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"Arabs and Christians?" some Westerners might ask naively, or out of curiosity. Perhaps the question is rhetorical -- or does it express the extent of their astonishment and doubt?

This double reference, in the singular and followed by a question mark, is the title of a recent book, written by an interested and well-informed European. [1] His primary objective is to reintroduce the Christians of the Arab world to Westerners. Thus he reaffirms a reality that is seldom referred to, heard about, or read with regard to the religious plurality of a region too often seen as a Muslim monolith. In addition, albeit incidentally, he reminds those who insist on repeating, in new ways, the old adage, "the Arab language has refused to be christianized" [2], of that very plurality. In so doing, he remains aware that there could be a certain ambivalence in his title, the ambivalence of the Christians' identity in the Arab world, the majority of whom define themselves -- in the context of a polarization which, although less marked than before, is liable to be revived -- as belonging to a country and a faith. People identify themselves, for the most part, as Maronite and Lebanese, Copt and Egyptian.

Another Christian European Islamologist, interested in the history and future of the Christians "with Islam" gives his book, less recent than the above, the title The Arab Christian. [3] From the outset, he acknowledges the inconvenience of using a noun as an adjective and of its effect on those who would have preferred the conjunction of two nouns, referring to two different expressions of identity. In spite of this inconvenience, through his choice of title he intends to show that there exists a single, distinct identity and that, even though the two components are often regarded as separate, it would, in fact, be difficult to separate them.

The designation "Arab Christians" may be the least problematic, if we do not underestimate its ambiguity in that it has an ethnic resonance, nor the other reservations that arise from it. There are also other expressions used such as "Christian Arabs" or a mosaic of individual communities whose only generic name would be "Oriental Christians" or Christians of the East. [4]

Talking about "Christian Arabs" would emphasize an identity shared today with the Muslims but which precedes Islam. If it is true that the term proposes to transcend religious differences through a return to one's roots, there is a risk of falling into narrow and exclusive nationalism. Not all Christians can be descended from the Arab tribes converted to Christianity before Islam, even though this is claimed by a large number of Christians in Syria. (5) The significance of the arabization of Christian populations of varied origins, which continued until the 13th century, cannot be ignored. Consequently, making the Arab reference a subsequent attribute would conform more with history and the way in which a large number of Christians see their origins.

The term "Oriental" or the phrase "Christians from the East" would perhaps be appropriate if their use was strictly confined to the religious or ecclesiastic domain. The claim of belonging to Oriental Christianity is becoming more and more prevalent as a sign of authenticity and specificity in the face of Western Christianity. However, that specificity is sometimes more like a group's diacritical mark than a religious content that is part of a self-image. We must also point out that, with reference to Oriental identity, frontiers present a problem because communities which belong to the Roman Catholic or Western Protestant traditions, may think of themselves, and like to be designated, as "Oriental"!

But in Western publications the use of the term Oriental often goes beyond a strictly religious connotation. Its geographic reference is elastic and allows the inclusion of some communities and the exclusion of others according to propensities or circumstances. The ideological connotations that may be conveyed are more problematic. First used by Western missionaries, the term sometimes refers to "schismatic" communities to be brought into the Roman Catholic Church or to "rites" indicating the catholicized part of these communities, and sometimes to threatened religious minorities calling for intervention from outside.

From another, less political perspective, Christianity of the East, like the Middle East itself, could be the refuge of the picturesque. We escape it by turning our eyes away from the present. Thus, in some people's view, the "dead" Christians would be more interesting to discuss than the living. The latter could only be leftovers, archaic witnesses or symbols. A more positive hypothesis is that we do not hesitate to enlarge, excessively or without much regard for subtleties, the gulf that separates the illustrious ancients from their unworthy successors.

Diversity and unity throughout history

If we follow the course of evangelization originating from the mother church of Jerusalem, the spiritual centre of the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe which were inseparable at the time, we see that, from its earliest days, the history of Christianity in the Middle East has been diverse. References in the second part of the Acts of the Apostles to emerging churches seem to acknowledge only those in the Hellenized world. Arab churches are hardly known. We read that there were Arabs in Jerusalem at Pentecost, but we do not know who the first Arab Christians were.

Jerome tells us that the Bedouins venerated Ilarion the Anachorite (291-371) who had converted them to Christianity. [6] At the second ecumenical council (381), five bishops represented the province of Arabia. Seventeen prelates described as Arab attended the fourth. In the fifth century the Ghassan, the most renowned Christian Arab tribe, occupied the Roman Province of Arabia whose capital was Busra. Historians mention Christians belonging to the Tamim, Rabi'ah, Taghlib and other Arab tribes. [7]

Arab or Arabized, Hellenic or Hellenized, Copts or descendants of the Aramaens, in the 5th century the Christians of the Near East split into three distinct religious groups whose frontiers were defined by doctrinal disagreements, cultural differences and political conflicts. Arab Christian tradition, as well as several Muslim historiographers and polemicists, make reference to Nestorians, Melchites and Jacobites.

