Edition 2 Volume 43 - December 09, 2023
Christian minorities in the Middle East
Reflections of a Jerusalem Christian
George HintlianOnly if peace comes will the Christians here be able to witness a resurgence and blend back into their natural environment in the wider Middle East.
An Arab culture of denial
Saad Eddin IbrahimThe situation of Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine seems to be better than in Egypt.
The plight and future of Christian Arabs
Habib MalikTwo distinct historical narratives define the Middle East's Christians: a narrative of subjugation, and a narrative of freedom.
Jordan's Muslims and Christians face the same challenges -
Rana Sabbagh-GargourJordan's Christians are caught between the rock of the US-led "war on terror", and the hard place of having to remind their compatriots that the West sees them as Arabs, first and foremost.
Reflections of a Jerusalem Christian
The Christian minority in Palestine has always benefited from a privileged status, and rulers from Empress Constantine through Caliph Omar to the Ottoman sultans all issued decrees to ensure respect for the rights of the various churches, their patriarchs and local communities.
Conversely, and depending on the rulers and political circumstances, the churches have themselves been able to play their own political roles, and exercise their influence, either overtly or behind the scenes.
The last hundred years have witnessed some of the more profound changes for the Christian community here even by the standards of its particularly turbulent history.
In the late nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century Palestine and especially Jerusalem and Jaffa witnessed extraordinary prosperity. Modern urban patterns emerged and there was a sharp increase in the population. There was also significant growth in both foreign and local Christian institutions. The greater access to a western-oriented education available to the local Christian population resulted in upward demographic changes, as wealth increased and there was migration of wealthy Christians from neighboring countries into Palestine (mainly to Nazareth, Acre and Jaffa).
The economic boom picked up momentum during the British mandate but was to be discontinued with the 1948 war. The displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during that war affected all and the Christian presences in Jaffa and Haifa were dramatically reduced, as many formerly affluent Christians suddenly became refugees, having lost their homes and businesses almost overnight.
The Christian population in Palestine never recovered (quantitatively and qualitatively) from this exodus. Its demographic growth was arrested and it never regained its intellectual vigor. And while the 1950s witnessed major rehabilitation programs, many continued to emigrate to the western countries for greener pastures.
The 1967 capture of the West Bank and Jerusalem by Israel ushered in yet a new period. Perhaps overestimating the power and international influence of the churches, Israel undertook a well-calculated policy to impress upon the world that Christians in the occupied territories would be treated fairly. In a solemn declaration in the Knesset in 1967, Israel undertook to honor the Status Quo with the Christian communities as it had been observed by previous governments and rulers. In four decades of occupation, Israel has not interfered in issues relating to Christian holy places, leaving it mainly to the concerned communities to resolve their differences.
Indeed, in the first two decades of Israel's occupation, the Israeli authorities worked hard to reach out to the Christian churches. Liaison offices between the churches and the authorities were established to deal promptly with practical issues created as a result of the occupation. But this practice at the same time ensured that the lines of communication were open mainly to the ecclesiastical leadership.
Thus, in this period of transition when daily life was full of bureaucratic detail and red tape, the authorities empowered the church leadership to play a middleman role. The congregations became heavily dependent on their church leadership to solve day-to-day problems. This in turn meant the churches had to maintain close relations with the state to obtain favors for their congregations.
The first intifada changed the picture again. Both the churches and the lay communities became more active in daily politics. Many Christians took an active part in the intifada and the churches articulated public statements and positions against the occupation and Israeli measures to fight that intifada.
Since then relations between the churches and the Israeli state have witnessed a steady decline. Some liaison offices have been suppressed or lost their momentum, and there are many pending issues that await resolution. For instance, Israel never attempted to codify or finalize tax exemptions, which are an indivisible part of the daily functioning of Christian institutions (as non-profit organizations), and to date any formal pledge to do so by Israel to the Vatican has not yet materialized.
Undoubtedly, the churches have been politicized and political developments are followed closely. Because of this growing involvement in politics, there are also more frequent tensions with the Israeli authorities.
