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Cross in the Crescent-good article
« on: February 23, 2005, 09:55:02 PM »
The Cross in the Crescent
Torn by the conflicting pressures of history and culture, faith and nationality, Christians are struggling to maintain a clear sense of their identity within the Arabic world.

By Nicholas Jubber

Feb. 01, 2002

Among the fifteen nations represented in the crowd of people who were amazed to hear the twelve apostles preaching in tongues on the first Pentecost Sunday was Arabia. Also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles are residents of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Libya -- three other lands that today are predominantly Arabic-speaking and define themselves as "Arab" states. Several of Christianity’s early theologians expressed themselves in Arabic. In the 9th century, the Jacobite apologist Habib Al-Takriti wrote treatises about the Trinity, the Incarnation, and "the truth of the Christian religion" for the benefit of his Muslim compatriots.

Beyond dispute, Christianity in the Arab world has a venerable history. By the 6th century, the faith had spread so successfully across the Fertile Crescent (a region that now includes parts of Iraq, Greater Syria, Palestine, and Egypt) that it was the religion of around 15 million people. The current numbers are roughly the same. But it is the proportion that exposes the real demographic decline. Whereas in the 6th century Christians represented 95 percent of the population in the region, they now account for less than 6 percent.

The most evident causes of this decline--death, conversion, and emigration--only tell a portion of the story. For Christians in the Arab world, whether they define themselves as Arabs or not, there is a growing crisis of identity. They are torn: between Arab nationalism and the ancient national identities to which many of them owe their faith; between an Eastern culture and a religion whose dominant base is in the West; between a language standardized by the Qu’ran and the faith that many of their compatriots consider to be their enemy.

These frictions express themselves in a complex, and apparently contradictory, mosaic of experiences spanning the centuries. During the Crusades, the Maronites of modern-day Lebanon acted as guides and translators to the Western Christians who fought against (among others) the native Christians who lived in Jerusalem. Now today, Palestinian Christians are shot dead alongside their Muslim compatriots at the same time as Christians are persecuted by Muslims in Upper Egypt.


Christians were at the forefront of the revival of Arab nationalism that swept across the region in the middle of the 19th century. Michel ‘Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian, co-founded the Arab nationalist Ba’ath party that is currently in power in Syria and Iraq. The Lebanese Maronite Butrus al-Bustani spearheaded an Arabic literary renaissance with his publication of a dictionary and encyclopedia in 1881. But today, ‘bin Ladenism’ and a myriad of other Islamist movements have cast a pall over the identity of Christians as Arabs. Emphasizing religion as the primary source of solidarity among Arabs, ideologues like Sayyid Qutb-- the progenitor of Egypt’s Islamist revival-- have pushed Christians to the periphery of Arab life. As the Egyptian writer Mariz Tadros asked in Al-Ahram newspaper in October, "What room is there for Arab Christians, when the world divides into two camps?"

Naturally, the challenges that face Christian Arabs differ from place to place, according to their different backgrounds and circumstances. Palestinian Christians are among the most vocal proponents of Arab nationalism. "Christians are an integral part of Palestinian society," insists Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent spokesman for the Arab League. One of the founding members of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party is now the oldest resident of the Latin Patriarchate seminary in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. "I was in a Capuchin monastery in Lebanon," explains Father Eyad, "and Arafat came over from Kuwait and it took him two days to find me. I listened to him, and I felt he was wise, so I agreed to help." Recent events in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, where three Christians were killed during Israeli incursions (one of them on the square outside the Church of the Nativity), have solidified the image of national solidarity. Says Sheikh Muhammad Hussein of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, "We Palestinians, Christians and Muslims, are one unit."

In Jordan, too, Christians seem to enjoy strong bonds of brotherhood with their Muslim compatriots. Bishop Selim Sayegh, an auxiliary in the Latin-rite Patriarchate of Jerusalem who is responsible for Jordan, believes that the national ties were best exemplified during the Pope’s visit last spring. "When the Pope spoke at the National Stadium," he recalls, "maybe 400 Muslims came to see him, and many of the Greek Orthodox as well. And the speech that the King gave to welcome the Pope--you wouldn’t have believed this was the speech of a Muslim king!"

