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Religion and Society

The Tiredness of a Believing People

Middle Eastern Christians are struck by an unprecedented existential crisis as they undergo relentless retreat in both numbers and influence. That the region’s native Christian communities, numbering between 12 and 15 million individuals in all, with some of these communities dating back to the very dawn of the two-thousand-year old faith, are declining rapidly across the board, is no longer in dispute by anyone. What is now a serious cause for concern is the accelerating rate of this decline which is swiftly rendering these Christian communities hollow relics of their former selves, and what is left of them are ever-shrinking islands akin to endangered species on the brink of extinction in the very cradle of Christianity. Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and the Lebanon, each in their own way, are the three glaring cases that highlight the alarming dynamics of this native Christian attrition.



A variety of related reasons have conspired to bring about this phenomenal erosion in indigenous Christian ranks and impact. Emigration is perhaps the single most corrosive factor and it continues to make a mounting toll of the Middle East’s Christians. In many parts of the region such as Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories, Christians are feeling the combined pressures of a rise in Islamic extremism, on the one hand, and the repressions of authoritarian regimes, on the other. At times these pressures take the form of outright persecution as the ongoing Islamist violence, against Iraq’s Christian communities has demonstrated. At other times the pressures to emigrate result from the occasional scapegoating of Christian communities for real or perceived offences often committed thousands of miles away, as in the case of the Danish cartoon controversy of autumn 2005 after which Iraqi churches were burned and a Christian neighborhood in Beirut was attacked, or the Pope’s remarks on Islam in the lecture he gave in September 2006 in Regensburg, Germany, after which Iraqi Christians were again singled out for assault. In instances of unbridled passions like these something atavistic is triggered in the collective memory of Muslims and it dredges up images of the Crusades that lead to the sudden eyeing of native Christians with extreme suspicion as fifth columnists in league with foreign enemies. When this happens the only recourse left open to many of these beleaguered Christians is to leave their ancestral lands in search of safer and more secure places to raise their families. Many experience a first step of displacement to a neighboring country within the region, as has happened with Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria, or Lebanese Christians who moved to the nearby island of Cyprus. But a second displacement farther afield inevitably follows and large numbers of these emigrating Christians end up in Europe, North America, or Australia. This second displacement is, for the most part, one-way and permanent – there are growing Coptic and Armenian communities in the greater Los Angeles area, a sizeable Assyrian community of Iraqi Christians with their own patriarch in Chicago, and hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Christians in Montreal, Sao Paolo, Paris, and Sydney.



At the birth of Islam and following the Islamic conquests of North Africa, the Levant, and Asia Minor, it was conversions to the new triumphant faith that were the single greatest factor responsible for reducing the numbers of native Christians. Nowadays, however, conversions tend to be rare and are no longer a significant element in the overall story of Christian depletion. Most Arab countries, with the exception of the Lebanon, frown upon proselytism practiced by adherents of faiths other than Islam, and in most of these countries societal pressures act to ostracise, if not worse, any converts out of Islam, while welcoming converts into the faith. Still, the numbers of Christians converting to Islam remain minuscule.


On the whole, Christians have lower birth rates than Muslims throughout the Middle East, and this mainly for socio-economic and cultural reasons. In the past Maronite peasants living in the Lebanon’s inaccessible mountains, for example, tended to favor having many children in order to ensure an adequate supply of labourers on the land and hedge against the ravages of disease or famine. This has steadily changed with the onset of greater urbanisation, a move away from agrarian subsistence, and better levels of hygiene and education. In Christian communities monogamy is strictly observed and divorce is normally more difficult as an option than for Muslims. A typical middle-class Christian family has two or three children at most and places a high premium on providing them with a good education and a decent standard of living. While polygamy is far less practiced in Muslim milieus than it used to be in previous centuries, it still exists in remote or backward locales alongside temporary liaisons known as ‘pleasure marriages’ which are sanctioned by specific religious rulings, as is often witnessed in some Shiite communities. It is also a sociological fact that Muslim males generally have an easier time marrying Christian females than the reverse, and in such instances the pressures are great to raise the offspring of these mixed unions as Muslims. In fact, one recently reported disturbing trend in Iraq has been the forced marriages of young Christian girls by the hundreds to Muslim men who then force them to convert to Islam, prevent them from further interaction with their parents and siblings, and raise any children resulting from these coerced matrimonies in the Islamic faith.



