The Arab Christians

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Chaldeans, Maronites, Coptics and Orthodox Catholics: Once the dominant peoples of the Middle East, Arab Christians today number less than six percent of the total population.

In 1923, at the time of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, that number was closer to 33 percent, as Christians and Muslims worked together for nationalist goals that trumped religious differences.

But the Middle Eastern states drawn up by Western powers after World War I have proved unstable or dictatorial. According to the Middle East Quarterly, sectarianism and political unrest are driving Arab Christians to emigrate at a rate that will bring their numbers to less than six million by 2025.

These hardships are not exclusive to Arab Christians, but their struggle for tolerance is one felt between all cultures of the Middle East.

Between Families
As both Arabs and members of schismatic Eastern churches, the Christians of the Middle East have suffered at the hands of both their Muslim brethren and their “coreligionists” of Europe, writes Hilal Khashan, an American University professor in Beirut.

The Crusaders of the Middle Ages were perceived by many Middle Eastern Christians not as liberators from Muslim domination, but foreign agents bent on political and religious conquest. The Fourth Crusade in 1204 even saw the sacking of Constantinople by French knights.

Despite this, Arab Christians have benefited from a greater access to Western culture, education and economic opportunities.

It’s a mixed blessing that makes them “vulnerable in times of international crisis,” writes historian Philippe Fargues.

Caught in the crossfire is the town held sacred as the birthplace of Christ. Palestinian Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox, made up almost 90 percent of the population of Bethlehem up until 1948. They were displaced by Muslims fleeing the war that came with the founding of Israel, and now comprise less than two percent of the entire West Bank.

The Muslims and Christians of Palestine generally, but not always, coexist peacefully.

In 2002 militants took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and fired on Israeli troops, sparking a five week siege.

And in September, several West Bank churches and cathedrals were firebombed and shot at after comments made by Pope Benedict XVI were perceived as anti-Islamic.

Partisans fear the recently elected Hamas government will tolerate this sort of increased repression of Christians, but the attacks were condemned within the Muslim community and by a Hamas legislator.

More recently, Hamas said it would tap its depleted coffers and give Bethlehem a $50,000 spruce-up for Christmas tourism, which has been decimated not only by war and terrorism, but also the wall Israel erected to keep out suicide bombers.

The barrier annexes part of Bethlehem, and introduces a complex of security checkpoints, turning the area nearby into what the Tribune called a “ghost town” where 72 of 80 local businesses have closed.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that by the Saturday before Christmas, the funding promised by Hamas had not yet arrived.

Egyptian Coptic Christians are the largest Christian community in the Arab world. In the 19th century they experienced newfound equality under the tolerant ruler Muhammad Ali, and Copts were outspoken proponents of Egyptian independence and nationalism.

According to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, during Egypt’s 1919 uprising against the British, “Coptic priests were preaching in mosques … and Imams were preaching in churches as a symbol of national unity.”

However, subsequent governments have not recognized Christians as equals, and have limited the renovation and or construct Coptic schools and churches. Copts also face violence that critics say the government has shown little interest in preventing or prosecuting.

This includes the reported kidnapping and forced conversion of Coptic women and girls to Islam, allegedly by threatening them with acts of rape and sexual assault and forcing them to marry Muslims.

In a 2004 speech, Coptic Pope Shenouda III said that he has received “numerous complaints about young Christian women being kidnapped,” but the U.S. State Department reported in 2003 that observers, “including human rights groups,” found it “extremely difficult” to verify the claims.

The same report did find “credible reports of harassment” by the government of Christian families seeking to regain custody of their daughters, and noted that a law prohibiting the marriage of girls under age 16 was often disregarded.

Carved out of Syria by French Mandate in 1923, Lebanon was created under pressure from Maronites who sought to found a Christian nation.

After World War II, Lebanon became independent of French colonial rule, but instability was only deepened by the Arab-Israeli conflict, the presence of more than 100,000 Palestinian refugees, and the 1975-1990 civil war that pitted Christian against Muslim.

The war decimated the capital of Beirut, led to years of Syrian occupation, and instigated a steady stream of urbanized Christians out of the country.

