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Sunday, October 31, 2010






Israelis not happy with synod statement, angry over bishop's remarks

By Sarah Delaney
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Several prominent Israelis expressed concern over a statement by the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which said Jews cannot use the Bible to justify injustices.

But tensions increased when a U.S. bishop told reporters at the synod that Jews could no longer regard themselves as God's "chosen people" or Israel as "the Promised Land," because Jesus' message showed that God loved and chose all people to be his own.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said Oct. 25 that the final message of the Synod of Bishops reflected the opinion of the synod itself, while the remarks by Melkite Bishop Cyrille S. Bustros of Newton, Mass., were to be considered his personal opinion.

The statement by Bishop Bustros provoked an immediate reaction from Israel. In a statement, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said the Vatican should distance itself from what the bishop said and that the remarks should not be allowed to jeopardize their relations.

Bishop Bustros spoke at a news conference at the Vatican Oct. 23 to present the message agreed upon by the synod participants.

Father Lombardi told reporters the final message was "the only approved, written text" issued by the synod.

"There is a great richness and variety of contributions offered by the synod fathers that, however, should not be considered as the voice of the synod in its entirety," he said in the statement.

The overall assessment of the work of the synod fathers is "largely positive" in the words of Pope Benedict XVI and in general opinion, Father Lombardi said.

Under the section dedicated to relations with Jews, the synod message warned against inappropriate use of the words of the Bible. It said that "recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable." It was generally interpreted to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his own elaboration of the passage, Bishop Bustros said, "For us Christians, you can no longer speak of a land promised to the Jewish people." The coming of Christ, Bishop Bustros said, showed that Jews "are no longer the preferred people, the chosen people; all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people."

What the bishops wanted to say, he said, is that the theme of the Promised Land can't be used "to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the expatriation of Palestinians."

In the Israeli statement issued Oct. 24, Ayalon said, "We express our disappointment that this important synod has become a forum for political attacks against Israel, in the best tradition of Arab propaganda."

Ayalon called on the Vatican to distance itself from Bishop Bustros' comments, which Ayalon said "are a libel against the Jewish people and the state of Israel and should not be construed as the Vatican's official position."

Ayalon also said that the synod had been "hijacked by an anti-Israeli majority."

In a telephone interview with Catholic News Service Oct. 25, Mordechay Lewy, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, called Bishop Bustros' comments "outrageous" and said, "the Vatican should take a clear distance from them because it will give every Jew a reason to be suspicious of rapprochement with the Catholic Church."

He said that while he had "no problem" with the 44 resolutions approved by the synod, he disagreed with parts of the synod's final message, including the passage that provoked Bishop Bustros' remarks.

"The Israeli government does not use the Bible to determine our political borders," he said.

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and the only Jewish representative to address the synod, said it was "appalling that in their final statement ... the bishops did not have the courage to address challenges of intolerance and extremism in the Muslim countries in which they reside, and rather chose to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their first focus."

Rabbi Rosen, who addressed the synod Oct. 13 in his capacity as Jerusalem-based adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said Bishop Bustros' statement reflected "either shocking ignorance or insubordination in relation to the Catholic Church's teaching on Jews and Judaism flowing from the Vatican II declaration 'Nostra Aetate.'"

He urged the Vatican to issue a "clear repudiation" of the bishop's remarks.

The 185 bishops and patriarchs with full voting rights at the synod represent the dwindling number of Catholics in mostly Muslim countries in the Middle East, although eight synod members came from Israel.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was discussed at length by synod participants.

During a Mass to close the synod Oct. 24, Pope Benedict urged greater commitment to finding a lasting peace in the region.

In a front-page article in its Oct. 23 edition, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, called the construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank "those houses that block peace."
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Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem.
As a Christian who is from this region, I find it the apex of hypocrisy that Israeli government officials are upset that they are being held to the standards that they claim to hold. The biggest lie that the government of Israel told the world community in their protest of the actions of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops is that Christianity is thriving. Just prior to the founding of the State of Israel, Christians made up 20% of the population; today we form only 2.1%. Therefore, if the native Christian population was permitted to stay in their homes instead of being driven away by well documented Jewish terrorism, more than 1.4 million Christians would be living in the internationally recognized borders of Israel. This means that more than 1.3 million Christians, native to the Holy Land, are either refugees, or forced transplants to other nations.