In Syria, another papal visit served to reinforce the perception of national unity. At the Umayyad Mosque last May, Pope John-Paul II stood side-by-side with Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, Grand Mufti of Damascus, who cited both Qu’ranic and Biblical texts as he extolled the "fraternity" between the country’s abundance of confessions. Sheikh Kuftaro said: "We invite the whole world to follow our example of living in mutual harmony, which emanates from our commitment to the teachings of Islam and our Christian brothers’ commitment to their teachings." According to the Syrian Catholic auxiliary in Damascus, there is "no discrimination" in Syria. "We are the same people," insists Bishop Elias Jarjour. Ordinary Syrians seem to agree. In Hama, I asked Michel, a Greek-Orthodox Syrian, about the relationship between Christians and Muslims. He rubbed two fingers together and patted the shoulder of the man beside him. "I am a Muslim," said his friend, Abu Al-Arif; "we share Jesus, Abraham, Moses and Mary." Michel added: "And God."


But some Christian communities in the Arab world are at best ambivalent about their "Arab" identity. The Arabic-speaking Maronites of Lebanon prefer to describe themselves simply as Lebanese. Many of them resented the declaration of Lebanon’s Arab identity in the National Pact of 1943. That move generated friction even before the 1975 outbreak of civil war that tore the country apart; whilst the Muslims of Lebanon wanted to identify more closely with Arab nationalism and were preoccupied with the Arab-Israeli conflict, Maronites endorsed pro-Western policies and regional independence. In 1958, President Camille Chamoun’s acceptance of US aid prompted riots in mostly Muslim Tripoli, which were only quelled when the Lebanese leader called in American forces. The end of the civil war in 1990 did not eradicate these longstanding differences. The continuing occupation of Lebanese territory by Syrian troops, and the dominant influence of Syrian political leaders over Lebanese affairs, continue to divide the country into two camps that can be defined broadly--although not exclusively--along religious lines.

The most visible Catholic leader in Lebanon, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, insists that there is solidarity between the faiths, going so far as to express his support for the militant Shi’a Muslim group, Hizbollah. ("I agree with them," he explains, "because South Lebanon has been liberated.") But ordinary Maronites project a less cozy image of the relationship between adherents of the two faiths. "We are all Christians in this area," says Antonius, a student in the coastal town of Kaslik, "We don’t like the Muslims. They are old-fashioned and they do not understand the 21st century." This view is echoed by Rami, from Byblos, who backs it up with a quick excursion into the ethnic history of the region. "We are the Phoenicians," he says, "the Muslims came later... We Maronites have good friendship with the Orthodox. Lebanon was for the Christians."

No less independent are the Syriac-speaking Assyrian Christians who now live in Iraq, northern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. Since 3,000 Assyrian Christians were slaughtered in 65 villages of the Mosul region of northern Iraq in 1933, they have dwindled to the status of a persecuted underclass. However, the separatist advocates of Beit Nahrain are now calling for the establishment of the first Assyrian state in 2,700 years. Now that northern Iraq has been wrested from Saddam Hussein and operates under a Kurdish alliance, its Christian population enjoys greater freedom. Christians hold parliamentary positions and act as regional governors; they are allowed their own Syriac-speaking schools and Syriac television and radio programs. However, this independence has not stopped the sporadic episodes of mob violence, blockades, murders, and the closure of Assyrian political offices.

The problems for Syriac Christians are not confined to Iraq. Father Yusuf Akbulut, an Aramaic-speaking parish priest in Diyarbekir, in southeast Turkey, was arrested in October 2000 for "crimes against public order" under Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code. His crime was to affirm publicly the massacres of Assyrians and other Christian minorities under the Ottoman Empire. Father Yusuf, who was acquitted in April, is silent about his trial. "There is no problem," he mutters in answer to a reporter's question. Some of his parishioners, sipping weak tea under a canopy outside the 1,700 year-old Church of the Virgin Mary, are more forthright. "He had been arrested," whispers one, because "the government does not like to be reminded of its past." Another parishioner seeks to clarify the situation, however, by insisting that the Assyrians suffer "no persecution" today. Theirs, she explains, is a different sort of problem. She says:

We are not the same as the Greeks, not the same as the Armenians, not the same as the Catholics. But we are the first Church. Our problem is that we have no land, no schools. Our problem is a question of identity.

