The Ordeal of Arab Christians

The recent, simultaneous bombing of six Iraqi churches reflects the seriousness of the predicament of Arab Christians, who are trapped between the hammer of terrorists groups and extremists, and the anvil of fanatic governments that skillfully manipulate the issue of religious radicalism for their own benefit, while reinforcing religious, ethnic and sectarian discrimination among their citizens. Arab Christians live in the bosom of a racist culture that claims superiority over non—Muslims, fueled by a legacy mostly filled with violence and hatred and a history centered on strife, murder and viciousness.

Obviously, the Christians of the Middle East have lost the demographic race to the benefit of their Muslim compatriots. Their numbers continue to dwindle not just due to natural factors, but because many of them chose, or were compelled, to emigrate.  Some fell victims to the constant pressures that escalated to fatal attacks. And others succumbed to the temptation to renounce their faith.  The Christians of Southern Sudan were the only ones to maintain their place in that difficult contest, and though they paid a dear price, they discovered the means to achieve a realistic balance of power and face off eradication designs.

A survey of the present situation of Christians living in the Middle East demonstrates a problematic and distressing cycle: Arab Christian populations are declining, resulting in an erosion of their political power, which in turn causes their conditions to worsen and ultimately drives them out of their own homeland. This pattern is repeated throughout the region.

In Lebanon, Christians represented 50—60% of the population prior to 1975; today this percentage has declined to 25—30%. Most importantly, their political influence has severely weakened. The Lebanese emigration ministry estimates the number of emigrants at five million, more than three and a half million of which are Lebanese Christians. In the past Lebanon was known to be a safe haven for persecuted individuals who were hunted because of their religious or intellectual beliefs. Today, however, it is driving out its own children because of the Arab infringement, the Palestinian foolishness and the Syrian occupation.

The Lebanese Patriarch Nasr Allah Safir talked with LBC TV station about the Christian situation saying: "The Christians feel left out, their presence being clearly unwanted". He commented on the injustice committed against Lebanese Christians:

"Lebanon was in a state of war, and it was the agreement of El Taef that put an end to this war, but only a partial and selective implementation of the agreement was carried out."

The writer Mushee Maouz confirmed this statement in his book Middle East Minorities Between Integration and Dissension, with the following words:

"Since 1943, and for many decades, the Maronite Christians of Lebanon, the Shi'a, and the elite Sunni have worked together in a diverse, legal and democratic system that was controlled by minorities.  However, the shift in favor of Muslim communities, Radical Arab nationalism and military Palestinian existence, as well as the Syrian and Israeli intervention ended up alienating the Maronites and forcing them to take a defensive stance."

Iraq witnessed an increase in Christian emigration following the defeat of Sadam Hussein in the second Gulf War, as the political speech took religious tones and the economic situation continued to deteriorate. Once Baghdad fell at the hands of the Coalition troops, the fanatics came out of their dark caves and began attacking the liquor shops owned by Christians. As a result more than two hundred shops had to be closed. The attacks became more serious as they then targeted Christian women who were not veiled, Christian residences, and finally took the lives of a number of innocent Christians citizens. The final attacks targeted Christian churches during Sunday services and resulted in a large number of casualties and injuries. News reports mentioned that thousands of Iraqi Christians were forced to migrate to Syria in the aftermath of such attacks, proof enough that the so called "resistance" is nothing but another facet of the vicious terrorism that assaults innocents and ultimately seeks to ruin the new Iraqi experience. 

During a few decades, the percentage of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 17% to less than 2% of the total population. The Israeli newspaper Badiut Ahrunut  reported that entire neighborhoods in Beit Gala, Beit Lahm and Beit Sahur have been emptied of Christians because of the overwhelming Islamic tide that has turned the Palestinian cause into an Islamic issue, and the growing power of the fundamentalists who are imposing their rules and views on the Palestinian community. According to the BBC, the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem, who, in 1920, represented 50% of the population, currently represent a mere 10%. 

The Palestinian Intifada, under the leadership of Islamic organizations, had a detrimental effect on the Christians who were required to pay a type of tax to those organizations to support suicide missions. News coming out of the Holy Land is disturbing. In Gaza, Christian women, in fear of being attacked by Islamic fanatics, have donned the veil. During the crisis in the Church of the Nativity, a reporter from Los Angeles managed to sneak into the church and indicated that the terrorists have raided the church, leaving nothing intact.  They used the wood of the temple as fire fuel, and the pages of Bibles as toilet paper.  Another incident that took place in Nazareth City, when the fanatics tried to build a mosque right in front of the Church of the Annunciation, clearly reveals the intentions of the fundamentalist organizations to establish an Islamic state on this most sacred Christian ground.  