Further, the lie that the Christian population is thriving is further shown when it becomes clear that other than natural growth through births, the number of "new" Christians are actually from either the former Soviet Union or Ethiopia. These folks are mostly the spouses of Jews, Christians who have Jewish forebears (see the Falasha Mura from Ethiopia) and the like.

For those Christians who wish to live their faith, do not be fooled by Zionism. It like militant Islam is an enemy of Christianity and seeks to eliminate Christians from the Holy Land. No enemies of Israel hijacked this synod. What happened is that Christian leaders from the region did what they were ordained to do, which is decide what policies would be in the best interest of the Eastern Catholic Christian Communities, first and foremost, and the Christians of the region secondarily.
The Civic State and Middle East Christianity (Part 1)

Interview with Jesuit Father Samir Khalil

By Robert Cheaib

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 21, 2010 ( The role of the civic state in stressing values such as citizenship is key in keeping a place for Christians in the Middle East, says Jesuit Father Samir Khalil.

Christians in the Middle East are not victims of a systematic persecution,(FALSE, ESPECIALLY IN EGYPT) but they are subjected to a discrimination that is slowly extinguishing their presence in that region.

The Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, which is under way through Sunday, has a crucial responsibility in proposing a remedy to this phenomenon that the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Archbishop Louis Sako, called "the hemorrhage of Middle Eastern Christians."

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Khalil, an expert in Islam and the history of the Middle East, gives an historical-religious picture of the present situation in that region, analyzing the most urgent challenges and suggesting some solutions.

Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday.

ZENIT: Although it is not the only argument treated by the Synodal Fathers, we note, however, the great importance given to the geopolitical aspect of the Christian presence in the Middle East and in particular their relationship with Islam. Is this perhaps the most important and truly decisive aspect of their existence and permanence in the Middle East?

Father Khalil: There is no doubt that being a minority that does not exceed 10% of the population of the Middle East -- whereas the vast majority is of the Muslim religion -- our existence depends on the consent of this majority, above all because Islam is conceived as state and religion.

And as for more than 30 years now the majority of the Middle Eastern states have adopted an Islamist approach to the state reality, where religion decides all the particulars of daily social and political life.

It goes without saying that in these conditions our situation depends on the good will of Muslims and of the Islamic system. It's not surprising therefore, that the issue has been given much importance, as you rightly noted.

ZENIT: You are of Egyptian origin, but you live in Lebanon, and being an expert of Islam you are often in direct contact with Muslims. How would you describe your relationship with them?

Father Khalil: I make immediately a distinction between Muslims on an individual level and Islamic systems, simply because with Muslims taken individually it is possible to establish a very beautiful dialogue and an intercultural and religious encounter.

Allow me to recount an anecdote to confirm what I say: Yesterday evening I was contacted on Skype by a Sunni Muslim of northern Lebanon, whom I met by chance on a plane a month ago.

Our conversation was centered on the Trinity and prayer. During the conversation he said to me: "Doctor, I would like to introduce you to my wife." In the East, this gesture means that you are now part of the family.

Therefore, taken individually the Muslim -- paradoxically -- is much closer to us Eastern Christians than a European citizen. There is a religious sense that is shared and unites us.

But if we must speak of Islamism the discourse changes radically because it is a political project with a religious background.

As Eastern Christians, we would like to be treated simply as citizens with a constitution that transcends all religions. But in the greater part of cases in our countries the constitution is based essentially -- if not totally -- on Islamic law. And this is our problem. Apart from a few cases such as Lebanon, even the states that are constitutionally secular, as is the case of Tunisia, Syria and Turkey, they are culturally Islamic countries and favor citizens of Muslim religion.

ZENIT: The Islamic revival is a very complex phenomenon that has different origins: the currents of "ressourcement" such as Wahhabism; the antagonistic reading of the West presented in the mid 20th century by personalities such as Sayyid Qutb, founder of the Muslim Brothers; the different cultural prejudices which erroneously make the West and Christianity coincide; the recent American wars considered as crusades against Islam; Western partiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, in your opinion, what is the pivot of this exponential development of political Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism?

Father Khalil: On one hand there is an Islamist wave, born at the beginning of the 70s.

Beginning in 1973, an economic phenomenon occurred following the war between Israel and the Arab countries, which saw the price of crude oil quadruple in a few months. Thus the oil countries found themselves unexpectedly with a mountain of petro-dollars.