Nationalist hopes were restored by 2005’s Cedar Revolution, in which Syrian troops finally left the country following huge protests, but an estimated 240,000 more Christians fled during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006.

General Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who went into exile in 1990, returned to Lebanon in 2005, but according to the Christian Science Monitor was denied a place in the current government by the anti-Syrian coalition of Sunnis, Druze and Christians currently in power.

He has since partnered with his former enemies, the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia, in a move that some Christians condemn as a self-serving gesture intended to ensure his own power.

His support among Lebanese has since “withered,” according to the Monitor, and anger at his Christian backers has deepened following the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayal, a Maronite and scion of one of Lebanon’s “leading political dynasties.”

The Syrian constitution guarantees religious freedom, which provides a haven for the one million Christians living there.

The ruling Alawite Muslims, themselves a minority, allow the construction of Christian churches and displays of the cross are not forbidden.

“‘Everywhere it’s the same…we’re all the same. No one thinks about whether someone is Muslim or Christian,’ a Muslim man told the BBC in 2002.

However, the activist group Christian Solidarity International says that for the last 40 years, the government has refused to permit any new Christian schools to open , and that crimes against Christians largely go unpunished.

The situation may be deteriorating at a time of increased militarism in the Middle East, according to a new report in the Times of London.

The newspaper quoted one Syrian Christian who said he fears for his two sons, does not “feel at ease any longer” and is planning to emigrate to Canada.

The Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq are the most threatened Christian population in the Middle East, and are leaving the country in droves as sectarian violence deepens.

Their communities are scattered in small pockets throughout the country and lack the militias that bolster the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

In October, the Guardian reported that Christians are routinely targeted by both Shiite and Sunni militias.

Attacks are a near-daily occurrence and involve kidnappings, assassinations, beheadings, and bombings.

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned the Iraq invasion outright, saying it endangered the lives of Christians there and made conditions worse than under the Hussein regime. Britain’s Foreign Office rejected the charge, saying the violence was widespread beyond Iraq.

The United Nations estimates that half of Iraq’s Christians have fled, mainly to Syria and also Jordan, where the majority of refuges entering from Iraq in the first quarter of 2006 were Christian.

Researched and written by Scott Domini Ehlert and staff.

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Bibliography & Internet Resources

“The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective”
By Phillipe Fargues, 1998

“Arab Christians as Symbol: Disappearing Christians of the Middle East.”
Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2001

The Fourth Crusade and the Latin empire of Constantinople”
Encyclopedia Britannica

“Arab Christians and relations with the West”
Dar Al-Hayat, July 11, 2005

“Church siege ending after 39 days”
The Guaradian, May 10, 2002

“5 churches attacked in Palestinian areas following Pope’s comments on Islam”
Associated Press, September 16, 2006

“Violence, economic hardship accelerate exodus of Bethlehem’s Christians”
Chicago Tribune, Dec. 23, 2006

“Holy Land’s woes sink Bethlehem’s Christmas spirit / Strife ruins celebrations, local economy”
San Francisco Chronicle. December 24, 2006

“The Copts and Their Political Implications in Egypt”
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 25, 2005

“Massacre at the Millennium”
Freedom House/Center for Religious Freedom

“Coptic Patriarch in retreat to protest anti-Christian discrimination”, December 21, 2004

“Egypt: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices”
U.S. State Department, 2003

“A House of Many Mansions — The History of Lebanon Reconsidered”
By Kamal Salibi, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1993

“The Christian exodus and Lahoud’s fate central to Maronite bishops’ appeal”, September 6, 2006

“In Lebanon, a crisis for Christians”
Christian Science Monitor, November 28, 2006

“Syrian Surprise: Christians Free to Worship”
Christian World News

“Syrian Christians have faith in Muslim world”
BBC News, December 24, 2002

“Countdown for Christians in Syria”
Christian Solidarity International

“‘All my staff at the church have been killed – they disappeared'”
The Times (U.K.), December 23, 2006

“In 20 years, there will be no more Christians in Iraq”
Guardian U.K., October 6, 2006

“Anglican Leader Blasts War in Iraq”
December 23, 2006

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