Nevertheless, even though the three communities' religious and historical identities resulted from rivalries and other disagreements, they were not entirely closed to one another. They were drawn together through their progressive assimilation into the Arab culture. In spite of their theological differences their elite spoke the same language. Apart from being a simple means of communication it was to act as a unifying force similar to that of Greek in Christian antiquity or, later, Latin in the Western world. [8] Throughout history and particularly today, the Christians have seen themselves in some way torn between belonging to a narrow faith rooted in pre-Islamic heritage, and a Christian identity "in Islam", [9] that of a "Church of the Arabs". [10]

The Nestorians or Assyrians of the East

To return briefly to particular historical identities, the Assyrians did not attend the council of Ephesus (431). They had already differentiated themselves from the rest of the Christians. As the church in Persia in a situation of conflict between the Byzantines and the Sassanids, their survival depended, to a certain extent, on their ability to project a "national" image. Living outside the Eastern Roman empire, they had developed a very distinct cultural identity. This became a favourable condition for their adherence to Nestorianism in 484 and 486 condemned as a heresy by the council of Ephesus. However, they continued to call themselves "the Church of the East". Muslim powers, particularly the Abbasids, saw their christology as being closer to Islam than that of other Christians, [11] and they were not suspected of having Byzantine sympathies. Thus, they were more favourably treated and could play an unparalleled role in the making of Arab-Islamic culture.

After a remarkable missionary expansion across Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the 7th and 9th centuries, their situation deteriorated under the Mongol empire after benefiting from a short period of favour from the conquerors of the Abbasid empire. They were later weakened by internal quarrels and external pressures. A Chaldean church joined to Rome separated from the Church of the East in 1553 and quickly became bigger than its mother community.

At present, there are likely three times as many Catholic Chaldeans (about six hundred thousand) mainly in Iraq, as those who have preserved their religious identity and who, since the 19th century, have been called the Eastern Assyrians.

From 1931 on, Protestant destabilizing interferences started, in addition to those of Catholic missions. But the 20th century has been the cruellest for this community. Two thirds of its members have been lost through harassment and massacres. Between the unfulfilled promises of independence made by European powers, and the resentment which has accumulated against them because of the perception that they were accomplices of foreign forces, the Assyrians saw themselves condemned to dispersion and exile [12]. Today, they are estimated to number only two hundred thousand and to be more numerous in the West than in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The Melchites or Roums [13]

In comparison, the Melchites have not suffered the same tragic events as the Assyrians in their recent history. Their numbers have not dropped in a similar proportion and their attrition due to emigration cannot be compared to a bloody exile. The political and social upheavals of the modern age have not pushed them, as a community, to imitate the behaviour of a nation. Their communal sense of self does not bear as strong a mark of cultural identity as that of the Nestorians and Jacobites. This would not be entirely unrelated to the fact that they are often seen as the most Arab among the Christians of the Arab world.

Following the example of the two other Christian families, the historical name of the community (Melchites) was dropped by the majority, those faithful to a Christian East disunited with the Christian West and who called themselves Orthodox Roums - or, according to a somewhat inappropriate translation - Greek Orthodox. Today, only the church referred to as the Greek Catholic Church, created in the 18th century, calls itself Melchite. This name, which comes from Syriac and means "royalist" - faithful to the king (Melek), who convened the council of Chalcedon (451) - was originally a sobriquet given to distinguish them from those who had rejected the above council.

Chalcedonians, later called Orthodox, the Melchites were divided into three patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In the 5th century, this community was the most Hellenized part of the population of the Levant. Its ties with Constantinople were strengthened. But it retained an undisputed specificity, particularly in Antioch, the meeting place of the Greek, Syrian, Jewish, Asian and Caucasian cultures. Its uniqueness went hand in hand with its being firmly rooted in Arab ethnicity. Across Syria, from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, tribes of Arab origin had been established.

But both the ecclesiastical and political dynamics led to a many-faceted byzantinization of the Melchites. Before long their progress was checked, on more han one front, by the Arab-Muslim conquest, beginning with their separation from the other Roums, according to the Arab designation of Byzantines. The Melchites adapted to the new situation in spite of some suspicion because of their earlier or still existing ties with Byzantium. Furthermore, they played a central role in the nascent Omayyad state in positions of administration, finance and trade. They also facilitated the transmission of the Greek culture and sciences and contributed to arouse the theological and philosophical movement among the Muslims. Their arabization increased and speeded up at the expense of the Greek and Syrian.