Saudi Arabia, not knowing what to do with this immense fortune, used it to a great extent to build mosques and Islamic schools. Saudi Arabia financed the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and their plan was clear: to Islamize Egyptian society because it wasn't sufficiently Muslim. Then it carried out the same operation in all the countries of the Middle East.

Thus at the beginning of the 80s, the Muslim Brothers became so numerous as to be considered a danger in Syria, and the Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, subjugated them with force.

Indonesia, a couple of decades ago, was considered the paradise of religious liberty in a Muslim country; so many priests were converts from Islam. Now this is an impossible phenomenon.

The same in Nigeria: In the last decade the number of provinces that have implemented Islamic law has risen from four to 12. Europe, with about 5% of Muslims, already feels invaded and threatened.

Thus German chancellor Angela Merkel launched the alarm a few days ago announcing the failure of the model of integration, because it is precisely they who do not wish to integrate. And why don't they integrate? Because they have a religious project, whereas the states where they live have religious-national projects.

ZENIT: In the face of this rather complex and critical situation, what has the Synod of Bishops done and what does it intend to do?

Father Khalil: We Christians of the East live in the midst of this rampant phenomenon, where Islam gains a footing day after day, to such a point that in the Arab League the first question is always this: How to address Islamism.

And the synod is giving particular attention to the relationship with Islam. Those seated in the synod are asking why people are leaving their lands, the cradle of Christianity.

In the Arab world there isn't persecution against Christians, but there is discrimination. Christians are not treated in the same way as Muslims. Muslims are the normal citizens, recipients of the laws. Others, constitutionally, are citizens, but concretely the laws -- in as much as they stem from the Muslim system -- leave Christians in a disadvantaged condition.

Moreover, liberty of conscience is non-existent; there is only tolerance that consists in putting up with Christians staying in Muslim land but with so many limits. It's not possible, however, to leave Islam for another religion. All these situations have been in recent days the focus of attention of the synodal fathers.

ZENIT: The diagnosis you have given touches on different causes of suffering for Christians of the East, but the question is: Is there a way out, or are the proposals and resolutions only a utopia and will they remain only a reserved prognosis?

Father Khalil: There is only one way out, and that is to point to certain shared concepts, such as that of "citizenship" or of "Arab membership," both mainly recognized by Muslims.

Movements that promoted these values at the beginning of the 20th century had so much success because they carried with them a breath of novelty that invited coming out of the tribal view; but lately this view has been set aside and replaced by the concept of the Umma, the Islamic nation.

During Nasser's presidency, up to the mid 70s, the concept was the Umma al-Arabiyya [the Arab nation], but from the mid 70s and after the concept prevailed of the Umma al-Islamiyya [the Islamic nation], which does not leave room for non-Muslims.

The solution is to try to propose to Muslims and Christians a modern concept of state, not only at the political level, but also at the cultural level.

ZENIT: The proposal is concrete but somewhat unrealizable in the cultural scene of the East. How can the feasible be made factual?

Father Khalil: Precisely here the proposal of the synod for the Middle East comes in: It is not about devising a Christian project, and much less so a project of Christians or for Christians, because in this way we reflect our being a minority seeking to be protected.

We are not seeking protection for ourselves, but what we say reflects the word also of so many Muslims who recognize, as we do, that the Arab nation is not well because it suffers from a breakdown in the exercise of democracy, in the distribution of riches and in the establishment of social justice and of a state of law, in the reform of the health system.

Islam is very sensitive to these dimensions. Liberty of conscience and of expression is desired by so many, and this not because people want to distance themselves from Islam, but because they want to live Islam in a more personal way.

In the Islamic world there is a sense of modernity and liberty that does not dare to manifest itself. A Christian can write criticizing his patriarch or bishop, whereas it is difficult for a Muslim to do so. Not because someone in particular prohibits him, but because the culture itself impedes him. The imam are the ulema [the learned] and their learning is not disputed.

And I confirm that with the above-mentioned proposals it is not about rendering Muslims less Muslims or Christians less Christians but of saying that faith is a personal issue even if it has its social dimension, and each one must live his faith as he is inspired by God.
Arab Christians as Symbol
Disappearing Christians of the Middle East

by Hilal Khashan
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2001, pp. 5-12

Arabic-speaking Christians have been one of the main casualties of the destabilizing events of the twentieth century, and especially of the Western-created system of modern Arab states. This religious community found itself deeply immersed in a series of global changes that it could not influence, let alone shape.
We shall identify the major Christian groups in the Arab world, touch on their plight, and propose an agenda for their full integration into their own countries.

