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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Arab Christians: A Fight against Annihilation

Saturday 29 March 2008, by Ginu Zacharia Oommen


West Asia is the birthplace of Christianity and home to some of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations, namely, Maronite Church, Greek Orthodox, Chaldeans, Nestorians, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Church, Assyrian Church, Syrian Catholic and so on. For some reasons the Arab Christians have been one of the main victims of the volatile and unstable political situation in West Asia. The colonial ‘God trick’ of nation-state creation and the carving out of modern Arab states (Khashan, 2001) have made Arab Christians a victim of a potent combination of colonial and ethno-religious geopolitics. The Arabic speaking Christians have been marginalised in the region due to various socio-political and historical developments like Islamisation, the Crusades, massive migration, war, poverty, terrorism and, finally, the recent Western geopolitical interest in West Asia. The absence of rule of law and democracy and the pre-dominance of monarchs and dictatorial-military regimes has further depressed the conditions of the Arab Christian community there. The Arab-Israeli conflict and the Gulf War have also exacerbated the position of Christian Arabs. The extremist Islamist groups have sought to sully their image as the ‘collaborators with the West (mainly America)’.

As Thomas Mitchel writes, Muslims in the region perceive Arab Christians as associates of the ‘West’, a perception of ‘othering’ that makes Christians vulnerable in times of international crises. “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 safe and beyond their reach, but towards local Christians.” The common response of the Iraqi nuns and priests of Bethlehem were: “We were very safe in Iraq but the recent war has made our position very horrible.” (Based on my interviews during field study in 2004.) Ironically, after the occupation of Iraq by the American led allied forces, the rise in attacks on Churches and Christian institutions by the extremist groups has become unprecedented. The conflict for reclaiming space and Arab Christian identity in the region, especially in Palestine, Egypt and Iraq, is therefore an issue of contemporary relevance in West Asian geopolitics and deserves detailed examination for policy implications and peace negotiations here.

During the course of my field research in Israel/Palestine, an issue which deeply influenced me was the plight of Arab Christians of West Asia. An incident which is deeply etched in my mind is the helplessness of an old Palestinian Christian, Yosef Khalil. Khalil, was a soldier in the French Army and had a beautiful house in Jerusalem. In the 1967 war the Israelis annexed the old city and forced Khalil and his family to abandone the house. Subsequently, with the help of Christian missionaries Khalil’s daughters migrated to Germany. I met Khalil one Sunday evening at the Syrian Orthodox Convent of Old Jerusalem where both Khalil and I had come to meet the Bishop there. Khalil had come to the Bishop to appeal to the Ministry of Religions to possibly negotiate with the Israeli Foreign Ministry which had denied visa to his daughters. Khail’s wife was on her death bed and the daughters were trying to visit her one last time. Even the Bishop’s intervention was not enough to make the Israeli Ministry alter their decision and they stuck to their xenophobic visa restriction which is geared towards preventing any possibilities of immigration to Israel/Palestine.

The Arab Christian community with deep literary, cultural, spiritual and historical heritage and tradition is on the verge of collapse today. The Christian community in the West Asian region has been numerically declining because of various interrelated factors like low birth rates, emigration and, in some places, persecution. The Christian community is one of the ancient religious groups of West Asia and has been traditionally connected with major socio-political movements like Pan Arabism, Baathism, Communism and the various Middle Eastern liberation movements, including the Palestine Movement. The Christian community is an educated group and most of them were engaged in business and professional jobs, mainly because of their proximity to Christian missionaries, largely from Europe. The recent political upheavals in the region, the so-called War on Terror and Islamisation poses a serious threat to their survival. Presently, the community is trying to vehemently prove its nationalism and allegiance to the West Asian movements since it is very difficult for them to identify with the Islamic groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. A recent study shows that a majority of the community is planning to migrate to Western nations out of a sense of fear and lack of ‘belonging’. “Emigration has for some time threatened to reduce Jerusalem to a museum of Christian history rather than the centre of a living Christian community,” writes Norman Horner in A Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East.

TODAY, the Christian community in Lebanon is about 1.3 million,in Syria they will be around 1.7 million and in Egypt Christians are about 5.8 million, mostly Copts. Even though Christian-Muslim relations are relatively peaceful in Egypt, Christians complain of discrimination and prejudice in the workplace and limitations on church construction, and are apprehensive that new electoral rules are benefiting Islamist parties but not increasing Christian political representation. Moreover there are nearly one million Christians in Iraq of various denominations and the increase in attacks on Christians since the US-led invasion in 2003 has forced many to leave. The Christians of Iran and Jordan may number around 1.7 million (BBC, December 2005). In 2003, Christians constituted 2.1 percent of Israel’s population. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), a total of 1,44,000 Christians live in Israel, of whom 117,000 are Arab and 27,000 are new immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union. (Haaretz, December 2004) Ironically Christian communities in the West Bank and Gaza have been declining for several decades because of conflict, economic decline and low birth rates. Today, the total strength of Christians in both West Bank and Gaza Strip is less than 50,000. “Emigration has for some time threatened to reduce Jerusalem to a museum of Christian history rather than the center of a living Christian community,” writes Norman Horner in his A Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East.