The crusades, which expelled their patriarchs and bishops to Constantinople and replaced them with Latin hierarchies, confirmed the rupture with the Western church. But, in spite of their opposition to the crusades, the Melchites suffered from the consequences of the Mamelukes' reaction. Exactions and pressure in the 12th and 14th centuries weakened them significantly.

The Ottoman conquest attached the Melchites strongly to the Greek church. The Roums, regardless of their ethnicity, and despite the fact that they were divided into autocephalous (self-governing) patriarchates, became a millet (nation), whose secular head was the Patriarch of Constantinople. It was officially recognized as a state institution, a status which the other Christian communities, with the exception of the Armenians, were not yet to achieve. The Latin missions in the Ottoman territory, supported by the European powers, were quick to divide the Roums of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, whom they called Greeks. A catholicized group formed a patriarchate under Rome's authority in 1742.

In their attempt to contain the rise of Catholicism and, from the 19th century, Protestantism, the Orthodox Roums looked first to Constantinople for support, then to Russia. Moreover, their elite became more and more receptive to nationalist ideas. Many intellectuals, as well as ecclesiastics, took part in the Arab "renaissance" movement (al Nahda) and were active in political groups inspired by it.

The Orthodox Roums - formerly the Melchites - are scattered principally in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. They number probably about one and a half million Arabs. A diaspora, particularly in the Americas, even more difficult to estimate, could consist of a similar or greater number. The number of Greek Catholics in the Arab world is estimated at slightly below four hundred thousand with as many, if not more, in countries of emigration.

The Jacobites or Suryan

Divided between the diaspora and residence in Arab countries, in a proportion comparable to that of the Roums, the communities referred to today as Syrian Orthodox are estimated at about four hundred thousand. Named Jacobites, a sobriquet derived from the name of the chief organizer of a parallel hierarchy to the Melchites in the 6th century, Jacques Baradee (Ya'qub al Barad'i), they make up an ecclesiastical family with other non-Chalcedon Christian communities such as the Copts and Armenians, as well as the Ethiopians and the Malankaras in India. Each community has its own personality and liturgical language.

Syrian Christianity has come under several names during its turbulent history. The term "Syriac" refers to the Aramean language and nation after their conversion to Christianity. The majority of the Syrians of the Roman empire, called Western (magh[bar{a}]riba), in contrast to the Eastern (mash[bar{a}]riqa) or Nestorians of the Persian empire, refused to accept the definition of the council of Chalcedon affirming the two natures of Christ united in one person.

At the beginning of the 7th century they experienced remarkable growth after the conquest of the Eastern Byzantine provinces by the Persians. The latter drove out the Chalcedonians and gave their churches and monasteries to the non-Chalcedonians.

Early Islam saw Christians not tied to Byzantium as allies and the latter saw a sort of liberation from Byzantine oppression in the Arab-Muslim conquest. Syrian Christians held key posts at the Caliph's court beside the Melchites under the Omayyads and next to the Nestorians under the Abbasids. They made a significant contribution to the cultural transmission, which was indispensable to the making of Arab-Islamic civilization. Their influence began to decline during al Mu'tasim's Caliphate (833-842). They experienced some stability under the Turkish Seljuks. Their situation improved slightly in the cities in the first years following the Mongol invasion only to deteriorate under the Mamelukes and worsen at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries during Tamerlan's (Timur Lang's) devastating invasions. The population was decimated and was never really to recover from this extermination.

The Syrians were not a millet of their own under the Ottomans. They had to go through the Armenian patriarch in Constantinople for their relations with the state. Confined to distant provinces and without any connection to Istanbul, they were treated with some disdain. They were to be further weakened by internal discord, their venality fed by Ottoman intervention and interference from Catholic, and later Protestant, missionaries. A dissident church, the Syrian-Catholic Church, was established in 1656. Today it is estimated to have about eighty thousand members.

In the 19th century the liberation of the Balkan nations from Ottoman domination and the advance of Russia into the Caucasus was accompanied by a resurgence of Muslim populations. This jeopardized the situation of Christians living in the territory which we know today as Turkey.

There was a second withdrawal phase after the first world war. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) established Turkey's present borders as well as the rights -- or rather their limitation - of Christian minorities. Orthodox Syrians were not included among the latter. Recent emigration to the United States, Australia and Scandinavia has affected Turkish Orthodox Syrians much more than arabized Orthodox Syrians in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

The Copts

The Copts of Egypt constitute the largest Christian community in the Arab world. They probably exceed five million to which number we can add a relatively recent diaspora. They take pride in being descendants of the Pharaonic nation. There are links between the Coptic culture and that of ancient Egypt, which cannot be reduced to simple ethnic continuity. The Coptic language, which has been conserved in the liturgy, has historically developed out of the Pharaonic. Certain customs and literary and artistic traits have their roots in ancient Egypt.