A Long-standing Problem

The Christian problem in the Arab world did not begin recently but has deep and antique historical roots. The original Muslim conquests of the seventh century caused a dominant population to be rendered first powerless and then turned into a minority. On the eve of those Muslim conquests, there were more than 15 million Christians in the Near East: 9.1 million in Iraq, 4 million in Syria, and 2.5 million in Egypt. In percentage terms, Christians represented more than 95 percent of the population in West Asia and Egypt. Christians dropped dramatically around the period of the Ottoman conquest in 1516, but credible population estimates are not available. Famine, plague, and population migrations have sharply reduced the population of Egypt and Syria toward the end of Mamluk rule. In Egypt, Coptic percentages remained constant at nearly 8 percent, but the percentage of Christians in Syria and Iraq grew to 20 percent before the breakout of the First World War. Today, the less than 12 million Christians in Arabic-speaking countries, including the nearly two million recent converts in southern Sudan, constitute less than 6 percent of their population.
Christians became a minority in the Arab East for a variety of reasons: the forceful advent of Islam, and the Arabization of West Asia, North Africa, and much of the Nile Basin. It also resulted from the rise and fall of indigenous and conquering empires, massive population migrations, and arbitrary state formations by European powers. The European Crusaders in the twelfth century put Arab Christians in the unenviable situation of having to choose between their coreligionists and their compatriots. Ironically, the Crusades ushered in Christianity's decline in the region of its birth. The diversion of international trade from the Near East and the inception of Western colonialism accelerated the retreat of Christianity from the region.

Numerically significant Christian minority groups include the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, the Assyrians of Iraq, the Greek Orthodox and diaspora Armenians of Syria and the tribal members (Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk) of the southern Sudan. But numbers tell only part of the story. Copts and Assyrians gradually declined over the past millennium from the predominant population groups into minorities with little or no political power. The Maronites of Lebanon, long aloof and dominant in the rugged Lebanese mountains, have since the beginning of the nineteenth century come into direct political contact with other confessional groups having different historical and spiritual experiences. In fact, it is the Maronites, the spirit and soul of Lebanese nationalism, who give shape and meaning to modern Lebanon. There is nothing more illustrative than the recent call, in September 2000, of the Council of Maronite Patriarchs, upon Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon. The African tribes of the southern Sudan have since independence in 1956 resented their political marginalization and the efforts of the dominant Muslim north to assimilate the Christian and animist South religiously and culturally.

Christianity's decline has accelerated to the point that in recent years many Christian communities fear for their demise: some have responded to this perceived danger by taking up arms (as in Lebanon and Sudan), while others languish under increasing persecution (as in Iran and Egypt). Should the current rate of attrition continue, Christians could decline to less than 6 million by the year 2025, or just half of their numbers today.

Civil Wars and Low Intensity Conflicts

Considering the magnitude and intensity of the problem surrounding the persecution and decline of Christian minorities in Arabic-speaking countries, it is surprising that the world community and statesmen in Arab countries have paid scant attention. It is ironic to note that the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has received infinitely more media coverage, has taken a far smaller human and material toll than the civil wars in just three Arab countries (Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon). The combined Arab-Israeli wars since 1948 have resulted in the death of 150,000 Arabs; those civil wars have lead to the deaths of at least one million. In terms of material losses, the toll is even greater. Take just the Sudan, which is potentially the breadbasket for the entire Arab world; it finds itself stricken by a severe food shortage that has decimated much of the population of its embattled south.

Religion has been a decisive factor in most civil wars in Arabic-speaking countries. In Algeria, fundamentalist Islam has pitted itself against a secularizing, albeit inept, state. In Iraq, the religious underpinnings of the 1933 massacre, in which hundreds of Assyrians lost their lives, seem to have redefined the status of Iraqi Christians as victims of persecution. The three main civil wars touching on Christians have been in Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt.