The Case of the Copts



Among the region’s Christians there is a pervading, and sadly not unjustified, sense of abandonment when it comes to prevailing attitudes towards them in the great Christian centres of the world. Indifference and at times incrimination of the victims are frequently the hallmarks of these detested external attitudes. Christians native to the Middle East have grown to harbour feelings of deep disappointment tinged with no small amount of resentment that they direct at their coreligionists in the West whom they accuse of deliberately neglecting them, and indeed of letting them down, in moments of grave danger. This is certainly true of the experiences in recent years and decades of both the Christians of the Lebanon and those of Iraq – two countries with once-thriving Christian communities that have witnessed the deliberate, and at times vicious, targeting of their Christian citizens as Christians with little or no outcry from the wider Christian world. In fact, to speak of a ‘Christian world’ today may have actually become anachronistic given Europe’s deliberately cultivated post-Christian ethos and America’s consistent disregard of Christian issues or causes in its foreign policy agenda. The plight of Egypt’s Copts offers a glaring example of gratuitous violence periodically directed at one of the region’s most ancient and rooted Christian communities with few if any expectations by these beleaguered Copts that substantive relief for their plight would be forthcoming from the West – as happened recurrently in recent years culminating in the October 2005 Alexandria attacks on Coptic churches by fanatical Muslim mobs. It has to be said that only an ignorant handful among these indigenous Christians, Copts or others, seriously entertains fancies of crusading Western fleets sailing to the region’s shores to rescue them from their oppressors. Still, western governments are often included in the vocal or muttered blame even though the blamers know that these governments and the states they represent are declaredly secular despite the overwhelming majorities of their populations being, in varying degrees, of Christian heritage. True, the Vatican and other Christian Churches in the West have spoken out on repeated occasions, often forcefully, against the oppression that certain Christian communities in the Middle East have endured. But by and large Churches and other Christian groups in the West have not been able to effect appreciable changes in the policies of their respective governments that would render them more sensitive to the worsening predicament of these persecuted Middle Eastern Christians. The result has been the perpetuation of this sense of neglect along with the persisting sufferings of the region’s Christians, all punctuated by the sporadic verbal condemnation uttered here and there in the West mostly perhaps by way of an audible lamentation to relieve a guilty conscience.



Faced with persecution and marginalisation on the home front, and realising that economic opportunities become uncertain at best during times of prolonged insecurity, many of these Christians, who are already keenly aware of their shrinking minority status across the region, opt to leave for greener pastures in the West. The push factors in this situation are the poor future economic prospects at home, the open-ended uncertainty, and the absence of security in an environment where the space for whatever little freedom that exists is constantly narrowing. The pull factors on the opposite end are a sense of affinity with other Christians throughout the world based on a confidence that assimilation will work out in the end, better economic opportunities can be successfully exploited, and a reliable certainty about long-term security can be counted upon. The two sets of factors combined translate concretely into a rising rate of attrition of Christians from the Middle East.