The most clear-cut resistance to Arab identification takes place in Sudan, where black Africans in the south oppose the government dominated by the Muslims of the Arab north. The imposition of Islamic Shari’a Law in 1983 ignited a civil war that has claimed approximately 2 million lives in nearly 20 years. "They try to implement the Shari’a curriculum in the schools," complains Jane, a Catholic in Khartoum; "from the ninth grade up every child has to be schooled in Islam. And in the south Muslims are trying to marry Christians and Islamize." Like most of her co-religionists, and their animist compatriots, Jane identifies herself as "African." The shared racial background of the people living in southern Sudan, she says, make them "similar, more than the Muslims." AMBIGUOUS BACKGROUNDS

There are some Christian communities in the Middle East whose identification is more ambiguous. Foremost among these are the Chaldeans, the Copts, and the non-Arabic-speaking Christians in the Holy Land.

The Catholic Chaldeans, who are ethnically identical to the Assyrians, are the largest Christian denomination in Iraq, with nearly 400,000 faithful. In the immediate post-independence era, many of them embraced the Ba’ath party and became exponents of national unity. Now, although some Catholics remain prominent in Iraqi affairs--Tariq Aziz is the deputy prime-minister--ordinary Chaldeans are fleeing by their thousands in order to escape the devastating economic repercussions of UN sanctions and the oppression of Saddam Hussein's regime.

One of the most accessible escape-routes leads into Jordan. When my colleague Michael Hirst and I first met Bishop Salim Sayegh of Amman, in November 2000, he reported that the condition of the Chaldean refugees had become his gravest problem. Last July, this problem was less conspicuous--not because the situation in Iraq had improved, but because the opening of the Turkish and Syrian borders had divided the burden. The bishop reported:

Many of them use Jordan as a transit point on their way to America or Europe. But a great many of them stay. If they have been unable to gain permanent residency, then they are here illegally, and will have to pay a few Jordanian dinars a day as a bribe. If they have a large family, this can be a terrible burden. But it is worse if the government finds them and sends them back to Iraq, where they may be put into the army. And they have no decent hospitals, no medical supplies--they live in a very bad situation.

Circumstances for the non-Arabic Christians in the Holy Land are slightly different. They are located primarily in Jerusalem and Galilee, where 10 percent of Christians are not Palestinian--some of them are Armenian or Syriac, others Western. Since 1967, the first two groups have aligned themselves with the Palestinian Christians. The Armenian Patriarch, for example, is one of the three patriarchs (along with the Latin and Greek Orthodox) who regularly sign joint statements addressing issues such as the confiscation of Palestinian identity cards or the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites. Such solidarity has not prevented the Armenians from maintaining their own cultural independence. With a separate quarter and compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, and links with enterprising Armenian communities around the world, they have managed to demonstrate their capacity for survival in one of the most bitterly contested places on earth.

Western Christians tend to stand on the opposite side of the local political divide. Some are relatives of Israeli +¬migr+¬s; some are foreign workers employed by Israeli or international organizations. Many of these are evangelical Christians who attribute the establishment of Israel in 1948 to the grace of God. Their stance toward Muslim regimes is summed up by David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. He claims that "throughout the Middle East, the Christian minorities have had to speak publicly about solidarity while the Muslims hold a gun to their heads."

If any Christian community in the Middle East can attest to such pressures, it is the Copts, who proudly claim to trace the foundations of their faith to the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. After the Arab invasions in the 7th century, their numbers dwindled and they were reduced to the status of dhimmis: non-Muslims living under the protection of the Islamic state. Still they preserved their language, which today is used primarily in liturgy rather than everyday discourse. Despite their differences, however, Copts joined Muslims in the mid-19th century under an Egyptian nationalist banner. The jizya tax exacted of non-Muslims was lifted, they were allowed to join the army, and Copts served in the 1866 inaugural session of the Consultative Council. Their confidence in national integration was so great that, at the Asyut Congress in 1911, they demanded equality with Muslims: Sunday as a public holiday, more parliamentary representation, and increased funding for their schools. By 1923, a new constitution seemed to have done away with sectarianism. The Copts entered a golden age: active involvement in the ascendant Wafd party, warm welcome from Sa’d Zaghloul, (the leader of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation), and a national ideology expressed by writers like Ahmad Lutfi as-Sayyid, that emphasized Egypt’s Pharaonic (rather than Islamic or Arab) core.