Lebanon. The source of the problem lies in the Christian, essentially Maronite, sense of particularism and distinction. Since 1840, Lebanon has succumbed to four religiously-inspired civil wars, the latest (1975-90) being the most ferocious and destabilizing. Independence in 1943 did not bring even a modicum of political stability to this inherently tormented country. Most Christians feel that they had already made a significant compromise when-according to the 1943 National Covenant that regulated confessional relations in the country-they accepted that Lebanon had an Arab face. Persistent pressures from the Muslims for greater identification with Arab nationalism and a more aggressive involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict threatened the majority of Lebanese Christians. They saw in the demands by their Muslim counterparts, including new ones for a revised formula for sharing the system's meager political and economic resources, an abrogation of the terms of the 1943 National Covenant, and a recipe for renewed sectarian conflict. In 1975, Lebanese Maronites took up arms against the Palestinian-supported leftist-Muslim alliance in a spectacular, yet perplexing, demonstration of anger and frustration that is only now being sorted out. The Lebanese conflict today centers on the bitter legacy among Christians concerning societal disenfranchisement and Muslim domination.

Sudan. Christian fears in the Arab world are best epitomized by the behavior of the Sudanese central government since independence in 1956. At the heart of the problem is that missionary-minded, Arabized, and Islamized northerners shattered the fragile unity of the country as they sought forcibly to convert southerners to Islam. The tribal peoples of the south, Christian and animist, are convinced that the Muslim North is intent on dominating them politically. There is indeed evidence to suggest that northern politicians have not been entirely sincere in recognizing an autonomous role for the South or in treating its inhabitants on an equal basis. The Muslim North has consistently approached the non-Muslims of the South with an assumption of superiority; the problem of the South's political differences and wishes for autonomy would be solved through its Islamization and Arabization. The entrenched notion among the ruling elite in Khartoum perceives southerners as their "lost brothers" who must find redemption in Islam at the hands of the northern Muslims. This attitude reflects the fact that Muslims, devout or otherwise, tend to believe that Islam, the ultimate divine truth, is destined to prevail at the expense of other religions. As a result, Sudan has been engulfed in a civil war between its northern and southern regions since 1964, just eight years after the country's independence from Britain (although the country did enjoy a period of relative tranquility in the years 1972-83).

Great Britain and Egypt, the condominium ruling countries, had already agreed to Sudan's right to self-determination and called for a national plebiscite to determine the country's future. Prime Minister Isma`il al-Azhari maneuvered "whereby the Sudanese parliament bypassed the projected popular plebiscite and confronted the condominium powers with a proclamation of independence." The military government of General Ibrahim ‘Abud in the early 1960s strikingly displayed such a mentality when, simultaneous with pursuing outright secularist policies in the North, it insisted on a comprehensive Islamization of the South. Furthermore, the Sudanese government displayed ill-will in the implementation of the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972 that called for southern autonomy. The central government in Khartoum manipulated the southern vice-president and eviscerated his power. In addition, its exploitation of the South's oil reserve alarmed politicians there; the decision to build an oil refinery in an area under full northern control only confirmed these worries, for the refinery would have made much more sense located near the oil-fields. To add insult to injury, the government of Ja‘far an-Numayri, beset by intense opposition from northern parties and the intelligentsia, chose in 1983 to implement Islamic law (Shari`a) in the South, a measure that re-ignited the civil war which has not yet subsided and that has taken a huge number of lives. The continued practice of slavery, in which northern merchants are actively involved, has aggravated tensions and spurred southerners actively to seek an alternative cultural, political, and religious course separate from the Arabized North. This is the Christian nightmare made real.

Egypt. Bonds of brotherhood and a strong sense of ethnic homogeneity and national identity brought Muslims and Copts together at the inception of modern Egyptian nationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, under British occupation, these bonds slowly eroded. In 1911, for example, the organizers of a Coptic conference demanded equality with their Muslim compatriots (such as the recognition of Sunday as a holiday, government spending on Coptic schools, and including Coptic deputies in the national parliament). Unfortunately, these basic Coptic demands fell on deaf Muslim ears. While participation in national politics and preoccupation with getting rid of the British occupying power overshadowed religious differences and inequality, the rise of Islamism in Egypt and the writings of prominent Islamist thinkers who spoke negatively about Christianity (such as Sayyid Qutb) antagonized the Copts, who saw in this the roots of political vegetation and second class citizenship.

