Christians in a Changing Arab World are Making their own Destinies

The press is full of stories this Christmas season about the negative effects on Middle Eastern Christians of the Arab upheavals of 2011. This “vale of tears” approach does profound injustice to the actual reality of the Arab Christians. The discourse of the persecution of a helpless Christian minority serves Orientalist purposes, intimating that the West has yet another hapless object of pity and reason to intervene in the Middle East, and blaming Muslims as a whole for intolerance instead of acknowledging cross-religious alliances.

The Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak, for instance, was an ecumenical affair, with many of Egypt’s 8-million-strong Coptic Christians joining their Muslim compatriots in protests (Christians are about 10 percent of the Egyptian population). Christians no less than Muslims were fed up with Mubarak’s dictatorship. They were convinced that the regime fomented sectarian tensions so as to divide and rule. They were under disabilities imposed by the Mubarak state.

While Egyptian Christians are understandably nervous about the strong showing of Muslim fundamentalists in the first two rounds of the elections for the lower house of parliament, they are not mere bystanders. They have protested courageously for their rights, incurring casualties at the hands of the army, and were among the first to call forcefully for the military to step down. They are not without resources– there are many Coptic attorneys and businesspeople, and the billionaire Sawiris family is from this community. Many Coptic Christians support the Wafd Party (in the emergence of which, as a standard-bearer of Egyptian nationalism in the teens and twenties of the last century, they played a role). Likely the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood will seek a parliamentary alliance with the Wafd Party, so that far from boycotting the Brotherhood’s party, the Copts in the Wafd may well be its partners in rule. Instead of seeing them as a helpless minority and special object of pity on the part of the Christian West, we should see them as inexorably interwoven with Egyptian society and as important social actors in their own right. They face challenges, as do others (Mubarak persecuted certain kinds of Muslims, too). But that meeting of challenges is just ongoing politics, not the end of the world.

Likewise, in Lebanon, Christians are self-confident and have formed political alliances with non-Christians. Indeed, a major Christian faction is allied with the Shiite fundamentalist group, Hizbullah, an alliance that underpins the current cabinet. Other Christians are allied with the Sunni-led March 14 coalition. In recent years, a Christian general has typically been president, and this is true at the moment. Lebanon saw impressive economic growth in the years prior to 2011 but was hurt by the upheavals in the region. Growth is expected to tick up in 2012. Lebanon is a country of about 4 million, and it is estimated that 40 percent of the voting-age population is Christian (though the over-all percentage is lower because Muslims predominate in the next, youth, population bulge).

Here is what Christmas in Beirut looks like:

and here is pop star Nancy Ajram lighting the Christmas tree in Verdun:

Where Christians are in a truly difficult situation, as in Iraq, the proximate cause is actually American intervention, which was conducted in such a way as to heighten sectarian tensions. Christians were flourishing in Iraq in 2000 and 2001, and there was no al-Qaeda extremism. The instability provoked in Iraq by George W. Bush is far more important as an explanation of their difficulties than a supposed eternal and essential Muslim hostility to them (if that were the case, why are they better treated in some times, places and governmental systems?)

Chaldean Christians in northern Iraq have cancelled private Christmas celebrations this year, restricting themselves to church services. Alsumaria reports that Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako said, “the continuous targeting of Christians in Mosul, incidents of Badinan of Kurdistan in addition to other situations in Iraq led Christians to cancel Christmas celebrations…” It isn’t just Arab Muslims who have tensions with Iraqi Christians, but also the Kurds, who are largely American allies.

Likewise, continued massive rightwing Israeli land and water theft in the Palestinian West Bank, and the separation barrier built by the Israelis that crowds in on Bethlehem, have hurt the Palestinian Christians, who are for the most part in solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The some 12 million Arab Christians ( out of some 350 million Arabs) are active agents in their own fates. They make alliances with Muslim fundamentalist forces as well as with secularists, and sometimes switch alliances. They fight back against repression, as they did at Maspero in Cairo this year, risking death or injury. And the Christian West and its Jewish-nationalist allies can sometimes be their worst enemies, not sympathetic rescuers.

23 Responses

  1. Dear Juan,

    “12 millions 12 million Arab Christians out of 350 million Arabs”, so are we all Arabs? Of course no. You are an academic and you know that not all citizens of what is known as the “Arab World” are actually Arabs. There are millions of Berbers (Imazighen) in North Africa between Morocco and Libya; and millions of Somalis and Djiboutians…that are simply not Arabs, they are mostly Muslims yes, but not Arabs.

    My comment probably not relevant to the blog post but I don’t like these simple statistics. We can’t say there are “over 300 millions English men and women in the U.S.A” or say there are “over 100 millions Spanish in Mexico”. So the same for “Arabs” vs. “citizens of the North Africa and the Middle East”, we speak Arabic (as a 1st or 2nd language), ok, but we are not all Arabs.
    I am a regular reader of your blog by the way; I really enjoy reading it since I discovered it.

    Morad from Morocco

    • Thanks Morad. “Arab” is not an ethnic term, it is a linguistic one. It is useful because some kinds of politics travel among countries with common languages. We do by the way call all citizens of France “French” or of Germany “Germans” regardless of ethnicity.