It is often said that the term "Copt" is no more than an Arab abbreviation of the Greek Aigyptos. In fact the origin of the word dates from earlier. In Talmudic Hebrew, the Egyptians were called Giptith. In Antiquity, one of the sacred names for the city of Memphis was Hakouptah. Egyptian Christianity, whose history goes back to the preaching of the gospel by St. Mark, saw its first expansion in the 3rd century. Towards the end of that century the Copts suffered bloody persecutions to the extent that, in their historical consciousness, the reign of the emperor Diocletian became the age of the martyrs. Following these persecutions eremitism developed and in its turn made its mark on the Copts' religious identity.

After the Roman empire split up and Egypt became part of its Eastern frontier, it did not take long for conflict to arise between Alexandria and Constantinople. It was not entirely unrelated to the controversy over dogma that led to the schism following the council of Chalcedon.

After 451, the non-Chalcedonian faith, called monophysite, manifested itself as the Egyptians' national religion. When Egypt, after being invaded by the Persians, was reconquered by Byzantium, the Copts' sense of identity was consolidated. This, to a large extent, explains their attitude, which ranged from passivity to welcome, with regard to the Arab-Muslim conquest in 639. Relations with the Omayyad powers were correct and the administration of the country remained in the hands of the Christians. But later arabization and certain discriminatory measures against them led to an uprising in the Eastern Delta, which was violently repressed. Two other revolts broke out at the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th centuries. From 850 (Caliph Mutawakkil's oppressive measures), the Copts progressively became a minority and withdrew more an more into Upper Egypt. After 969, the Fatimids treated the Copts well except for the distressing period between 1007 and 1072 during the reign of Al Hakim. Although the last de cades of the Fatimid reign were happy for the Copts, their numbers decreased and they began to lose their language. Their conditions continued to worsen when the Mamelukes came to power. Their specialized services were required for the administration of the country, however their influence could not become too obvious. Under the Ottomans (when the power was really in the hands of the Mamelukes), the Copts displayed a lethargy which reflected the decadence of Egypt.

From the beginning of the 19th century, Mehemet Ali's reign gave the Copts back an important role at the heart of the nation. But in the same century, the

Catholic and Protestant missions' progress was detrimental to them as were tensions within the Coptic community. The Catholic effort from the 17th century to proselytize led to the creation of a Coptic Catholic church in 1899. Compared to the Orthodox Coptic church, it remained very small, with an estimated membership of only a hundred thousand. The Protestants established a Coptic Evangelical church that only became independent of the American missions in 1926.

Following the British occupation of Egypt in 1822, the Copts became more involved in what was to become the nationalist movement. Their action was a determining factor in the process leading to independence. During Nasser's regime and since, the Copts' real participation in public life has been reduced. They have anxiously turned inwards and are experiencing a religious revival and a strong identity movement.

The Armenians

The Armenians belong to the same non-Chalcedonian family, but their cradle is outside the Arab world. Since the massacre of 1915, which drove them out of their ancestral territory in Cilicia, they have lived in diaspora primarily in the Arab world but also in many countries in the Americas and in Europe. Scattered among Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Syria, they have only been partially, and very recently, arabized. There are no more than three hundred and fifty thousand of them in Arab countries of whom more than half live in Lebanon. They are mainly Orthodox and are called Gregorian after Gregory the Enlightened, the founding father of Armenian Christianity. Less important, and the result of missionary action, is the Armenian Catholic community - created in 1740, with no more than an estimated fifty thousand members living in Arab countries - and the Evangelical community established in 1846.

The Eastern Catholics

We have referred to the union with Rome of fractions of the Assyrian, Melchite, Syrian, Coptic and Armenian communities. These five Eastern Catholic communities - pejoratively called the Uniates - are seen as dissident branches, while they see themselves as attached to the multi-secular trunk but drawing from the West the "advantages of a vigour renewed by a salutary graft". [14]

The Maronites

Catholic and Eastern, but not Uniate, the Maronite community deserves special mention. Although it is not solely Lebanese, it cannot be dissociated from the history and unique characteristics of that country. Particularly since the 10th century [15], Mount Lebanon has been the Maronites' traditional home. They are still the biggest Christian community in Lebanon and are estimated at about seven hundred and fifty thousand. Unlike other Christian communities there are only a few of them in the rest of the Arab world. There would be about a million in the diaspora which counts as one of the most ancient Christian communities that has its origins in the Arab world.

Their history is linked to the somewhat mythical figure of the monk Maron (4th-5th century). In the 5th century they made up a specific group within the church of Antioch with a significant monastic component. Although they belonged to the Syrian culture, they chose the Chalcedonian camp at first, later to follow the emperor Heraclius (575-641) in his attempts to unite Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians through the Monothelite compromise. They became a sort of outsider community. In fact, they found themselves in opposition to the two main Christian traditions in the East. When the Melchite patriarchal see at Antioch fell vacant at the beginning of the 7th century, they elected their own patriarch, John Maron, who became the true founding father of the Maronite community. When they lost Byzantium's protection and were later persecuted by them, they dispersed and took refuge in the impregnable mountains. They experienced a somewhat favourable period under the Omayyads. Even though they turned inwards they bec ame arabized. Under the Abbasids, times were less kind to them and their revolt in 759 was suppressed.