The arrival of Anwar as-Sadat to the presidency following the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 coincided with the ordination of the dynamic and charismatic Pope Shenouda III as the 117th successor to St. Mark a year later. The Islamist policies of Anwar as-Sadat antagonized the Copts and exacerbated religious tensions that continue to the present. In Egypt, a low intensity assault against Copts has been advancing for the past thirty years. Islamists equipped with medieval religious zeal (such as jihad) and coming from marginalized and poverty-stricken societal strata, have been involved in frequent bloody attacks against their Christian compatriots. The most recent major attack occurred in January 2000 in the village of Al-Kosheh in southern Egypt, in which twenty Copts lost their lives.
A clash with a defensive Islam, be it the official or the militant variety, lies at the heart of the plight of Christian minorities in Arabic-speaking countries. At least in part, this is attributable to the universalistic and exclusivist nature of the Islamic faith which, among other things, emphasizes conformity through uniformity. During the intifada that began in 1987, for example, most Palestinian Muslims refused to consider fellow Christians shot dead by Israeli troops as martyrs. This points to a fundamental divide between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, one that nurtures suspicion and fosters confrontation. Mutual Fears
The legacy of discrimination against Christians-one that is hardly moderated by the Muslims' religious tolerance of the "peoples of the book"-has culminated in a series of bloody confrontations over the past few decades that served to pull Muslims and Christians further apart. Segregation at virtually every avenue of human interaction engendered an atmosphere of mutual fears.

Christian. In the absence of the rule of law as established in Western democracies, Christian minorities in the Arab Middle East tend to fear the preponderance of Sunni Arabs. Their fears are rooted in history. They worry that Christian well-being depends on the good will of the ruling elites as well as the ability to maintain friendly relations with the Muslim majority. This puts severe strains on their behavior, forcing Christians to be continuously conscious about the possible implications of their actions. Thomas Michel dwells on this matter and notes that Christians feel that Muslims associate them with the West, a perceived identification that makes Christians vulnerable in times of international crises. He succinctly remarks that "when Muslim public opinion is indignant at the actions of one or another Western power, their anger is frequently directed, not at those distant Christian nations of the West who are safely beyond their reach, but towards local Christians." Drawing on consequential historical events, Christians have apparently not forgotten the fall of Constantinople and the destruction of invaluable Christian art, nor the practice of Ottomans capturing Christian boys and forcing them to adopt Islam and serve the sultan as Janissaries.

Levantine Christians feel small and isolated among the huge populations of Muslims among whom they live; and in the eastern countries, they are also swamped by great numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians. They are wary of secular Europe, concerned that its historical predisposition of concern with Arab Christians exists no more. Copts in Egypt feel especially isolated: first, they are overwhelmed by their Muslim compatriots; second, they never sought or enjoyed European patronage. To the contrary, their experience with the British during the colonial period was often caustic. And yet, commitment to Egyptian nationalism and involvement in the national struggle against the British did not put the Copts on a par with the Muslim majority. Restrictions on church building, limitations on political participation and allocation of public posts injured the Copts' collective pride, causing them to lose faith in the integrity of Egypt's political system.

Levantine Christians, pioneers in fostering Arab nationalist tendencies in the nineteenth century and disproportionately over-represented in its various twentieth-century manifestations (such as the Ba‘th Party and the Arab nationalist movement), eventually grew wary about its radical and assimilationist tendencies, for many Arab Muslims perceive Arab nationalism and Islam as the same thing. The ease with which Islamism has supplanted Arab nationalism simply attests to Christian frustrations and identity disorientation.

Muslim. Muslims have their own apprehensions which must not be viewed as irrelevant, even if they may be exaggerated, or even if more imagined than real. To begin with, Muslims are highly aware of the educational, professional, business, and cultural edge enjoyed by Arabic-speaking Christians. This gap results from the Christians' historically greater exposure to Europe and their greater readiness to accept Western values and norms, as well as the solicitous attention of Western missionaries.

Ironically, their minority status as dhimmis (Jews and Christians, the two "peoples of the book" given a protected but secondary status in Muslim-ruled countries) had the effect of excluding many Christians from political participation - and may have channeled their energies to more educational and mercantile goals, which served them well in the long term. Although this gap has been significantly narrowed during recent decades, Christians still have a proportional qualitative edge in education and greater across-the-board wealth.