Beirut, Baghdad, Jerusalem



The ongoing examples of this Christian haemorrhage are stark – the Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine come to mind. Following the July-August 2006 war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel a renewed wave of Christian emigration occurred with many of the departing this time vowing never to return. For some this was the second or even third occasion during the last three decades that they had experienced dislocation only to return with renewed hopes once the shooting had stopped and the dust seemed to have settled. They were no longer prepared to repeat the futile cycle. No precise demographic statistics are available but experts generally agree that the Lebanon’s Christians, who were a majority of the population only a few decades ago, hover today around the 35 percent of the population and falling. For their part, Palestinian Christians find themselves caught between the ravages of the Israeli occupation on one side and the emergence of the militant brand of Islam represented by Hamas on the other, and they, too, have been departing in growing numbers. Biblical towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth – not to mention Jerusalem itself – where Christians have resided in impressive numbers for centuries ever since the dawn of the faith, have largely been emptied out of their Christian inhabitants. For many the wall that Israel has built came as the final back-breaking measure that has detrimentally impacted on their livelihood. This, coupled with the radical Islamist fervor that has taken possession of the Palestinian street to the exclusion of any pluralist or secular tendencies, have caused Palestinian Christians to vote with their feet by departing in droves. Ever since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, conditions have been worsening for the country’s Christians. Church burnings, the bombing of Christian-owned liquor stores, the cold-blooded murder of Christians here and there, and harassment of Christian women for not donning black shrouds and veils, have taken place with alarming regularity since the invasion, and as a consequence the Christians have sought to leave. Iraqi Christians are viewed with suspicion by Muslims since they share the same religion as the invading American soldiers, and the Americans on their side make little effort to distinguish between Muslims and Christians when they act to quell the insurgency engulfing the country. Many Christians therefore recall with some nostalgia the days before 2003 when the Ba’ath party, led by Saddam Hussein (himself a nominal Sunni) ruled over a repressive, but nonetheless secular, state. Today, in the midst of a vicious Shiite-Sunni confrontation throughout Iraq, Christians see no future for themselves there no matter what the outcome will be of this bloody sectarian showdown with deep historical roots. They feel trapped between two opposing versions of Islamist radicalism, neither of which has any place for Christians.


Tolerance or Liquidation?


Two distinct historical narratives have defined and moulded the peculiar identities and outlooks of the Middle East’s Christians, with the paramount difference between the two narratives being that of the preservation, or absence, of individual and collective freedom and dignity. The overwhelming majority of these Christian communities, comprising over 90 percent of the region’s native Christians, fell at one point or another during the last 1400 years under some form of subjugation and became relegated to second-class, or dhimmi, status in their own ancestral homelands. This is true of Egypt’s Copts as well as the Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq and the Greek Orthodox of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, not overlooking whatever fringe Christian communities once existed in Arabia and North Africa. The dhimmi category, as it was traditionally applied by ruling Muslims to conquered communities of what the Koran refers to as the ‘People of the Book’ (i.e. Christians and Jews), entailed a set of imposed restrictions involving special taxation, distinctive dress, a ban on political participation, prohibiting the carrying of weapons, an expected deferential attitude towards Muslims, legal disadvantages, obstacles in the face of building or renovating places of worship, barring of publicly celebrated religious festivals and displays, and much more. Some romanticised or apologist histories of Islam written by Westerners have described the dhimmi system as one of tolerance and acceptance of minorities. Today, this is no longer the standard definition and dhimmitude, as it has come to be called, is now recognised for what it truly is: a premeditated system of organised and gradual liquidation of non-Muslim communities, or, at the very least, their deliberate and sustained marginalisation to the point of dehumanisation. That many of the familiar dhimmi restrictions have been cast aside in actual practice in modern times and excised from the legal frameworks of most Arab states – with the glaring exception of Saudi Arabia – has not meant that the detrimental, cumulative, and ingrained effects of centuries of inferiorisation have been magically dispelled from the psyches of both the perpetrators and their victims throughout these Arab lands. The bottom line is that dhimmis living under Islamic rule, then as now, have been deprived of any semblance of free or equal existence and have subsisted for centuries as virtual enslaved communities.



The remaining 8 to 10 percent of the Arab region’s native Christians – principally those who live in the Lebanon, particularly the Maronites in its mountains – managed, throughout a turbulence-ridden history, to preserve a conspicuous degree of freedom by regional standards through avoiding the brunt of dhimmi ravages, and they did so during the pre-technological era mainly thanks to the Lebanon’s rugged and inaccessible topography; however, the cost they incurred for maintaining their freedoms and dignity was often steep in terms of blood, territory, and resources. Today, these same Christians of the Lebanon, whose track record of a free existence has set them apart in a positive and creative sense from the rest of their coreligionists in the wider Arab surroundings, are in danger of succumbing to dominance by one or the other of two rival Islamic projects vying for power locally as well as regionally: an Iranian-inspired Shiite militancy versus a Saudi-promoted and financed Sunni ascendancy that could easily metamorphose into a virulent Wahhabism. With Beirut and its numerous bishoprics representing every Christian denomination in the region acting traditionally as the freely breathing lungs for the many isolated, pressured, and less free Christian communities of the Arab interior, any diminution in the city’s position as unique window on the world and conduit for Christian aspirations and grievances beyond the region would, in the long span of history, be tantamount to another momentous calamity not unlike the one suffered in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople.



