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2307Are Arab Christians becoming extinct?

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  • emrys@globe.net.nz
    Jan 1, 2005
      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, symbolically.

      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

      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

      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
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