In addition, Arab Muslims, who for centuries fought Western domination and eventually succumbed to it, tend to find it convenient to identify Arab Christians with European colonialism. Although many Arab Christians-with the exception of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon- disassociated themselves from the Crusaders, they nevertheless began increasingly to identify with militarily and economically triumphant Europe, as Levantine Orthodox identified with tsarist Russia. Also, there are other historic memories: Damascene Christians developed relations with the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and Catholic, Maronite, and Protestant Christians' acceptance of Western secular education and cultural values, as well as economic collaboration with France and Britain; these were probably sufficient to aggravate the apprehensions of defensive and historically-conscious Muslims.
Conspiracy theorists among the Muslim majority go further and see Arab Christians as Western agents, while condemning Christian missionaries from the West as spies for their governments' intelligence agencies. Abu Nidal, leader of an extremist underground Palestinian organization, even accused the Vatican of conspiring against the Palestinian people "possibly in league with Middle Eastern Christians." Most Middle Eastern Muslims, arguably with the exception of Turks, find themselves devastated by a decline in their economic and political standing that has lasted for centuries. This is one reason why they have fallen victim to conspiratorial fantasies; and local Christians provide convenient scapegoats premised on largely baseless fears.

Obstacles to Change

The predicament of Christians in Arabic-speaking countries will continue until many obstacles have been overcome:
Communal identities in most parts of the Arab world are characterized by the prevalence of religious, tribal, or local leaders who exercise disproportionate influence among their followers. The preeminence of communal leaders retards inter-group interaction and intensifies the primordial differences (such as sectarianism) that predominate in Arab societies.
The novelty and complexity of the Western concept of the nation-state makes popular identification with the state difficult, especially in Arabic-speaking countries. Accordingly, communal commitments continue to demonstrate a far greater vitality than national and crosscutting interests.
Even in the more liberal Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, the government makes it exceptionally difficult for truly independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to form or function. This weakness of NGOs precludes the possibility of the populations identifying with broader interests, such as human rights and political accountability.
Expatriate workers in the Persian Gulf states have a difficult time because most governments there do not appreciate the importance of ordained priests for the performance of religious functions in the Christian faith. Since religious hierarchy is absent in Islam, especially among Sunnis, Gulf Muslims appear to believe that Christians can exercise their religious duties privately without ecclesiastical intervention. This absence denies spiritual guidance to the large expatriate Christian community working in the Persian Gulf and adversely affects their faith.
Governments prevent Christians from building churches. In Egypt, for example, the authorities rely on a nineteenth-century Ottoman ordinance restricting the number of churches that can be built by Copts.
Middle Eastern Arab elites (and Western ones, too) have largely ignored the debate among liberal and moderate Islamists on issues relating to improving the status of Christians in a modern Arab-Islamic state, disproportionately focusing instead on problems of Islamic radicalism. Preoccupation with the adverse impact of Islamism on Middle Eastern regimes and Western societies has distracted attention from physical attacks against Copts in Egypt, starvation and violence that decimate the largely Christian population of the southern Sudan, and the unabating Christian emigration from Lebanon. Furthermore, it has not enhanced the integration in society of Christians in Syria and Jordan beyond business activity and superficial social transactions.
Some Muslims fear that close cooperation with Christians would result in revitalizing Christianity at the expense of Islam. Thus, they advocate introducing additional curbs on displaying Christian faith in Arab societies. The list includes restrictions on church building and the severe restriction or abolition of parochial schools.
Reciprocally, some Christians worry that interaction with Muslims will eventually cause the dissolution of the community. In Lebanon, for example, Christian clerics are adamantly opposed to the introduction of civil marriage. Apart from losing influence accrued to them by the political system's confessional arrangement, the clerics have reasons to worry about weakened bonds of communal identifications as a result of interfaith marriages.

Solving the Problem

Despite these long and deep difficulties, change is nonetheless possible. The agenda for improving communal relations involves two tracks, one immediate and another long term.

Immediate. The development of dialogue between moderate Christian scholars, intellectuals, and organizations and their Muslim counterparts, already under way, is the key. In a remarkable gesture of goodwill signifying Christendom's attitudinal change towards Muslims, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-65) sought to emphasize similarities between Christianity and Islam, rather than dwell (as in the past) on contentious issues. The council generated an atmosphere amenable to understanding and interfaith dialogue. This spirit continues: on August 24, 1990, an assembly of Middle Eastern Catholic patriarchs expressed intent to strengthen Christian-Muslim relations that recognized the sameness of their cultural heritage. Since then a spate of Christian-Muslim meetings, aimed at improving bilateral relations and inducing a favorable atmosphere of discourse, has taken place in nearly every corner of the globe.