The situation of Egypt's Copts is definitely not promising, as they are now more marginalized then ever. The reports issued abroad refer to them as "an isolated minority", "a minority under siege", "a persecuted Church" and "an oppressed minority". To quote Mushee Maouz:

"The Copts' participation in political life is minimal. The peaceful integration of the Copts into their society started in the middle of the 19th Century, but was regularly interrupted by the militant Islamic movement that disconcerted the Copts and created tensions between Muslims and Christians.  The Copts continued to swing back and forth between integration and rejection throughout the 20th Century, and isolation became the common pattern under the rule of autocratic regimes."

This dismal situation propelled a million and half Christians to emigrate to the United States, Europe and Australia.  The exact number of the Christian minority living in Egypt remains a well guarded government secret.

Of all the Arab regimes, the Syrian and Jordanian regimes are deemed the best in their dealings with Christian citizens. Nevertheless, the Islamist movement and the deteriorating economic situation have badly affected the Christians in these two countries. Since the events of September 11, tensions are running high in the region, and hatred towards all that is related to the West is growing almost to the point of triggering a collision between the East and West. To quote the British reporter Martin Buckley:

"The Christians in Jordan feel that they are being pushed into a difficult corner, either to belong to the Western World or to the Arab World." 

Growing suspicions surround the Christians, falsely accusing them of being "a fifth column" or an "inside enemy" — another example of a prevalent mindset that constantly casts doubts about the Christians' loyalty and patriotism. It seems that Christians are sadly destined to pay the price whenever tensions or conflicts arise between the Arab World and the West.

Throughout the ages of Arab invasion and Ottoman occupation, Christians of the Middle East: the Copts, Armenians, Syrians, Maronites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Aramaeans have suffered from persecution along with other minorities like the Shi'a, Kurds and Druz. Their situation improved, however, when the modern state was founded after the collapse of the Ottoman rule and at the onset of Western colonization, becoming more engaged in their societies in response to the emergent concept of citizenship. Unfortunately, at the escalation of militant regimes and fascist religious movements, a relapse occurred costing the minorities most of their justly earned citizenship rights. 

The bleak situation of the Christian Arabs has caught the attention of honorable men who chose to confront the sinister tide that has overtaken the region, and some of them paid dearly for their courage such as Dr. Farag Fouda and Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim; the former who was assassinated in 1991, and the latter who was jailed during 2000—2003.

A number of Arabic writers have recently produced candid articles and other publications calling attention to the ordeal of Arab Christians.

Saudi Prince Talal Ben Abdelaziz wrote an article entitled "The Survival of Christian Arabs", in El Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper, stating the following:

"The Christian Arabs' situation is the product of an environment overwhelmed by fanaticism and a violence level which can trigger disasters of historical proportions, and, most of all, the product of an environment strongly disposed to eliminate the different other.  The continued existence of the Christian Arabs in their homelands will reinforce the foundations of the modern state, the cultural diversity and democracy, and put an end to the continuous loss of scientific, intellectual and cultural abilities in our region. Their emigration is a mighty blow that will prove detrimental to our future." 

Mr. Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal wrote the following words in the magazine entitled Perspectives:

"I personally feel, as others certainly do, that if we do not address the issue of Christian emigration, if we continue to overlook it or neglect it on purpose, then we will face an Arab scene that will not just be different from the current one, but one that would have definitely lost part of its assets on a human and cultural level. It would be such a loss if the Eastern Christians leave believing that there is no future for them or their children here, Islam would then be left alone in the East, with only the company of Zionist Judaism — and most specifically that of Israel." 

As for Mr. Galal Amin, he wrote the following enlightening words:

"Evidently, the issue of Muslims and Copts is not a religious issue, it stirs up all our issues: education, freedom, rational thinking, justice, ethics and development. If this argument is valid, then it is obvious that if we want to see Muslims freed, we need to free the Copts first".

Mr. Tarek Heggy wrote the following comment:

"Progress and modernization are infectious! And it is up to the minorities of the Middle East to pass on these notions into our region".

There were many other inspiring words, in addition to a significant visit from Pope John Paul II, who wished to support and encourage the Middle East Christians. However, no matter how important the words and visits are, neither of them is capable of achieving significant results. Only when the foundations of the modern state are firmly set in place, can we dare hope that this situation will change. Democracy, liberty and citizenship — the basics of a modern state — were the factors that initiated the integration of Christians within their societies in the first half of the last century; and it was the absence of these factors during the second half of the last century that sent them back into the dark ages of isolation and persecution, where they still abide.

Magdy Khalil is an Egyptian writer and analyst residing in the USA.