But gradually this happy situation came apart. The policies of nationalization undertaken by Gama Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s deprived the Copts of their traditional economic strength. Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, pursued a series of pro-Islamist policies in the 1970s, strengthening organizations like al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group). Still later the killing of Copts signaled the beginning of a period of conflict between Islamic zealots and their Christian neighbors. In June 1981, a dispute over the construction of a church led to seventeen deaths. (Four months later, after a bungled investigation led to arrests that involved Copts as well as Islamists, President Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists.) In 1992, the killing of fourteen Copts launched the Islamists’ campaign against the government. In 1997, a spate of attacks against Copts--including twelve dead at a student prayer meeting in Upper Egypt--culminated in the massacre of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptian natives in Luxor. (That last massacre finally brought the religious conflict to the attention of a heretofore indifferent world, and prompted a stern reaction from a previously indifferent national government. As the Coptic weekly Al-Watan commented: "It’s okay if you munch on little Copts, but don’t touch the tourists.")

Such incidents have left the Copts’ sense of national identity in tatters. At St Paul’s monastery near the Red Sea coast, I asked a group of Coptic students about inter-religious relations. "There are Muslims and Copts," said eighteen year-old Bishoi, "but my friends are all Copts."

"I know Muslims," conceded his friend Butros, "but they are not my friends."

"Why?" I asked. "Some Muslims cause us problems," Butros explained. "They try to fight us and cause us difficulties." So disaffiliated did one Copt feel from even the most emotive source of pan-Arab solidarity, that he whispered: "I think the Palestinians are barbarians for what they do to Israel."


The ambivalence in Muslim-Christian relations is colored by a variety of religious, political, and social factors. Among these are the bonds that Muslims traditionally perceive between their Christian compatriots and the West. These bonds have contributed to the Christians' success in trade and education (although other factors, such as the competitive and entrepreneurial tendencies of the Christian minority, have also contributed), for which some Muslims are resentful.

While the importance of these ties between Arabic and Western Christians is often exaggerated, their existence cannot be denied--least of all by the Christians themselves. Bishop Elias Janjour of Damascus observes:

The Christian culture is more Western, more universal. It is a concept of a changing world. The Christians look towards Rome; the Muslims. of course, don’t. So of course the Christians should be more Western and outward-looking.

Schools established by European and American organizations, such as the College des Freres de la Salle in Jerusalem, and the American University of Beirut, are among the most successful academic institutions in the region. Christians earn a disproportionate number of places among the student bodies there. Muslims believe--often with some real justification--that Christians are favored in business dealings with the West.

A more wide-ranging expression of this dynamic occurred when Western powers occupied the region in the aftermath of the First World War. "We liked the French," says Mana’l, a Lebanese Maronite. "The French were good to the Christians, but the Muslims hated them."

However, European occupying forces were not consistently prejudiced in favour of Christians. Although Western Egyptologists like Adolf Erman saw in the Copts "the blood of Amenophis III," the British High Commissioner introduced a system that barred Copts from senior governmental positions. When Copts demanded equality at the Asyut Congress in 1911, the British administration rejected their claims as "fabricated grievances." Now, as Palestinian Christians seek support from Christian institutions in the West, many of them express a resentment of the West that is amplified by their sense of betrayal. Soon after the millennium Christmas celebrations had been dampened by the impact of the intifada, Hannan Ashrawi complained:

I don’t see the Christians of the world saying to Israel, 'You have isolated Jerusalem, now you are laying siege to Bethlehem.' But this is the birthplace of Christ! It is time that the Christian West stopped using double standards and dealt with the truth.


Even when they share the Muslims' antipathy towards the West, Arab Christians have to contend with accusations of complicity. In a demonstration at Cairo’s Helwan University following Osama bin Laden's first public broadcast since September 11, a Christian student was assaulted and ordered to hide the cross around her neck. Christians have been targeted as scapegoats by conspiracy theorists: in July, after two Hamas activists and two other Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire in Bethlehem, a rumor swept through the town that the activists had been betrayed by Christians.

