of these developments, and economic integration, although still bumpy in virtually all Arab countries, is bound to establish at least a foothold there. And booming economic activity in turn normally invites social liberalization, eventually transferable into democratic concessions by the ruling elite. This will make it more likely that competent Arab Christian entrepreneurs, many of whom are currently functioning either in the West or in the Gulf region, will return to their countries of origin. In this era of globalization which places a premium on economic activity, Christian successes in this field would probably translate themselves into political gains, crucial for sociopolitical integration.
Arab political systems must open up, enfranchising the populations and liberalizing the economies. It will be in such an atmosphere that the Arab world's Christians can reassert themselves, not from a narrow communal perspective, but on the basis of an interactive national life.
The importance of improving majority-minority relations in the Arab world can hardly be overstated. This is a region where religion largely defines not just faith but also personal identity, so that how Muslims and Christians see each other affects politics, economics, and much more. Religious identity, in its divisive outlook, has had its toll on Arab societies. It set different population groups apart, reinforced tensions, and inhibited economic development. Still worse, it has produced distinct sociopolitical groups with incompatible worldviews that doomed the rise of genuine national politics. This is why a rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, one that puts the latter on a par with the former at all societal levels, would go a long way in modernizing Arab societies. These societies stand to benefit from Christian business expertise, significant financial assets, widespread contacts with the West, and profound desire to achieve.
Arab publics and ruling elites need to recognize the need for changing patterns of inter-religious and inter-group interactions; they also need to accept the challenge and risks that accompany change. Without daring leaderships willing to take the necessary risks in dealing with simmering problems (such as minority rights, political and economic liberalization, right to assemble and organize), tensions will continue to buildup and threaten the fragile fiber of society. Arab Muslims have to learn to become more religiously permissive and accept that others' religious differences do not necessarily clash with Islam's universalism. If Arab sheikhs and princes build mosques in Christian lands and brag about it, they should, on grounds of reciprocity, allow Christians to build churches to serve Christian migrant communities in the Gulf area.
By Hilal Khashan