The Christian communities have a clear vested interest in final status talks concerning Jerusalem. The churches were vocal in their objection to the Camp David proposals regarding a Quarter-based division of the Old City, insisting instead that the Old City should stay as one unit to ensure freedom of movement and access to the holy places.
In fact, the destinies of the churches here are inextricably intertwined with the survival of their local communities. The overall numbers of Christians are falling and it is an issue of great concern. The churches are trying to cope with the continuing loss of the faithful and mobilize resources to provide reasonable conditions of life to stem the exodus. But only a peaceful resolution of the conflict will ultimately relieve the churches from the political entanglements they have become embroiled in, allowing them to devote their resources to ecclesiastical matters and their congregations.
As the situation stands, the churches and the Christian communities are facing an existential threat of the greatest acuteness. Only if, and when, peace comes will the Christians here be able to witness a resurgence as the Christian communities can blend back into their natural environment and rejoin their brethren in the wider Middle East.- Published 9/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
George Hintlian is a Jerusalem historian, author of eight books, including "Christian Heritage in the Holy Land".
An Arab culture of denial
Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Ten years ago the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies (ICDS) organized a conference on "Minorities in the Arab World". As soon as invitations to the conference were issued, a storm of objections broke out. Leading the attack on ICDS was the prominent Egyptian Journalist M.H. Haikal, the former editor-in-chief of the biggest and oldest Arabic daily, al-Ahram, and a close confident of the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul-Nasser. Haikal was fired from his job by President Anwar Sadat in February 1974, depriving avid readers of his weekly one page editorial "Frankly Speaking," which had run uninterrupted every Friday for the previous 20 years.
However, Haikal was allowed back to publish his attack on ICDS and the minority conference. Haikal and the Egyptian state, not on the best terms since he had been expelled, suddenly saw eye to eye on the issue of minorities in general and that of Egypt's Christian Copts in particular.
Haikal's argument was that the Arab world did not have a minority problem. Anyone who said otherwise, according to Haikal, was carrying out a western, mainly American, agenda to fragment the Arab homeland along sectarian lines, to weaken the nation and to enable Israel to prevail forever. Haikal charged in the same article that the United States had earmarked $100 million a year for private research centers like ICDS to implement the sinister plot.
Though no evidence was provided to substantiate Haikal's allegations, about one-third of the invitees to the conference declined. Over 120 articles followed in the same vein, denying the existence of a minority problem, attacking the conference, and casting doubts on the patriotism of the organizers. Egypt's State Security Agency (SSA) informed ICDS that protection for conference participants would not be provided, nor could the SSA guarantee the safety of the foreign guests. Amr Mousa, then minister of foreign affairs, pleaded with ICDS to cancel and/or postpone the conference and to spare Egyptian authorities pressures from a score of "sister Arab states".
The conference was held, not in Cairo as planned but in Limasol, Cyprus. This rather lengthy background note is necessary to show both the sensitivity of the issue and the clumsiness of Arab officials and intelligentsia alike in confronting it. I have described this combination elsewhere as symptomatic of a culture of shame and denial.
Now on to Christian minorities in the Arab world. They make up between seven and 10 percent of the total population--i.e., 21-30 million. These figures are always contested, with governments underestimating and spokespersons for minorities overestimating. Using the colonial administration figures of a century ago as a baseline and calculating the final figure according to the respective country's rate of natural population growth would bring the figures closer to the larger estimates, except for the fact that (1) Christians tend to migrate at a higher rate to Europe, the Americas, and Australia, and (2) being generally more educated and well-to-do, their rates of natural growth are slightly lower.
These two caveats, also, reflect many of the problems that are often whispered by Christians at home and expressed loudly in the diaspora. They are better educated, more professionally placed in the labor force, contribute more to their countries' GNP, and have higher incomes than the majority. Yet, because of their minority status, Christians in most Arab countries do not have a commensurate share of political power.