Their contact with the crusaders was a decisive point in their history. They supported the Franks and came under the influence of the Latin states. In 1182, they came under the jurisdiction of the church of Rome. This step, however, gave rise to dissidence, which lasted less than ten years. The Muslim army took advantage of it. At the beginning of the 14th century, the Maronites were to pay a price for their solidarity with the crusaders.

Contact between Rome and the Maronites became less frequent due to the Ottoman conquest but this did not disturb them. The rulers, like the Mamelukes before them, exercised only a distant authority over Lebanon. The Maronites became latinized, opened themselves to Western civilization, and benefited from French aid in many forms. Nevertheless for some of their elite, the modernization of their community in the Western style did not result in a loss of their Eastern identity nor stop their arabization.

The 19th century was a troubled time for the Maronites. Their traditional social structures crumbled and they experienced strong conflicts with the Druzes. There was military intervention from the West and a new political regime was installed giving some degree of autonomy to Mount Lebanon. Since then, and up until the war in Lebanon from 1975 until 1990, the Maronites played a dominant role in the birth and evolution of present-day Lebanon.

The Latins

This community, Western in more than one way, is made up of a majority of Arab believers, particularly Palestinians, including the patriarch himself since 1917. There are only eighty thousand members in the whole of the Arab world.

In addition, there are a few thousand Western Christians residing in Arab countries, including priests, monks and nuns carrying out educational and missionary work.

Its history is related to papal efforts to establish Catholicism in the countries of the Middle East. Though the priority was to win over the Middle Eastern churches, only a small percentage was, in fact, converted. Latin bishops under the Roman Church were installed with jurisdiction over the Christians who used the Western liturgy.

The idea of establishing a Latin church goes back to the crusaders. The Franks had appointed a Latin patriarch in Jerusalem to replace the legitimate incumbent of the patriarchal see. In 1291 the last patriarch was drowned during the taking of Akka from the crusaders. However, the disappearance of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem did not put an end to all forms of Latin presence. It was maintained through the Franciscan "custody" of the Holy Land. They were able to win recognition by the Mamelukes, and later by the Ottomans, whose "Sublime Porte" had signed the "Capitulation Treaties" with the European powers. Subsequently, they claimed Catholic rights in the Holy Places alongside those of the Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Copts. The reestablishment with the support of the French, of a Latin patriarchate in 1847 was the result of the Holy See's wish to safeguard these rights. The objective of the patriarchate was not to create a religious community but its presence encouraged the development of such a com munity. Because it was Arab and because of the arabization of its clergy, the Latin church developed a Palestinian vocation in addition to that of guardianship of the Holy Places.

The Protestants

The work of Protestant missions, originating in the United States and Europe, was part of a movement to evangelize the world which grew up in the 19th century. The missionaries first targeted Jews and Muslims and, after a more or less total failure, tried, without success, to "reform" the churches of the East. They ended up founding Protestant communities.

These communities were small, except for the Egyptian Evangelical community which, while it was very much a minority compared to the Copts, is estimated at one hundred and fifty thousand members. The communities of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon reach an estimated membership of twenty-five thousand, while the others, including Armenian Evangelicals, Lutherans and Anglicans, are estimated to vary between about ten and twenty thousand. Other Protestant denominations, new religious groups, and what are depicted as "sects" proselytized in some Arab countries. We will not attempt to list or describe them nor estimate their membership, much lower than that of communities belonging to traditional Protestant groups.

To come back to the latter, we note that we cannot measure their influence entirely by their numbers. Their many institutions, particularly the educational ones, played an important social and cultural role not only among Christians outside the Protestant communities, but also among Muslims.

Even if the westernization and modernization of Christians converted to Protestantism made of them "aliens at home" [16], their elite, or at least some of them, endeavoured without losing their specificity, to acquire, through ecumenism, an Arab Christian identity.

The Arab Christians and their roles

The Christians of the Arab world have been recognized as communities in law and public conscience since the birth of Islam. While expecting their loyalty to the Islamic state, the statute, or rather the pact of the dhimma, has protected them. [17] Also it implied a measure of subordination, both civil and political. The dhimma pact legitimated pluralism though in a way it was a "hierarchical pluralism".