Bishop Sayegh points out another source of embarrassment: the aggressive proselytizing efforts by door-to-door Evangelical missionaries, whose activities are frowned upon by strict Muslims. "We have many problems because of this," he complains. "Many Muslims think we are all one group, so they blame us for this. But we are responsible for our own faithful and not for others."

The historical divisions among the Arabic peoples have led to the development of a network of political and economic systems in which Christians are sometimes the victims of discrimination, and sometimes the beneficiaries. An example of the former is the restriction imposed on church building. In Egypt, Ottoman-era legislation restricted construction and repairs of churches until it was relaxed in 1998, after the US Congress passed the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, designating Egypt as a "Category Two Persecuting Country." Now, decisions are made by local governors. But a permit is still required even to repair a toilet. The government’s stance toward the Coptic Church has improved: in 1996, Cairo returned approximately half of the 1,500 acres of parish properties seized in 1952 under Nasser’s nationalization decrees.

The more recent Egyptian government crackdown on Islamic militants has also helped the Copts. But it was not enough to stop the killing of 20 Christians in the Upper Egypt village of al-Kosheh in January 2000. According to Bishop Marcos, who led an official Coptic Church inquiry into the events, "The local security forces could have prevented the sectarian violence from spinning out of control if police had acted quickly and decisively when the problem began."

In Jordan, Bishop Sayegh cites the day-to-day problems caused by:

Muslims who hate Christians. They are a small minority and the priests do not really see them, but the Christians living their daily life are suffering from them. For example, you go to a job, and you are the best candidate, but because your name is George, they will give the job to someone else whose name is Mohammed. Or a girl working as a secretary will wear a cross around her neck, and they will ask her to remove it. She refuses, and so she loses her job. Or you run a grocery store, and if these people know that you are a Christian, they do not buy from your store.

Legislation in most Arab countries tends to favor Muslims. "The laws here are linked to the Qu’ran," explains Bishop Sayegh, "and Christians have to follow them." But there is a silver lining: "For religious matters," he points out, "Christians have a special law, with their own religious court."

In Lebanon, some Muslims are above the law. When the founder of Hizbollah, Sheikh Subhi at-Tufayli, took over a religious school near Baalbek, an arrest warrant was issued but never enforced. The popularity of Hizbollah, increased by the conflict with Israel, sets its leaders apart. More alarming, for its implications on the country’s sensitive demographic profile, was the 1994 Naturalization Decree that increased the official population of the country by 200,000; 80 percent of the new citizens were Muslims. That decree contravened Lebanon's established legal procedure, which required that each case of naturalization be independently investigated. The net effect, obviously, was to augment Muslim political power.

Political representation is also a sensitive issue throughout the Arab world. In Egypt, there are no Coptic governors and few ministers. Government apologists explain this fact by saying that no governorate has a Coptic majority, and add that Coptic ministers hold important portfolios in the government: for example, Youssef Boutros-Ghali is Minister for Economy and Foreign Trade.

Although Syria and Iraq have few government officials who are Christian, in other Arab countries where Christians constitute a significant minority of the population, they are well represented in the political leadership. In the Palestinian Legislative Council, 6 out of 88 seats are reserved for Christians, giving the Christian Palestinians nearly double the representation they would enjoy if the seats were assigned strictly on the basis of population. In Jordan, Father Bassam, the parish priest of Zerqa, told me that "we have more [government] ministers than our numbers deserve." Christians currently hold nine out of eighty parliamentary seats: about four times their proportion of the population in Jordan.

Glossary Terms: Maronite, Chaldean


In some cases, Christians themselves are responsible for creating or aggravating the divisions that make their life more difficult. In July, Father Ra’ed Abusahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalmen, showed reporters around the Maria Doty center in Bethlehem, a joint project funded by the Patriarchate and the Pontifical Mission to the Holy Land to aid Palestinian refugee families. One of the workers interrupted our tour to ask Father Ra'ed whether Muslims as well as Christians would be allowed to use the park. When Father Ra’ed answered that they would, the man lost his temper. Later, once the confrontation was ended, Father Ra'ed explained:

It is a disease. The man says this park is for the refugees, and not for the Christians. He asks me, 'What will the Church do for us?' This is a sickness. The park is for everyone, Christian as well as Muslim.