Additionally, in a country like Egypt which has the largest Christian community, Christians have complained for the last half century of state discrimination in building new churches or repairing old ones, both of which require an a priori presidential decree, while any Muslim can build a mosque anywhere without even a municipal permit. While Muslim religious rituals and ceremonies appropriate substantial time of the state controlled media, their Christian counterparts are ignored. Likewise, school textbooks ignore 600 years of the history of Coptic Egypt, as well as the Christian contributions to its art, culture, and architecture.
Christians in Southern Sudan did not whisper or just verbally complain, but resorted to armed struggle for equality with the Muslim Arab majority in the north. Out of 50 years of the history of independent Sudan, 40 have witnessed protracted warfare, costing the country two million dead and three million uprooted and displaced. The southerners have an equally long list of grievances--ranging from Arab racism through socio-economic neglect to disproportionate power distribution. The situation steadily worsened with the advent of an Islamic-based coup d'etat in 1989, which attempted to enforce Islamic Shari'a laws on non-Muslim southerners.
At the eastern end of the Arab world, Iraqi Christians were hardly heard from, positively or negatively, for four decades of Ba'th Party rule. True, a prominent Iraqi Christian, Tarek Aziz, was placed among the top elite until the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2023. The Ba'th Party had prided itself on being secular and nationalist, with no room or consideration for religious affiliation of Iraqis. Had this kind of political socialization been true or successful, we would not have witnessed the popular rise of the Shi'ite clergy after Saddam, or for that matter the targeted bombing of Christian churches, after which a mini-exodus was reported. Obviously, sectarian resentment and accompanying discontent were simmering below the surface.
The situation of Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine seems to be better. In Lebanon the Christians in general and the Maronite sect in particular have enjoyed a markedly privileged position. It was other sects that long complained about discrimination, a major factor underlying the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). But with the Ta'if Accord, some if not all sectarian grievances have been addressed. In Syria, appearances indicate that Christians do not have serious grievances. They seem to be loyal partners with the ruling Alawite minority. We must note that during the Syrian liberal age (1923-1958) and particularly following independence in the early 1940s when the first prime minister, Faris al-Khoury, was a Christian, no one fussed about it. That precedent has remained a remarkable exception.
Jordan's Hashemite monarchy seems to have been the most accommodating with its Christian minority, as indeed with all minorities. Early on, these minorities were assigned slightly more positions in the executive and more seats in the legislative councils than their proportionate weight in the population. This magnanimous attitude has kept all minorities appreciative, with no reported resentment from the majority. The Jordanian case is indicative of how easily minorities could be better integrated in the sociopolitical mainstream.
The situation with the Christians in Palestine has been complicated by two historical dynamics operating at cross-purposes. The Israeli usurpation of Palestinian land and political rights since 1948 has mobilized Muslims and Christians in a common national liberation struggle for self-determination. That phase reached its apex in the first intifada (1987-1993). However, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad increasingly calling the shots, Palestinian Christians began a silent retreat from the public arena. Their role in the second intifada (2000-2004) has greatly diminished. Like their Egyptian and Iraqi counterparts, rates of out-migration have accelerated among Christian Palestinians, often with the tacit encouragement of the Israeli occupation authorities, especially among residents of the Greater Jerusalem area.
Older Arab Christians still remember with much nostalgia earlier times when they enjoyed full citizenship rights at least equal to the Muslim majority. Some call it the Arab liberal age. This was roughly the four decades following World War I. Before that they had lived for centuries under the Ottoman dhimmi system, in which they had communitarian autonomy but incomplete citizenship rights.
The Arab liberal age came to an end with the series of military coups d'etat following the 1948 debacle in Palestine, which came to be known as al-Nakbah. A new era of authoritarian populism engulfed Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Algeria. Though propagating themselves as revolutionary, liberationist and justice oriented, it is under these regimes that minorities in general and Christians in particular suffered the most during the last century. Democratizing the Arab world promises to de-alienate and restore to Christians overdue full citizenship rights.- Published 9/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a pro-democracy activist, is professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, and chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.