      • “Arab” is both an ethnic and a linguistic term. It is true that citizens of France are “French” and of Germany “German,” regardless of ethnicity, but the same applies to Morocco. Arabs, Berbers, and others are “Moroccan,” but Berbers, for example, are not “Arabs” just because they may speak Arabic; they remain ethnically “Berbers” who happen to be Arabic-speaking Moroccans.

        Regarding Christians in the Middle East, the press may be playing up the negative effects of and fears over the Muslim fundamentalist gains in Egypt (in particular), but that does not mean there are no negative effects and reasons for Copts to be concerned. There is evidence of attacks on Copts and Coptic churches. Additionally, the number of Copts seeking political asylum in the U.S. has increased since the fall of Mubarak and the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt. Let’s not overstate the threat, but let’s not attribute it to “Orientalist’s” seeking an objective “other” in need of saving either.

        • It is more complex than that. Otherwise Somalia would not be in the Arab League.

          There is a difference between saying that Christians have concerns about the victorious fundamentalist parties and saying that they are eternal victims or supported Mubarak.

  2. The Catholic Archbishop of Westminster remembered the Palestinian Christians in his Christmas message. Speaking about greed, arrogance, self-centered ambition and brutal lack of respect for human life, he said:

    “That shadow falls particularly heavily on the town of Bethlehem tonight. At this moment the people of Beit Jala prepare for their legal battle to protect further expropration by Israel. Over 50 families face losing their land and their homes as action is taken to complete the separation wall across the territory of Bethlehem.”

    • Pope Benedict also raised the issue in Urbi et Orbi. It’s about time the Church work to stir the consciences of its parishioners.

      • Has any Pope ever mentioned the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 , a crime against humanity committed by Lebanese Maronite Catholics?

        • The Maronite Church is not Catholic. It is closer to Eastern Orthodox, though distinct in language and ethnicity from that Church as well.

          If I recall those massacres correctly, weren’t they more closely linked to the IDF during Lebanon’s civil war? I don’t recall a religious link at all.

        • The Maronite church is Catholic, but called a uniate church because when it came into communion with Rome in the early modern period it was allowed to keep its Syriac liturgy. It had to abandon monothelite theology, though.

        • Robert,

          I owe you an apology. Maronites are Catholic.

          However, as we don’t blame all Muslims for Sep 11, neither is the Church responsible for the all the actions of all its members.


          Thank you for setting me straight and for doing it so kindly.

  3. Having (long ago) been a born-again, I think I can explain why American “concerns” for Arab Christians are so hypocritical.

    Because in fact, unless you are exactly the same kind of Christian they are, extremist theocrats don’t give a damn about you. They believe God made them to use everyone else as tools. You only matter to them if you can (a) be converted by them, and only them, or (b) you can be tricked into voting for one of their stealth candidates, or (c) you can be bullied into the astroturf political mob hysterias they create. If you’re a European or Asian or Arab Christian, you’re a problem because it’s harder for them to justify the cost of missionaries to convert you into the RIGHT KIND of Christian. But if you’re an African, whoa Nelly, they’ve got an open hunting license on you because they think you’re ready to sign up for cargo-cult Pentecostalism, the Gospel of Prosperity magic that’ll get you Yankee goodies. And yes, it’s happening.

    In their eyes, if you have your own tradition of Christianity and refuse to convert to their hybrid greed-guns-Americanism heresy, you are a threat to their claim to represent all Christians. When they’re making up lies about the war on Christmas, Catholics are suddenly useful to them, but their internet forums fill up with talk about the Inquisition not being the fault of real Christians, and when the Pope speaks against our wars or the molestation scandal presents a chance to increase their market share, they’re merciless. They are just as hateful to Mormons, Unitarians, and yes, Jews who don’t share their imperialist agenda.

    The New Apostolic Reformation of Sarah Palin, also sponsor of Rick Perry’s stadium rally, takes this to its logical conclusion in its media-ignored doctrines, which imply that everyone, all Christians, all Protestants, all evangelicals and all Pentecostals who refuse to join it are under demonic influence and thus have no rights that must be respected. It’s even okay to secretly infiltrate enemy churches (called “steeplejacking”). It is, I think, the ultimate statement of American religion.

    • Super, a wise post.

      The Lord—! has laid it—! on mah HEART—! that you—! will be seated—! for ALL ETERNITY—! at the Right Hand—! of the Father in Heaven!!! Halleluyah Jaysus!

      And for only four Seed Gifts of just $29.99 (plusshippinandhandling) I will send you this here 4 gram bottle of Holy Spikenard Oil, personally blessed by the Reverend Dick Cheney, guaranteed to bring you Big Money in God’s Holy Wealth-To-Believers Lottery!!! Remember: The Bible Says(tm).

      And it’s too bad there’s nothing new about any of this. Just in the selection of the letters of the alphabet that make up the labels. Want a look at earlier versions of this kind of self-justified hypocrisy and violence? Pick up or click up a God’sHolyWord “Bible,” of which there are now hundreds of versions, with competing, fully partisanized texts to choose from, all supposedly representing the Inerrant Absolute MustBe-Obeyed WordofGod, and start reading at Genesis 1:1.