This dichotomy of free and fettered, liberated and dhimmi, also applies to other non-Muslim minority communities besides the Christians strewn across the Arab region. Until few decades ago every Arab country had an indigenous Jewish community, and some like Morocco and Tunisia still do today. The other ancient communities of Jews, who lived for centuries relatively peacefully among Arabs, nearly disappeared altogether in dramatic fashion throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The pull factor for many of these ‘Arab’ Jews was mainly the creation of the state of Israel, which in a way was one of the causes of the push factor: a rise in anti-Semitism fuelled by Arab sympathy for the Palestinians and compounded in recent years by the ascendance of extremist Islamist ideology.



Why it is Necessary to Stop the Exodus



It may be too late to reverse the disappearance of Jews from Arab lands, and it is clear that by now the overwhelming majority of eastern, or Sephardic, Jews has little interest in returning to their former countries of residence. In the case of Arab and Middle Eastern Christians, however, the resident numbers are still significant enough, and the yearning to return by many of those who emigrated remains poignant – all of which warrants posing the question of halting, if not reversing, the exodus. Aside from the intrinsic moral reason why such a decline of native Christians ought to be stopped, or at least slowed down, why should anyone in American policy circles per se care about these dying communities that, to the technicians of policy planning, resemble inert archaeological remains rather than realities with a tangible impact that can actually make a difference? There are three compelling practical reasons why the continuation of this decline of Christians leaves the arena open to the militants thereby impacting negatively on US as well as European political and other interests in the Arab Middle East:



Moderation. The existence of settled, stable, prosperous, and reasonably free and secure native Christian communities in the Middle East has served in many instances as a factor promoting Islamic openness and moderation. Egypt, prior to 1952 when Nasser seized power, exhibited marked tolerance and a multiplicity of political viewpoints along with a vibrant cultural diversity and an open attitude towards European tastes – this despite the budding emergence at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood. Take a look, for instance, at any photograph of an Um Kulthoom concert or similar public performance from the era and you will see that none of the women in the audience wore the veil or distinctive Islamic headdress. Egypt was more liberal in the early twentieth century than at the outset of the twenty-first. In the Lebanon, before the outbreak of war in 1975, a new breed of Muslim was painstakingly moulded thanks to the creative daily interpenetration of the country’s Muslim communities with their Christian counterparts in a free atmosphere of mutual respect. The fruits of this unique sociological experiment in coexistence are evident today mainly among the educated class of both Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites, who stand out in the broader Arab Islamic context as full-fledged specimens of modernity in every way. Credit for this goes chiefly to the fact that they lived for decades peacefully in close proximity with the freest Christians of the Arab world – those of the Lebanon. Islamic moderation is bound to be strengthened when Muslims daily deal with confident fellow-native adherents of a belief system that does not condone suicide bombers, respects women, is not out for religious domination, adheres to the principle of religious pluralism, is compatible with liberal democracy, defends personal and group rights, emphasises the centrality of education, and is not uncomfortable with many features of secular modern living. The outstanding cultural and linguistic contributions of native Christian intellectuals residing in both Beirut and Cairo at the turn of the twentieth century to what came to be known as the Arab renaissance underscore the argument that correlates free Christians with the strengthening of Islamic moderation. To a lesser extent this same phenomenon of Islamic moderation can be seen to have flourished in certain sectors of Jordanian society as well as in both Iraq and Syria prior to the Ba’ath (and, in some respects, under the secular Ba’ath). Whenever local Christians have felt relatively unmolested, Islamic openness, tolerance, and moderation have been advanced.