The plight and future of Christian Arabs
Christian communities native to the Middle East are passing through turbulent times. In Egypt, where the Copts constitute the largest concentration of Christian Arabs anywhere in the region, the community finds itself caught in the crossfire between an authoritarian government and radical Islamist groups. The Copts, despite sharing strong sentiments of Egyptian nationalism with the Muslim majority, are often beset upon by both the authorities and the fanatics because they are perceived as a convenient scapegoat. In southern Sudan, Christians have been locked in a 20-year civil war with an Islamist government in Khartoum bent on imposing shari'a on them by force.
Christians in growing numbers are daily fleeing the chaos in Iraq where their churches have been bombed and their livelihoods threatened by Islamist militants leading the armed insurgency against US and coalition forces. In places with ancient Christian communities like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, the Christian presence has shrunk dramatically due mainly to emigration as Christians see themselves being marginalized by a conflict increasingly defined in terms of Jews versus Muslims. And in Lebanon, following 15 years of war that resulted in open-ended Syrian domination, the Christians there who number close to 40 percent of the population have seen their freedoms steadily erode, their numbers dwindle, and their political influence shrivel.
Two distinct historical narratives define the way of life and the destiny of the Middle East's diverse indigenous Christian communities: a narrative of subjugation, and a narrative of freedom. On one side lies the vast majority of Christian Arabs--over 90 percent--in their respective regional and cultural contexts. Since the rise and spread of Islam these communities have been relentlessly reduced to dhimmi, or second-class status in their own homelands, being forced to forfeit any semblance of free existence. The Christians of Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, and the Holy Land belong to this vanquished category.
On the other side stand the Christians of Lebanon, numerically a minority, but one with a unique historical experience of freedom that was defended and preserved over the centuries at a high cost in terms of blood and treasure. Here the entrenched Maronites, affiliated with Rome since the year 1180, serve as spearhead for a host of other lesser denominations who have thrown in their lot with them to form an exceptionally rooted and tenacious Christian community largely resistant to the ravages of dhimmitude. However, the combined toll in recent years of war, foreign occupation, economic deterioration, and attrition through emigration has weighed heavily on Lebanon's Christians, causing them for the first time since the mid-19th century to experience an appreciable loss in the precious freedoms to which they have clung so fiercely for so long.
One way to begin to appreciate the qualitative difference in mindset and outlook between dhimmi Christians and free Christians in the Middle East is to look at attitudes of Christians on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border. In Syria, where Christians have lived as dhimmis for centuries, even the slightest improvement in their overall situation, as happened under the late President Hafez Assad, is hailed as a tremendous achievement and a great leap forward by the community, which is then ready to offer its complete allegiance to the regime. Not having known real freedom, even the smallest granted dimensions of breathing room evoke an outpouring of gratitude from an essentially subjugated community.
Move across the border into neighboring Lebanon and the inexorable retreat of personal and communal freedoms across the board over the last quarter century is viewed by the Christians there as nothing short of calamitous. For a people who have tasted the fruits of real freedom and sacrificed much to protect them, even the minutest diminution of such a valuable commodity is greatly felt and lamented.
The future of Christian Arabs hangs in the balance today. The majority, who initially were offered order in place of freedom, is now being handed insecurity everywhere throughout the Arab world. Those few who risked everything to embrace freedom face at best an uncertain course as pressures mount to deprive them of what is left of their hard-won liberties. Invariably, the stigma of "agents of the west" or "closet crusaders" continues to loom menacingly over these communities and rears its lethal head whenever religious passions rage uncontrollably. The future will remain bleak for Christian Arabs if their plight continues to be neglected by the rest of the world; if the so-called war on terror falters and fanaticism gets the upper hand against moderate forces in the Muslim world; if something remotely resembling democracy does not strike root in a pacified Iraq; and if the line of freedom's erosion is not held in Lebanon where a homegrown exception to the freedom-starved regional norm managed to flourish in the face of overwhelming odds.
Thus stand the spiritual descendants of the apostles 2023 years later in the lands surrounding the sacred spot where the King of Kings chose to appear as a lowly carpenter.- Published 9/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Habib Malik teaches history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University (Byblos campus) in Lebanon.
Jordan's Muslims and Christians face the same challenges
Jordan's indigenous Arab Christian minority is not in high spirits these days.
