December 17, 2004

Arab Christians Between Thoughts of Subjugation and Freedom

Christian communities native to the Middle East are passing through
turbulent times. In Egypt, where the Copts constitute the largest
concentration of Christian Arabs anywhere in the region, the
community finds itself caught in the crossfire between an
authoritarian government and radical Islamist groups. The Copts,
despite sharing strong sentiments of Egyptian nationalism with the
Muslim majority, are often beset upon by both the authorities and the
fanatics because they are perceived as a convenient scapegoat. In
southern Sudan, though a peace agreement may be near, Christians were
locked in a 20-year civil war with an Islamist government in Khartoum
bent on imposing Sharia on them by force.

Christians in growing numbers are daily fleeing the chaos in Iraq,
where their churches have been bombed and their livelihoods
threatened by Islamist militants leading the armed insurgency against
U.S. and coalition forces. In the Holy Land, in places where ancient
Christian communities reside, like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth,
the Christian presence has shrunk dramatically due mainly to
emigration, as Christians see themselves being marginalized by a
conflict increasingly defined in terms of Jews versus Muslims. And in
Lebanon, following 15 years of war that resulted in open-ended Syrian
domination, the Christians, who number close to 40 percent of the
population, have seen their freedoms steadily erode, their numbers
dwindle, and their political influence shrivel.

Two distinct historical narratives define the way of life and the
destiny of the Middle East's diverse indigenous Christian
communities: a narrative of subjugation and a narrative of freedom.
On one side lies the vast majority of Christian Arabs - over 90
percent - in their respective regional and cultural contexts. Since
the rise and spread of Islam these communities have been relentlessly
reduced to dhimmi status, or second-class status in their own
homelands, being forced to forfeit any semblance of free existence.
The Christians of Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria and the Holy Land belong
to this vanquished category.

On the other side stand the Christians of Lebanon, numerically a
minority, but with a unique historical experience of freedom that was
defended and preserved over the centuries at a high cost in terms of
blood and treasure. Here the entrenched Maronites, affiliated with
Rome since the year 1180, serve as spearhead for a host of other
lesser denominations who have thrown in their lot with them to form
an exceptionally rooted and tenacious Christian community largely
resistant to the ravages of "dhimmitude." However, the combined toll
in recent years of war, foreign occupation, economic deterioration,
and attrition through emigration has weighed heavily on Lebanon's
Christians, causing them for the first time since the mid-19th
century to experience an appreciable loss in the precious freedoms to
which they have clung so fiercely for so long.

One way to begin to appreciate the qualitative difference in mindset
and outlook between dhimmi Christians and free Christians in the
Middle East is to look at attitudes of Christians on both sides of
the Syrian-Lebanese border. In Syria, where Christians have lived as
dhimmis for centuries, even the slightest improvement in their
overall situation, as happened under the late President Hafez al-
Assad, was hailed as a tremendous achievement and a great leap
forward by the community, which has offered its complete allegiance
to the present regime. Not having known real freedom, Syrian
Christians reacted to even the smallest dimension of breathing room
with an outpouring of gratitude.

Move across the border into neighboring Lebanon and the inexorable
reduction in the community's personal and communal freedoms over the
last quarter century is viewed by Christians as nothing short of
calamitous. For a people who have tasted the fruits of real freedom
and sacrificed much to protect them, even the minutest diminution of
such a valuable commodity is greatly felt and lamented.

The future of Christian Arabs hangs in the balance today. The
majority, which initially was offered order in place of freedom, is
now being handed insecurity everywhere throughout the Arab world.
Those few who risked everything to embrace freedom face, at best, an
uncertain course as pressures mount to deprive them of what is left
of their hard-won liberties. Invariably, the stigma of being
alleged "agents of the West" or "closet Crusaders" continues to loom
menacingly over these communities and rears its lethal head whenever
religious passions rage uncontrollably.

The future will remain bleak for Christian Arabs if their plight
continues to be neglected by the rest of the world; if the so-called
war on terror falters and fanaticism gains the upper hand against
moderate forces in the Muslim world; if something remotely resembling
democracy does not strike root in a pacified Iraq; and if the line of
freedom's erosion is not held in Lebanon, where a homegrown exception
to the freedom-starved regional norm managed to flourish in the face
of overwhelming odds.

Thus stand the spiritual descendants of the apostles 2,000 years
later in the lands surrounding the sacred spot where Jesus chose to
appear as a lowly carpenter.

By Habib C. Malik
Daily Star, Lebanon

Habib Malik teaches history and cultural studies at the Lebanese
American University in Lebanon. This commentary is taken from
bitterlemons-international, an online newsletter

© 2004, Assyrian International News Agency

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