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The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East.

Arab Christians are seldom mentioned in Christian scholarship in the U.S. or in the West as a whole. Yet Christianity preceded Islam in the Middle East and had an impact on the religion preached by Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. And there are around ten million Arab Christians in Arab countries today. Cragg, who has an intimate knowledge of the Middle East and its Christian communities, here attempts to tell their little-known history. One of the facts he emphasizes is that Christianity in the Middle East has always been hostage to internal divisions and Western Christian meddling.

In the Qur'an, "peoples of the book" - Christians and Jews - are treated as "protected peoples" (dhimmis), which literally means those on the conscience (dhimma) of the Islamic community. In order to be protected, non-Muslims had to pay a jizya (tax). During the Ottoman period, Islamic tolerance of Christians and Jews was defined by the millet system under which non-Muslims were autonomous in the conduct of their spiritual and civil affairs while still subordinate to the personal rule of the sultan.

The subordinate status of the Arab Christian in Islam (of the 22 Arab countries only Lebanon has a Christian head of state) and the Muslim suspicion that Christians in the Middle East are fifth columns of the West have led some of their leaders to become active in the Arab nationalist movement. Cragg's chapters on the predicament of Arab Christian communities in Egypt and Israel are full of valuable insights. In the case of Egypt, the Copts (from the Greek aigoptos, Egyptian), while the original inhabitants of Egypt, are today the victims of assasinations by Muslim rigorists. The Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups perceive that the Copts in Egypt have a disproportionate amount of power. Add to that the tensions created by the despicable "ethnic cleansing" against Muslim communities in the former Yugoslavia and the conflict between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis. In Israel, Arab Christians are faced with a painful tension. They have to reconcile the image of Israel as the biblical "spiritual ancestor" and contemporary Israel as the "political enemy" under which they constantly suffer. For Cragg, "a response to the tension, for Arabs, between Israel-in-Scripture and Israel-in-Zionism can come only from within the conscience and wisdom of the local churches, not from external or patronizing advice" (243).

The chapter on Lebanon is full of inaccuracies. Cragg contends that religion in Lebanon became the fundamental source of conflict. He is very harsh on the Maronite Catholics and their responsibility in the civil war that began in 1975. He does not give a lot of weight to the external, regional, and global factors in fanning the flames of war in Lebanon. Some of the Maronite leadership bear a heavy responsibility for the tragedy of Lebanon, but they share it also with the Muslim communities, above all the PLO. In addition, Syria and Israel have ruthlessly used the Land of Cedars as a convenient springboard for all kinds of invasions and occupations.

This book could have benefitted from careful editing. There are several errors that need to be corrected. E.g. Cragg speaks about the "so-called Cairo Agreement of 1976" (229). Actually the Cairo Agreement, which is a fundamental cause of the conflict in Lebanon, was signed in Cairo in 1969; it allowed the PLO freely to attack Israel from South Lebanon. Elsewhere we find "Beth Shin" instead of "Shin Beth," the Israeli security service, and Ariel Sharon is wrongly named "Moshe Sharon" (237). Cragg also does not mention the role the Holy See and the Catholic Church has played in keeping a Christian presence in the Middle East.

Cragg concludes that the Arab Christians' future is one of continuing domestication within Islam. Arab Christians will have to gain the trust of their Muslim fellow citizens and through a frank and open dialogue smooth the theological differences between them. The West (especially American Christians) has a responsibility to see to it that other military operations and interventions such as "Desert Storm" be avoided. Arabs - Christians and Muslims - ought to be helped to coexist with full respect for their human dignity and rights.
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Author:Irani, George Emile
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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