But dialogue is not in itself an automatic solution; it must transcend formalities and tactful procedures to deal with difficult issues that will ultimately involve a fundamental change of perception in the Muslim camp, leading to an acceptance of Arab Christians as the political equals of the Muslims. Muslim clerics in turn need to pay more than lip service to interfaith dialog. Their real work lies in promoting a new value system among their constituencies, one that sees religious differences as an individualistic prerogative and as a source of cultural enrichment, not contention or antagonism. They should accept and teach their followers to accept that divine truth has different interpretations and to perceive them as mutually supportive, rather than exclusive.

Unfortunately, the Muslim political and religious elites have not prepared the masses for this eventuality, nor are they likely to any time soon. In states where political legitimacy is wanting, it is highly unlikely that the rulers will undertake consequential decisions that could erode their shaky control. Nevertheless, room continues to exist for well-meaning and organized individuals from all sides to work to build confidence and friendship, preferably without reference to the state. Members of both religions need to engage in reciprocity and cooperation, not exclusivity or confrontation.

Long term. Important as these measures may be, real progress will only come with genuine political transformation. Participatory democracy, sorely lacking in the Muslim Arab world, is the real answer to minority problems. Democracy allows for pluralism, which enables minorities to fully immerse themselves in their own cultural and/or religious preferences, without losing touch with the larger political arena.

Regimes in Arabic-speaking countries have displayed, however, an astonishing capacity for resisting meaningful political change. Unfortunately, the prognosis for political transformation is not good. If anything, Arab political systems appear to be rapidly decaying. Arab rulers seem more concerned about political survival than exacting genuine societal reforms. For example, President Husni Mubarak still refuses to admit that there is a Coptic problem in Egypt; instead, he reduces attacks against them to a security issue rooted in social and economic variables. The question of succession haunts many rulers and the Islamist forces of opposition seem predisposed to cause further instability. To avoid the specter of civil strife, Arab rulers must take measures to initiate gradual political reforms that, if successful, would ensure transition to representative democracy. If this happens, Christian minorities stand to gain as well.

Perhaps the best chance for Christians to stem the tide of their retreat and to assert themselves as citizens, not subjects, may result from economic changes now under way. The end of the cold war, the trend towards democratization in Eastern Europe, and the information revolution have ushered in a period of accelerating change in many places. The Arab world has not been entirely immune to the liberalizing effects of these developments, and economic integration, although still bumpy in virtually all Arab countries, is bound to establish at least a foothold there. And booming economic activity in turn normally invites social liberalization, eventually transferable into democratic concessions by the ruling elite. This will make it more likely that competent Arab Christian entrepreneurs, many of whom are currently functioning either in the West or in the Gulf region, will return to their countries of origin. In this era of globalization which places a premium on economic activity, Christian successes in this field would probably translate themselves into political gains, crucial for sociopolitical integration.
Arab political systems must open up, enfranchising the populations and liberalizing the economies. It will be in such an atmosphere that the Arab world's Christians can reassert themselves, not from a narrow communal perspective, but on the basis of an interactive national life.


The importance of improving majority-minority relations in the Arab world can hardly be overstated. This is a region where religion largely defines not just faith but also personal identity, so that how Muslims and Christians see each other affects politics, economics, and much more. Religious identity, in its divisive outlook, has had its toll on Arab societies. It set different population groups apart, reinforced tensions, and inhibited economic development. Still worse, it has produced distinct sociopolitical groups with incompatible worldviews that doomed the rise of genuine national politics. This is why a rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, one that puts the latter on a par with the former at all societal levels, would go a long way in modernizing Arab societies. These societies stand to benefit from Christian business expertise, significant financial assets, widespread contacts with the West, and profound desire to achieve.

Arab publics and ruling elites need to recognize the need for changing patterns of inter-religious and inter-group interactions; they also need to accept the challenge and risks that accompany change. Without daring leaderships willing to take the necessary risks in dealing with simmering problems (such as minority rights, political and economic liberalization, right to assemble and organize), tensions will continue to buildup and threaten the fragile fiber of society. Arab Muslims have to learn to become more religiously permissive and accept that others' religious differences do not necessarily clash with Islam's universalism. If Arab sheikhs and princes build mosques in Christian lands and brag about it, they should, on grounds of reciprocity, allow Christians to build churches to serve Christian migrant communities in the Gulf area.

Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, is author of Arabs at the Crossroads: Political Identity and Nationalism (University Press of Florida, 2000). A version of this paper was presented at a conference sponsored by Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican.

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