Political uncertainty next door, both in Iraq and Palestine, and growing popular perceptions of a new global crusade being waged against Islam and Arab culture in the name of the "war on terror", are souring their mood.
As a result, many in this dwindling community--it now makes up less than three percent of the Kingdom's 5.2 million population compared to over six percent a century ago--are facing a dilemma. They are caught between the rock of the US-led "war on terror", and the hard place of having to remind their compatriots that the West sees them as Arabs, first and foremost.
In fact, followers of Islam and Christianity in Jordan--from the ruling political and economic elite, down to the ordinary man in the street--find themselves in the same predicaments, internally and externally.
On the external front, both are facing pressure from the neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists who are steering Washington's foreign policy these days. Both communities are outspoken critics of continued Israeli atrocities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and want to see an independent Palestinian state emerge next door. They also want to see an end to the American occupation of Iraq, and a return of law and order, key factors that continue to encourage many Iraqi Christians to emigrate to the West.
And the two are facing similar domestic challenges in a socially conservative country, amid growing Islamic radicalization across the largely autocratic region that is partly a reaction to rapid globalization, unemployment, poverty, and lack of democracy and human rights.
And while there are daily fiery mosque sermons calling for a Muslim victory over the "Jews" and all their allies--a euphemism for the United States, Europe, and assorted Arab allies--these are not a source of concern to the Christian community, even if they do not like to hear such speeches.
For the Christians in Jordan have a lot going for them. Their survival in Jordan has never been threatened by the state. Unlike many Arab Christians in neighboring Muslim countries, they have never been subjected to religious persecution, nor were they victims of political oppression. Their economic, social and political power remains highly disproportionate to their actual size to the extent that most do not like to talk about it because it is a cause of envy for Muslims and other minorities.
In Jordanian Christian eyes, the Hashemite dynasty remains the guarantor of Jordan's ethnic and religious mosaic, that includes the almost 2,000-year-old Arab Christians. Two of the four wives of the late King Hussein who ruled Jordan for 46 years were western Christians who converted to Islam on marriage. UK-born Princess Mona is the mother of the current King Abdullah.
Indeed, a majority in King Abdullah's close circle of friends hails from large Arab Christian tribes. Continuing in the footsteps of his father, the 42-year-old king pays respect to Christians as well as Muslims in speeches that focus on tolerance and moderation. Members of the royal family often attend Christmas and Easter ceremonies at the various churches dotting the desert kingdom. Jordan's official state religion is Islam and Christians can practice their faith in peace. The US State Department's annual report on human rights in Jordan has never raised a question mark over Christians, and the Vatican often praises Jordan's treatment of Christians as an example of much-coveted religious coexistence.
For the first time, Jordan last month introduced a Christian deputy prime minister, Marwan Muasher. He is responsible for public sector reform under an aggressive modernization drive pursued by King Abdullah, to wipe out widespread nepotism and political appointments along tribal and religious lines in government, thus to ensure the long-term survival of his dynasty.
Two Christian ambassadors from the same tribe are serving in Washington and Paris. In the army, Christians can reach the highest ranks except the rank of general commander of the army. Christians also hold six of 55 seats in the appointed Senate, and traditionally, at least up to two cabinet posts as well as other influential posts in government. Christians are prominent politicians and businessmen, many of them controlling over 40 percent of private economic power through leading giant mass employer companies. All Jordanians, even civil servants, get a public holiday on Christmas Day, and on New Years Day.
And while not all Jordanians appreciate the attention given to Christians in Jordan, part of the holy Land, where the first Christian community spread very early and was a majority until the Ottoman period in 1516, no one can reverse these gains.
Like elsewhere in the region, however, it is the emigration of Arab Christians, for economic reasons and to reunite with families, that is the main source of concern. The fall in the Christian population began in the 19th century, but it has accelerated with social and political changes this century. And many fear their community could eventually die out across the Middle East.- Published 9/12/2004 (c) bitterlemons-international.org
Rana Sabbagh-Gargour, an independent journalist, is former editor of the Jordan Times.
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