The Christians of Palestine/Israel were in the forefront of the Palestine Movement and many have become martyrs during the struggle. The Arab Christians are also victims of the five decades of Israeli Occupation and the Boundary Wall between Israel and Palestine has greatly affected the Christian community living in both sides of the Wall. Spitting at clergies by orthodox Jews, especially Yeshiva students, is a recurring phenomenon in Israel. Many a Jerusalem clergy has been subjected to abuse of this kind. (Haaretz, February 2004) The ever-increasing clout of Evangelical Christians of the West and their unqualified support for Israel has in recent years drowned the voices of Christians in Palestine/Israel, who are subjected to the suppression of Israeli Defence Force. At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, interestingly several Arab Christian clergymen—including some heads of various churches—condemned Christians in the West, particularly those in the US, as well as Jews and Israel. The conference held against Christian Zionism at Sabeel Ecumenical Palestinian Liberation Theology Centre, Jerusalem and attended by clergies all over the world declared: “Rather than condemn the world to the doom of Armageddon, we call upon everyone to liberate themselves from the ideologies of militarism and occupation, and instead to pursue the healing of the world.”

The recent violent reactions of the Islamic groups in West Bank towards Christians to the controversial statement of Pope Benedict show the vulnerability of the Christian community to the rising forces of Islamisation. On the other hand, the mission of the so-called Christian West to redeem the “Orientals” is also a cause of deep insecurity amongst the Arab Christian community. Sporadic clashes between Christians and Muslims in Israel/Palestine, especially in the Christian dominated towns like Nazareth and Ramallah over the use of premises for religious activities is relatively in rise in recent times. In Iraq, the backlash against the American forces is more or less Islamic in nature and mostly under the leadership of Muslim clerics or Tribal heads. The participation of Christian groups in the movement against the foreign forces is very minimal. The attacks on Iraq by the US-led forces and the presence of foreign soldiers have further aggravated the perception of Christians as agents of the US. This is largely due to the absence of a democratic and secular political system. At the same time, in the recent Lebanon war the civilians tried to take shelter in Christian villages in South Lebanon to escape from the Israeli bombings. Incidentally the Christian villages too were hit by the Israeli missiles and many Christians died in the war, partially altering the prevalent notion that Israelis are pro-Maronites (pro-Christian).

The problems of the Christian community in West Asia are therefore very complex. Desire for reclaiming space, both life-space and sacred space, overlap with a desire to reclaim identity. Reclaiming identity is fraught with complexity because identity is often the result of interaction of a people with the particular place of its origin and habitat. In that respect loss of territory (space) through war, aggression, imperialism already erodes the identity of a community whose life and scared space is in the process of annihilation. The territorial annihilation of identity is now juxtaposed with cultural annihilation through (a) Islamisation and ‘othering’ by Muslims; (b) inability of Arab Christians to identify(politically-culturally) with their counterparts in Western Europe/US; and (c) ‘othering’ meted by Jews. In that context, it is simplistic to categorise communities like the Arab Christians through over-arching, monolithic categories like religion-under which they are viewed as a natural unproblematic extension of the Christians in Western Europe/US. Again, it is simplistic to categorise them by geography as the Arab Christians are facing new forms of marginalisation (Islamic and Jewish) in the particular locales (geographies) of their existence.

To conclude, the presence of the American led forces and the parochial policies of the West have to great extent damaged the secular fabric of the West Asian society. Interestingly when Jews and Christians were at the loggerheads in Europe including the dark ages of holocaust the Jewish community was highly protected and safe under the Islamic rule in West Asia. Until the formation of Israel there was a flourishing Jewish business community in Iraq named as Baghdadi Jews, who had trade roots even in the Indian and Burma. The present chaotic situation in West Asia is a replica of the Hindu-Muslim divisions and tensions during the colonial period in the Indian subcontinent which eventually led to the partition of India and Pakistan. The divide and rule policy of colonisers has always created far-reaching consequences in the developing world, which is unfortunately repeating itself in the West Asian region. Let’s hope the recent visit of the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the Vatican could be a turning point in the social structure and communal harmony of the West Asian region. n


Abu El-Assal,Riah Hanna (1999), Caught in Between: The Story of an Arab Palestinian Christian Israeli, London: SPCK Publishers.
Atiya, Aziz S. (1968), A History of Eastern Christianity, Indiana: Notre Dame.
Barkat, Amiram (2004), “Jerusalem yeshiva student apologises to Armenian archbishop for spitting”, Haaretz, p. 9.
Crag, Kenneth (1991), The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East, Kentucky: John Knox Press.
Fisk, Robert (1997), “Exodus: Christians of the Arab world flee their Biblical homeland“, The Independent (London), September 24, p. 11.
Horner, Norman A. (1989), Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East: Present-Day Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa, London: Mission Focus Publications.
Khashan, Hillel (2001), “Arab Christians as Symbol: Disappearing Christians of the Middle East”, The Middle East Quarterly.
Pacini, Andrea (ed.) (1998), Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East :The Challenge of the Future, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Tsimhoni, Daphne (1993), Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1948: A Historical, Social, and Political Study, Connecticut: Praeger Westport.

The author is a Research Officer, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He has specialised on West Asian affairs.

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