In different circumstances it seems that Christians and Muslims are united by their shared characteristics. In the Syrian monastery of Mar Musa, Jesuits and Melkite Catholic priests join Syrian Orthodox monks in worship; they open their religious services by prostrating themselves in front of the altar, a ritual that can easily remind an observer of Muslim prayers. According to Hakim, a Christian volunteer at Mar Musa, "many Muslims come to the monastery, especially on feast daysGǪwe both worship the same God, and there are differences in our beliefs, but we both like to show our beliefs--more, I think, than you in the West."

Father Maroun, director of the Latin Patriarchate seminary in Beit Jala, believes that, "we have our problems, but when you have a common enemy, you stick together." This is most patently the case in the Holy Land. According to Sheikh Muhammad Hussein of al-Aqsa, "many Christians and Muslims are exposed to Israeli attacks which do not distinguish between cross and crescent." This sense of shared oppression engenders a solidarity that encourages believers of one faith to cite features of the other. So, during the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land, Yasser Arafat emphasized the Palestinian "roots" of Jesus and even of the papacy.

In Lebanon, too, a common threat has also brought different religious factions together. In 1840 Muslims, Christians, and Druze swore an oath of unity at the altar of St. Elias in Antelias. A century later--in spite of sporadic internecine conflict--their descendants stood side by side to defy the Ottoman Turks and the French mandate. Now, in defiance of the Syrian occupation, Druze and Maronite leaders have united yet again: in August, Patriarch Sfeir visited the predominantly Druze Chouf region. "We must close ranks to defend freedom and human rights in Lebanon," he declared in front of a predominantly Druze audience on August 4.


The cornucopia of Christian denominations in the Arab world certainly gives an observer the appearance of unity within diversity. A Greek Catholic deacon in Aleppo extols the virtues of this highly diverse Christian community:

For the Catholics, we have Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian, Chaldean, Armenian, and Latin Catholic. And the Orthodox are Greek, Syrian, Armenian. But I say it is like a garden. You have white flowers, red flowers, blue flowers, pink flowers. And the many different flowers make the garden more beautiful. It is the same with the Christian Church here.

Still, despite the ecumenical progress of recent years, these Christian communities are not immune from infighting. Nowhere is the tendency toward intramural discord more forcefully expressed than in Jerusalem. On a recent visit, a Franciscan monk regaled me with gossip of the latest scuffles:

An Armenian and a Greek were disputing who should clean a step in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They both wanted the chore, and it got so heated that the Greek snatched the cross round the Armenian’s neck and stamped on it. A particular source of disunity today is the recent spate of accusations of homosexual and pedophiliac activities in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Palestinian academic, Sammy Kirreh of Bethlehem University, recently published an article condemning a senior Greek Orthodox clergyman for abusing choirboys. The scholarly Kirreh, my Franciscan friend told me, is "embarrassed to be a Christian, and I don’t blame him. The place is festering with filth, in every nook and cranny. It’s not just the Greeks: the Franciscans aren’t free of it."

Striving to look beyond such divisions, Christians point out that pan-Muslim solidarity stretches from Kashmir to Kosovo. Where, they ask, is the same support from their own co-religionists? "We think," says Father Ra’ed, "that the Christian presence here is not only a responsibility on our shoulders, but is also the responsibility of all our brothers and sisters all over the world, who should have a special care of their mother Church of Jerusalem."

Even at that, it must be borne in mind that among the Christians of the Arab world, assistance from the West is not always welcome. Worse still, at time the Christians of the West--including even those who trace their origins to the Arab world--make life more difficult for the Christians remaining in the region. Expatriate Copts, who launch campaigns against the Egyptian government from their desktops in Washington, have been accused by Copts in Egypt of making the situation worse for their co-religionists in the native land. In a statement to the US Congress in April 1998, Youssef Boutros-Ghali complained: "There is a small group of Copts in your country that would like to drive a wedge between Copts and Muslims in my country."