In several regions the Christians became a minority in terms of power before becoming a numerical minority, such as in Syria where they outnumbered the Muslims until the 12th century. Despite this, their contribution to the formation of the Arab-Islamic civilization cannot be treated as marginal. Nevertheless, there were obvious limits because they were asked to be instrumental in building a society where a religion which was not theirs was the cornerstone of legitimacy. Their role was not confined to science, art, philosophy and serving state institutions. The ideas which fashioned the thinking and institutions of the "Islamic Order" were not unfamiliar to the Christians. [18] This undeniably important role was weakened once the task, which had defined it, had been completed. [19]

Under the Ottomans the dhimma system organizing pluralism reached its highest point of codification. The millets were both nations and religious communities and enjoyed relative autonomy. During the 19th century the picture changed. The political and legal structures and ideologies developed in Europe progressively penetrated the Arab-Muslim world. On the other hand, the European powers, tempted by the Ottoman empire's weaknesses, and having adopted an imperialistic attitude, developed relations with various minority communities. The leaders of these communities were not insensitive to the proposed "assistance". In fact, "hierarchical pluralism" was exploited in favour of the needs of external control. The Christians were often faced with difficult choices. They differed according to their character, religious affiliation, their social condition and the political fluctuations they experienced. But on the whole they aspired to a "citizenship" freed from direct or indirect domination from abroad. While their fi ght for political and civil equality opposed them to the moribund Ottoman empire, it united them with the Muslims in a national combat for independence. For the majority of Christians this combat was to continue against the European nations after they had shared the spoils of the first world war.

Thus the stakes of the struggles for national liberation were not just the future of the majority communities, but also the relationships between majorities and minorities. In the search for a new socio-political framework it was not enough to divide, or accept the division, of a geographic area and the distribution of different ethnic and religious groups throughout the territories. Collective identities had to be proposed in a way acceptable to different communities. Thus the role of the emerging states was, in fact, reinforced even though they were questioned in the name of a vision for Arab unity. This vision was, for its part, considerably attractive. But neither the states nor the Arab nationalist movements, which had the same ideology as some states, succeeded in achieving national integration nor could they modify radically various traditional identities. Today, the failures of arabism explain, although partially, the rise of Islamism.

Looking at the future

The current anxiety of Christians in the Arab world and their friends is evident. It arises from the effects of increasingly unfavourable demographics, the economic and political failures of the national states, and fears in the face of the rise of Islamism. Preoccupation with survival affects both their reading of history and their reflections on the future. Affected by disappointments - shared for the most part by their Muslim fellow citizens - they cast a shadow over the debates, still vigorous and full of promises a decade ago, about the presence, role and vocation of Christians in the Arab world.

While recognizing the anxiety and trying to understand the reasons for it is one thing, it is another to contribute to its aggravation. We cannot help fearing that alarmism and resignation will accelerate the realization of what is feared. Thus the imminent, supposedly final, eradication of the Christians of the Arab world is at the same time an expression of and a cause for anxiety. We do not propose here to examine critically the information, analysis and opinions of those who defend the thesis of the irreversibility of a process towards a Mediterranean Near East whose fortune depended on a fruitful mixing of religions and races, and which will tomorrow bear the sad traces of uniformity. [20] But, while not wishing to enter into accusations, we question the motivation, circumstantial meaning and the consequences of certain statements most often of a sensational nature.

A British-Israeli author, presented as a specialist on minorities in Islamic countries, recalls how the beginning of the 20th century had opened up promising perspectives for Middle East Christians. Yet, today their history is one of exodus, massacres, rejection by the West, and abandonment. For Islam, she says, is returning to Islamism, to "dar al harb", to the jihad, and the Christians to the status of dhimmis (second-class citizens). [21] Although her reading of Arab-Islamic history is solely from the perspective of a majority/minority relationship governed by rules which she considers immutable and trans-historic, she does allow herself one small sympathetic parenthesis for the Christian Arabs. But this parenthesis is short-lived. Compassion gives way to invective: the Christians have also brought their misfortunes upon themselves. Having failed where the Jews succeeded, they are said to have weakened themselves through their submission and reserve. She places particular blame on the clergy and the elite who, behaving as janissaries, "passionately protected the interests of their oppressors. They served them on all anti-Zionist fronts and, in servility and anguish, fulfilled their dhimmi fate. Humiliated and degraded, they massively leave their countries in a silent exodus of the monk without disturbing a world indifferent to their suffering." [22]

The French historian cited earlier was aware of this indifference and even a certain amount of responsibility on the part of the West. However, he did not take a dislike to the Christian clergy and elite. Is this a cry from the heart and an expression of a Western guilty conscience? Or is it a sort of justification of the abandoning of the Christians of the Arab world by those who would be counted as their friends and have been their protectors? At the same time, could it be a confirmation of the exceptionalism with regard to democracy and human rights that is associated with Islam and of which the Muslim world is often charged.