Mediation. The continued presence in significant numbers of secure Christians in the Middle East will also facilitate bridge-building between East and West, world Christianity and Islam, in ways no other group can undertake. Again, the Arab cultural renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries springs to mind, spearheaded as it was mainly by the Christians of Beirut and Cairo, a movement that, among other things, created contemporary Arabic journalism and the modern Arabic novel; scored landmark achievements in Arabic poetry; opened the way for several critical self-assessments of Arab history, culture, and politics; and helped introduce Western liberal ideas into Arab discourse. In the middle decades of the twentieth century Arab Christian intellectuals borrowed and adapted the not equally liberal concepts of socialism and nationalism to fashion a new, controversial, and ideologically grounded umbrella identity they subsumed under the banner of Arabism. The creative dynamism of this Arab cultural ferment inspired and catalysed by native Christians did not stop here. Influential Arab Christian thinkers of divergent outlooks such as Albert Hourani, Charles Malik, Constantine Zurayk, Michel Aflaq, Antoun Saadeh, and Hanan Ashrawi, to name a few, along with the many professors, scholars, monks, journalists, legal experts, etc., mediated Western ideas to the region while simultaneously explaining the Middle East to Westerners. Regardless of whether or not one chooses to agree with these efforts at cultural mediation, their mere existence, their undeniable impact, and, most importantly, the identity of their source, cannot be denied. The Arab world would have been far more insular and culturally impoverished had these enumerated achievements, and so many others left unmentioned, not taken place because Christians either were physically not present, or were too downtrodden to bother. Without such authentic local endeavours at mediation in which native Christians have excelled, the West would have found itself in the awkward situation of always appearing as an alien and unwelcome intruder, with all the negative baggage such an image carries.



Mutuality. Muslims from all parts of the Islamic world are flocking in increasing numbers to the West, especially to Europe. Many are coming with the express intention of staying, but not necessarily of assimilating. This new challenge has taxed Western concepts of tolerance, pluralism, and multiculturalism at times to breaking point. The fact remains, however, that Muslim emigrants to the West, particularly to Europe and North America, live for the most part in secure circumstances where the rule of law prevails, where personal and group rights are upheld, and where ethno-cultural identity and religious specificity are respected. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about Christians who are native to many parts of the Arab and Islamic worlds. A country like Saudi Arabia, for example, which vigorously finances the erection of mosques all over the world including in the West, strictly forbids churches to be built in its towns and cities, Bibles and other Christian religious items to be brought into its domain, and Christians to pray or even be buried on its soil. The mistreatment of minority Christian communities in various parts of the Arab world is, unfortunately, recurrent and, at times, unbearable for the victims. The West cannot hope to hold Arab governments accountable on the basis of a set of shared universal values unless the principle of reciprocity is invoked and practiced. For this to happen there have to be in place throughout these Arab countries native non-Muslim communities in significant numbers, and then thorny issues like those of proselytising, women’s rights, religious liberty, apostasy, blasphemy and so on could be approached on the basis of applying this principle of reciprocity. Purely from the perspective of self-interest, therefore, it makes sense for the West to help preserve such non-Muslim communities in their original homelands, and to clamour whenever possible for their decent treatment under the local authorities, if there is to be any hope of reciprocally linking that to the high standards of tolerance under which Muslims live in the West. Indeed the West’s insistence on reciprocity as a basis for accountability must ideally encompass all citizens – Christians, Muslims, Baha’is, and others – living in Arab and Islamic countries where the conditions of freedoms and rights for all range from the questionable to the deplorable. The recent sentence of whipping and imprisonment meted out to a Muslim female victim of gang rape in Saudi Arabia is a stark case in point, and the resulting Western outcry against this barbarism fell sadly well short of what was needed.



To point out that a dignified and protected existence for Christians in their original Middle Eastern setting enhances moderation, facilitates mutual understanding and rapprochement through creative cultural mediation, and is a prerequisite for invoking the notion of reciprocity in international and cross-cultural relations is certainly not to suggest that the West engage in favouritism with respect to the indigenous Christians of the East. Because of oversensitivity in Western political circles to this precise pitfall, policymakers have tended to err on the opposite extreme by either displaying an attitude of utter neglect when it comes to these struggling Christians, or at times of being in outright complicity with their tormentors and persecutors. Such destructive policy approaches must be jettisoned quickly if all, with the exception of the true violators, are to benefit.