The numbers tell a sorry story. In Bethlehem, one of the most identifiable Christian cities in the world, Christians are now a minority. Across the Holy Land, where Christians represented 11 percent of the total population and outnumbered Muslims in Jerusalem under the British mandate, they now amount to less than 2 percent. In Syria, where a third of the population were Christians at the beginning of the 20th century, they now account for less than 10 percent. In Lebanon, they have been reduced to a minority in the last fifteen years--for the first time since Saint Maroun preached to pagan Phoenicians more than fifteen centuries ago. Today there are more than four times as many Maronites outside Lebanon as inside their homeland. More than half the Christians of Iraq have left (or been killed). Approximately 12 percent of the Chaldean population now lives in America. Only the Copts have maintained their proportion of the population; yet there are now more than 2 million Copts in the Americas, Australia, and Europe.

Although many Christians spearheaded pan-Arabism, that political movement has acted against the interests of non-Arab Christian minorities: Armenians in Syria have been banned from establishing separate schools, political parties, or publications. Pan-Arabism has also worked against the Christian communities that once supported it: they have lost their economic independence, and state-sponsored education today emphasizes the Islamic faith of the majority. Bishop Sayegh worries:

Education is very important to us, because Christians are in a minority, and if they do not have the schools to give them this education they are lost in the Muslim majority. The public schools are teaching a very intensive Muslim education: Muslim geography, Muslim history, Muslim culture. They must have a balance.

Political unrest too has had a disproportionate impact on Christians: In Iraq and the Palestinian territories, where many Christians work in tourism and hospitality, the devastation of these industries during the recent months of conflict has deprived hundred of Christians of their livelihood.

Declining birth rates have taken their toll. In the Holy Land, there are 37 births per 1,000 Muslims each year, but only 22 per 1,000 Christians. This statistic is replicated, with minor variations, all across the region. "The Muslims have seven or eight children," complains Elie, a tailor in the southern Lebanese town of Tyre. "We cannot compete with this. They have four or five wives, so they have many children."

The prospect of better opportunity encourages some Christians to convert to Islam. Since there are very few material incentives for conversions of Muslims to Christianity, and since anyone who undertakes such a conversion can be subject the death penalty according to Qu’ranic law, the traffic of apostates is for the most part a one-way affair.

In fact, the only system that seems to favor the Christians is emigration. Families in the West are able to provide incentives--such as marriage, employment opportunities and family groupings--to encourage relatives who make the move. "If they marry a foreigner," says Bishop Janjour, "they don’t stay in Syria, but move to their spouse’s country, because the social conditions are better." Moreover, whereas Muslims fear that Western countries will be insensitive to their religious beliefs, Christians have no such trepidation. In Sweden, there are ten churches and thirty-two priests to take care of the 40.000 Christian refugees from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Western embassies are also believed (rightly or wrongly) to favor applications from Christians, because their religion, customs, and education will facilitate assimilation into their host countries.

But there are some reasons for optimism. Recent overtures by the Vatican, such as the Pope’s ground-breaking visit to the Omayyad mosque in Damascus and his messages in honor of Muslim festivals, have created a strong impression. The Pope has demonstrated that the Christian hierarchy is not ill disposed toward Islam.

Equally reassuring is the viewpoint expressed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Pope’s Holy Land pilgrimage, he declares, had "no benefit to the Muslim-Christian dialogue" because "understanding in this country between Christians and Muslims has lasted 1,500 years." Although it certainly has not been unencumbered by discord, the longevity of this relationship between the two faiths is one of the strongest arguments for its viability.

And there is one respect, at least, in which Christianity is not only surviving, but thriving: the growing willingness among young people to dedicate themselves to religious life. As Maronite Patriarch Sfeir points out, the reason for this trend may be less encouraging than the result. "Many young people," he says, "have felt after the war that there is nothing left but to devote themselves to God."

Another key reason for optimism about the survival of Christianity in the Middle East is the determination of the Christians themselves. Patriarch Sfeir believes that, "the interest of the Christians is to witness to the Christian faith in a country that is not fully Christian." Attachment to their Christian identity may prompt some to emigrate to countries where Christians are in the majority, but it is an equally powerful incentive for many of those who stay. As Father Sama’an, a Coptic priest at St Paul’s, explains: "We are keeping the beliefs and traditions of the first church, preserved by the blood of thousands of martyrs." [AUTHOR ID] Nicholas Jubber, a free-lance writer who specializes in reporting on the Middle Easts, is a frequent contributor to CWR.