While it is true that, in some cases, the future of Christian Arabs from the perspective of their present situation is a legitimate subject of preoccupation, that anxiety is expressed and, in particular, approached differently by a considerable number of Christians and Muslims. We often forget that the exodus of Palestinian Christians, the bitterness of Lebanese Christians, and the feeling of insecurity among Copts in Egypt, affect many Muslims as well. Beyond the sympathy expressed and whispered to their countrymen, voices are being raised to remind people of the Christian contribution to Arab civilization and the fact that they cannot be replaced in today's society. They warn against their departure or withdrawal, and denounce the pressure and repression of which they are reportedly victims.

There are also a significant number of voices being raised acknowledging that, while the Christians have specific worries, these reflect problems within the society as a whole. According to an Egyptian intellectual, the liberation of the Copts would be a necessary condition for the liberation of the Muslims. [23] Most often, it is not the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority that is at stake but justice, political participation, human rights and national dignity. Nevertheless, the perception of relations between the majority and the minority is clouded by the attitude towards Islamism and, in particular, the violent, radical movements against Christians.

Islamism, in its complexity and plurality, is far from being unanimously perceived as an irreversible movement. It could be seen, as in a commonly used metaphor, as a wave. However big waves seem to be, writes the Crown Prince of Jordan, they are appeased once they have used up their initial driving force. Thus the Christian Arabs and those who fear for them should recognize the ephemeral nature of this type of behaviour. In any case, the Arab Christians are no strangers to Arab-Muslim society. With an inheritance of confidence in them, they would be wrong to fear for the future any more than their fellow citizens. [24]

Without necessarily agreeing with this position concerning both Christians and Islamists, the idea that the radical, fanatical expression of Islamism may be circumstantial -- because it is reactional -- is defended by many, including numerous Islamists. There is not sufficient recognition of the fact that the young and underprivileged population, recruited by the most radical Islamist groups, use the assertion of religious identity as a sign of belonging. When deprived, for the most part, of the fruits of economic and cultural development, and of fair political representation, people have a tendency to express their resentment and frustrations at the expense of the religious minority. The more tension there is due to economic upheavals, poor distribution of revenues and political impasses, the more the Christian communities are likely to become the scapegoat. The incumbent regimes are often accused of giving much more importance to the Christians than they are entitled to. The appearance of being different or even the difference attributed to Christians may lead to a sort of rejection. This in turn feeds on the suspicion that they only have a conditional attachment to their country even though they pride themselves on having been the first occupants. This conditional attachment is said to be due to their compromising with the West. The Christians are said to have listened not just to their separatist strategies but to their secular nationalist ideas.

Nevertheless, the Islamists' attitudes towards the Christians are becoming more varied. Some turn them into victims singled out in the sacred combat on God's path. Others, at times, denounce "the arrogance of the Christians", however they condemn violence between communities. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to ignore those who insist, not on the dhimma pact as the norm, but on its historicity, and who affirm the citizenship of non-Muslims in an Islamic state with all that it implies in terms of civil equality and political participation. In dissociating equal rights and political participation from the "secular state" they endeavour to innovate in fiqh (science of interpreting religious law in Islam). [25]

There is a minority-centred option which inherits, for some, a disappointed or desperate secularism. They seem to suggest that only secularism, which is becoming increasingly unrealistic, can guarantee respect for religious pluralism and build national unity. By emphasizing the impossibility of dissociating din (religion) from dawla (state) in Islam, this option is sometimes expressed in an extreme manner: in a separatism which is more or less conscious of the traumas of history and of what the many power struggles allow.

In other, more frequent cases, the response to real or imagined threats takes the form of a retreat, an abdication leading to emigration or a withdrawal inside their community. The latter implies both an interiorisation of their marginalisation and an attempt to break its hold by seeking success in the areas of business and in mastery of the sciences. This could feed the hope that the business world remains a "secular place". There is the hope of benefiting from loyalty to the existing regimes and a more or less realistic repositioning for a role as mediator between the Arab world and the West.

There remains another option, which is more difficult to define because it is more open. It is less alarmist with regard to Islamism, aware of its limitations but not insensitive to its appeal -- for Islamism is a denunciation of real injustices, a call for a revival to combat the growing banality of life and planetary uniformity. It is open to promises of dialogue and cooperation with the Muslims, in contrast to the ruinous alternatives of the ghetto or emigration. This option would oppose oppression of both majority and minority, which are under threat together and not just alongside one another. Also, this option is concerned with the witness of the church, a church which, as Patriarch Ignatius IV reminds us,

Chooses to be fully present in the suffering of our countries, with patience but also with courage, a Church which is not reactionary, is not tied to ethnic or linguistic identities preserved in a conservatism of survival, but a Church dispersed like salt, seeking its identity in its vocation." [26]

(*.)This is a thoroughly revised English version of a text originally written in French for the review Version Originale (120, avenue de Saint-Exupery, F-92160 Antony, France) and published in French and English. The article is reproduced with the permission of the author, who revised it, and the editor.