      Most of these Jesus-jackers take their “theBiblesays” dogma from that front end of the Sacred Texts, and what’s left comes from that old con man, Paul. “Christianity” really ought to mostly be called “Paulism,” when you get right down to it.

      Just another set of Tribes with Flags. Ready to take Dominion in God’sHolyName, forget about that “stewardship” heresy… And did I read that 60% of the officer caste in our military adheres to the Bible According to David?

    • Super,

      As a Catholic who has dabbled in Protestantism, I can attest to the truthfulness of your post.

      • As a Protestant who has seen the extremist rhetoric used only among fellow evangelicals, I can’t understand why American Catholics don’t get loudly upset when evangelicals send missionaries (like Tim Tebow’s hardline dad) a-poaching in the Catholic Philippines. These exact same evangelicals go courting the vote of homophobic, racist and Islamophobic Catholics every 2 years. Newt Gingrich has become such a nasty gumbo of neoconservative imperialism, neo-Confederate bigotry, Protestant-capitalist greedism and opportunistic Catholicism that he ought to have done with it and start his own religion.

        • I recall some conferences that were held between Christians to deal with proselytizing. Mainline Christians, such as Presbyterians and Methodists, agreed with Catholics, not to try to convert each others members, Naturally, as Evangelicals believe neither are true Christians, they did not agree.

          Catholics have taken a more philosophical approach to their members being ‘poached’, from what I can see, and are not taking it personally. Those who go to Protestantism, as I did, are looking for a particular thing that Catholicism does not offer.

          American Catholicism, the kind practiced by Gingrich, Hannity, O’Reilly, is beyond the ken of the Vatican and already it’s own religion. All the Vatican knows of the garbage peddled as Religion here, they get from George Weigel and Deal Hudson. Wholly unreliable sources, so I pretty much disregard all that comes from that direction.

          Pope Benedict’s 2009 encyclical Caritas et Veritas is a case in point. I would follow the teachings in that document to the ends of the Earth, but Ross Douthat’s right-wing wash of it couldn’t get into the trash fast enough.

          I like your vibrant interpretations and expressions.

        • Super, el Ron Hubbard beat him to it, and he will have to compete with Amway and several BeautyProducts (sic) entities that already occupy a lot of the high ground. Anybody know whether the Slimy Amphibian is playing “allies” footsie with the Koch Brothers and their establishment yet?

          I wonder if there’s a constant that you can multiply the rolling tote of human live births, given by those many “population clocks,” that will indicate how many suckers are being born every minute?

    • Wow, Super 390. Some years ago I was trying to discuss during Christmas yet, my visits with the Christians of Bethlehem, yeah Bethlehem, with someone who advertised their Christianity. I was quickly dismissed with, “Well, they’re the wrong kind of Christians!” I never knew. . .

  4. I think that there is a definite religion called Americanism, and that it induces heresy in all sects that are imported to these shores over a period of several generations. For instance, I’ve read that belief in an afterlife among US Catholics and Jews is much greater now than in surveys taken a century ago. I did not know of any modern Catholic and Jewish creationists, until veteran right-wing greedist Ben Stein put out the so-called documentary “Intelligence Not Required”. What Stein really believes in, just like Buchanan, is the power and votes of Southern Christians to realize their personal extremist agendas. But then, the Protestantization of Catholics and Jews was really the same thing, wasn’t it, the result of assimilation into capitalist, imperialist America?

    What are the tenets of Protestant Americanism that assimilate others? In Houston I saw a bumper sticker, “Guns, Guts, and God”. Much of the answer can be derived from that, if you add one more G-word: Greed. I would like to get into how this translates into political doctrine but it takes too long and I’d need the ability to create a graph to show how key terms have been redefined since the beginning of American slavery to keep filling the slots in the resulting caste system. In its ugliest sense, it co-opts working-class whites by enlisting them as foot soldiers or henchmen in the sacred conquest and looting of the Earth, just as my redneck forebears in TN were glad to be exploited and poor as long as they were the ones who got to hold the whip. That literally was and is a belief worth killing for, and the religion is the necessary complement to the alienating processes of American capitalism, the secret ingredient that allowed our elites to defeat social democracy.

  5. Where Christians are in a truly difficult situation, as in Iraq, the proximate cause is actually American intervention, which was conducted in such a way as to heighten sectarian tensions…

    While I acknowledge that the American intervention may be a proximate cause, it seems a bit absurd to not acknowledge the more significant intervening or superceding causes, such as Zarqawi’s deliberate attempts to violently stir up sectarian animosity and Mullah Atari’s militia slaughtering non-combatants whose only crimes were being a) Sunni and b) in Baghdad.

    The instability provoked in Iraq by George W. Bush is far more important as an explanation of their difficulties than a supposed eternal and essential Muslim hostility to them…

    Certainly. Perhaps the Gellers and Spencers of the world may argue that the latter is true, but do any serious analysts? In any case, why choose between these two options? Are there not more serious explanations worth considering?

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