The confessional diversity among the Christian communities of the Middle East is one of the most complicated features of a famously complicated region. There are approximately 15 million Christians in the Arab region. They are divided among 20 different groups. The major religious bodies are:


Latin (Roman) Catholic--in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus, their spiritual leader is the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah; the liturgy is in Arabic.

Armenian Catholic--established in 1840, with a patriarchate in Beirut to serve the communities dispersed across the region since the Anatolian genocide of 1915-23. There are 363,000 members scattered across the world.

Chaldean Catholic--a branch of the Assyrians, from whom they split in the 16th century, and united with Rome in 1681. Concentrated in Iraq and Kurdistan, their numbers are estimated at 400,000

Coptic Catholic--claiming union with Rome since the Council of Chalcedon in 451; formal union was cemented at the Council of Florence in 1442. There are approximately 200,000 Coptic Catholics in Egypt.

Melkite Catholic--re-established full communion with the Holy See in the early 18th century; mostly concentrated in Syria, with small communities in the Holy Land (especially Galilee), and about 2 million faithful; liturgy in Arabic.

Maronite Catholic--tracing their lineage to St Maroun in the 4th century; their early years were characterized by conflict with other Christian sects, particularly the Syrian Jacobites, before communion with the Holy See was re-established during the Crusades. They are concentrated in Lebanon, but there are also communities in Jerusalem and Syria. Liturgy is in Syriac and Arabic. There are approximately 1.2 million Maronites in Lebanon.

Syrian Catholic--re-established communion with the Holy See in 1662; liturgy in Syriac and Arabic. Greek Orthodox Church

With patriarchates in Damascus, Jerusalem and Alexandria, the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church is the largest in the region, and claims to represent the direct continuation of the apostolic tradition; the liturgy is in Greek and Arabic.

Oriental Orthodox

(These disparate Christian bodies are independent, but united in their rejection of the doctrinal decrees set forth by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, asserting that Christ was one person with two undivided natures. For this reason they have been known as "Monophysites"--although this term itself is considered contentious).

Armenian Apostolic--claiming origin in the 4th century, under the leadership of St Gregory the Illuminator; doctrine differs slightly from Syrian and Coptic Orthodox. The spiritual leader, or Catholicos, resides in Antelias, Lebanon; the liturgy is in Armenian.

Coptic--tracing back to the evangelization of Egypt by St Mark. The Copts boast their role in the founding of the monastic tradition, and their current status as the single largest Christian community in the Middle East. They were a majority in Egypt until 850 AD; the liturgy is in Coptic. The faithful number somewhere between 4 and 6 million.

Ethiopian--claiming the mantle of St Frumentius in the 4th century. Long allied with Coptic Church, but now independent, their liturgy is in Ethiopian languages. Their Middle Eastern representation is mostly confined to monks and pilgrims in the Holy Land, and relatives of Jewish (Falasha) Ethiopian immigrants.

Syrian--derives from See of Antioch, established by St Peter. The patriarch resides in Homs, Syria, and the Church follows the Syriac liturgy of St James. Also known as Jacobite (after a 6th century Bishop of Edessa, who contributed to the preservation of the rite), the Church claims approximately 500,000 members.


The Nestorian, Suriani, and Syriac churches teach that Christ has two distinct persons (the human and divine)--for which they were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. They derive their faith from the missions of St Thomas. The "Nestorian" Church, as it was previously known, spread across Persia, India and China until shredded in the 14th century by the conquests of Tamerlane. Prior to that disaster, the Nestorian or "Thomas Church" was probably the most influential Christian group south of the Mediterranean. The liturgy is in Syriac-Aramaean dialects; the faithful today are estimated at less than 100,000.


Mostly converted by British and American missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, these Christian groups include the Anglican, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches. The latter accounts for 600,000 Africans in Sudan. There are also small representations of such creeds as the Baptists, Mennonites, and Mormons.
At any rate, I do not believe that there is a man in the USA who accepts to live in illusion who says that peace will be recognized between the Arabs and Israel even if the occupation of the occupied Arab territories does not come to an end.
The late