2304Are Arab Christians becoming extinct?
- Dec 31, 2004Are Arab Christians becoming extinct?
Published: 28/12/2004, 07:42 (UAE)
Youssef M. Ibrahim: Are Arab Christians becoming extinct?
Special to Gulf News
For Arab Christians, this Christmas may have been a time for
introspection, but for Arab Muslims it was time for some serious
thinking. This holiday season more than any other in recent memory
witnessed events of inclusion and exclusion, both sad and dramatic,
On Christmas Day in Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, the senior
Palestinian leader, participated in a midnight mass at the Church of the
Nativity. He did not send a "representative" as some Arab leaders do. He
was there himself, sitting in the front row, the leader of all
Palestinians, Muslims and Christians.
Sadly, on that same night, in Iraq, churches reported they were nearly
empty as worshippers stayed away out of fear they would once again be
targeted by fanatics. Churches in Iraq have burned for a year. Scores of
Christians have been killed. Two hundred thousand left for Syria and as
many left the region altogether. Distressingly, not a single Iraqi
leader went anywhere near an Iraqi church, even though Iraq's two
million Christians constitute 8 per cent of the population and are part
and parcel of the country's civilisation.
Christian minorities in the Arab world make up between 7 and 10 per cent
of the total population, which translates to somewhere between 21 and 30
million. Even the minimum figures are important numbers, showing they
are neither marginal nor alien. Alas, these numbers are shrinking. In
the Gulf region, where millions of expatriates live and work more or
less permanently, they raise the ratio of Christians even higher.
Several wise UAE rulers have gone out of their way to accommodate them
by allowing churches to be built, indeed sometimes donating the land and
money. But the UAE is a rare exception, not the rule.
This leaves Arabs with a fundamental question to address. Over the past
40 years, Arab Christians have become an extinct species, shunned,
ignored and sometimes, as in Iraq, violently encouraged to leave. This
is deliberate benign neglect, which amounts to a huge loss for the
silent majority of Arab Muslims practising it. Christians among us are
not guests. They are citizens. Some of them, as with Egyptian Copts,
Syrian and Iraqi Christians, were there long before Islam. Arab
Christians fought against Crusaders in the 12th century to defend the
Holy Land. Arab Christians are poets, writers, philosophers, very
innovative business and political leaders. They have contributed
immensely to Arab culture over the centuries. Most are indistinguishable
from their Muslim brothers expect when they enter their churches. What
we need are more Arab leaders and heads of state, from Algeria to Saudi
Arabia, openly engaging the Christians in their midst, be they citizens
or visitors, demonstrating respect for their religious values and
rights, showing up at every religious occasion to affirm, by example and
deed, these values of partnership.
Battle for the soul
Actions such as that of several senior figures in the UAE as well as
Egypt's decision, after decades of hesitation, to declare January 7, the
Egyptian Coptic Christmas Day, a national holiday, are commendable. But
this is just a fraction of what needs to be done. Attention towards Arab
Christians is compelling now, as the Arab world is engaged in a battle
for its own soul between blind fanatics who wish to exclude everyone and
forces of progress that must take us to the other bank of that river. In
this struggle, Arab leaders cannot play it safe. They must lead.
Otherwise what is left of Arab Christian heritage will vanish, and along
with it hefty chunks of Arab civilisation itself. The bitter truth is
that, when harassed and deprived, as they are in most Arab countries, of
a commensurate share of political power Arab Christians tend to emigrate
at a higher rate to Europe, the Americas and Australia. Because they
generally are better educated, multilingual and well-to-do, they succeed
there. The Arab world loses loyal citizens while the west gains a
powerful new diaspora.
In a string of recently published essays, eminent Egyptian-American
Muslim sociologist, Dr Saad Eldin Ibrahim, who was jailed for his
political views, argued that in Egypt, which has the largest Christian
minority of 7 million, for the last half century Christians have been
held back in building or even repairing their churches. This was because
both actions require a prior presidential decree. This is an amazing
thing in this day and age. Indeed, this is a relic of an absurd Ottoman
law called the Kanoun Al Hamyouni, or Hamayonic law, which should have
been revoked a hundred years ago, especially that no such constraints
are imposed on the Muslim majority.
Likewise, Dr Ibrahim, a pro-democracy activist who is professor of
political sociology at the American University in Cairo and chairman of
the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies in Cairo, says school
textbooks ignore 600 years of the history of Coptic Egypt, as well as
Christian contributions to its art, culture and architecture. In
southern Sudan, Christians have resorted to armed struggle for equality
with the Muslim Arab majority in the north with two million dead in the
past 50 years and three million uprooted and displaced. At the eastern
end of the Arab world, Iraqi Christians are now targets of assassination
squads. Palestinian Christians, once principal players in the liberation
movement, are marginalised. The condition of Christians in Syria,
Lebanon, Jordan is only slightly better leading to a mini exodus.
"Older Arab Christians still remember with much nostalgia earlier times
when they enjoyed full citizenship rights at least equal to the Muslim
majority. Some call it the Arab liberal age. This was roughly during the
four decades following the First World War," says Dr Ibrahim.
"Democratising the Arab world," he argues, "promises to de-alienate and
restore to Christians overdue full-citizenship rights."
That is too long a wait.
Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York
Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is Managing Director
of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group. He can be
contacted at ymibrahim@...
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