(**.)Prof. Tarek Mitri, from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and coordinator of the Team on Inter-Religious Relations of the WCC, teaches sociology and modem history of religion at the University of Balamand, Lebanon.


(1.) Wessels, Anton, Arabs and Christians?, Kampen, The Netherlands, Kok Pharos, 1995.

(2.) Abat al 'arabiyyat an tatanassar.

(3.) Cragg, Kenneth, The Arab Christian, London, Mowbray, 1992.

(4.) See: Zabbal, Francois, Chr[acute{e}]tiens d'un monde pluriel (Christians in a Pluralistic Society), introduction to the dossier "Les ch[acute{e}]rtiens arabes" (The Arab Christians) in Qatara, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, No. 21, Autumn 1996.

(5.) The reference is not to present-day Syria but to a bil[bar{a}]d al sh[bar{a}]m, comprised of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria.

(6.) Saint Jerome, vita Hilarionis, XXV, quoted by Asad Rustum, T[bar{a}]rikh Kanisat Madinat Allah Ant[bar{a}]kiah al 'Uzma in L'Eglise de la cit[[acute{e}] de Dieu Antioche la grande, Beirut, 1954, v. 1, p. 392.

(7.) T[bar{a}]rikh al Ya'q[bar{u}]bi, v. 1, p. 254.

(8.) For a development of this idea supported by a detailed study of texts, refer to the work of Samir Khalil, specialist in the Christian Arab heritage. We cite as an example: Khalil, Samir, "La Tradition arabe chr[acute{e}]tienne et la chr[acute{e}]tient[acute{e}] de Terre Sainte" (The Arab Christian Tradition and Christianity of the Holy Land) in Christianity in the Holy Land, Studia Oecumenica Hierosolymitana, 1981.

(9.) En Islam. We cite here the title of a book by Henri Teissier, Archbishop of Algeria.

(10.) Eglise des Arabes, title of a book by Jean Corbon (Paris, Cerf, 1997). He may have chosen it at least partly because it does not pose any great problem from the theological point of view, but also because it offers a way out of the impasses presented by current usage.

(11.) The Nestorians went so far as to affirm that Christ was made up of two persons, one divine, the Logos, and the other human, Jesus. There was no union between the two, only a link.

(12.) See: Joseph, John, The Nestorians and their Muslim Neighbours, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1961. Raymond Le Coz, Histoire de l'Eglise d'Orient, Paris, Ceff, 1995.

(13.) Roum is the name given to the Byzantines by the Arabs.

(14.) Hajjar, Joseph, Les Chr[acute{e}]tiens Uniates du Proche-Orient (The Uniat Christians of the Near East), Paris, Editions do Seuil, 1962, p. 9.

(15.) Several Maronite historians recount their flight from the Orontes Valley to Mount Lebanon in 685. But this is widely disputed. See: Salibi, Kamal, A House of Many Mansions, London, I.B. Thauris, 1990.

(16.) According to the expression chosen by Wanis Semaan, a Protestant theologian, who chose Aliens at Home as the title of his book on the history and sociology of Protestantism in the Arab world.

(17.) Rodinson, Maxime, The idea of the minority in Islam, in Les minorit[acute{e}]s [grave{a}] l'[hat{a}] l'Etat-nation (Minorities in the age of the nation-state), Paris, Fayard, 1985, p. 94.

(18.) Haddad, Robert, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society, Princeton University Press, 1970, p. 4.

(19.) Ibid., p.4

(20.) Valognes, Jean-Pierre, Vie et Mort des Chr[acute{e}]tiens d'Orient (Life and Death of the Christians of the East), Paris, Fayard, 1994, p. 10.

(21.) Bat Ye'or, Juifs et Chr[acute{e}]tiens sous l'Islam, les "dhimmis" face au d[acute{e}]fi int[acute{e}]griste (Jews and Christians under Islam, the Dhimmis and the integrist challenge), Paris, Berg international, 1994, pp. 261-262.

(22.) Ibid., p. 326.

(23.) Amin, Gal[bar{a}]l, 'An Fadihat Ab[bar{u}] Qurq[bar{a}]s (referring to the Ab[bar{u}] Qurq[bar{a}]s scandal), Al Muntada, No. 56, Cairo, 1990, p. 28.

(24.) El Hassan Bin Talal, Christianity in the Arab World, Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies, Amman, 1995, pp. 97-98.

(25.) We could cite the names of Muhammad Salim al 'Awwa, Tariq al Bishri, Fahmi Huwaydi, and al Shaykh Yusuf al Qaradawi.

(26.) Ignatius IV, "Speech at Notre-Dame de Paris" in Contacts, Revue Francaise de l'Orthodoxie, No. 123, 1983, p.275.
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Publication:International Review of Mission
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Date:Jan 1, 2000

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