Christians in the Middle East: From Past to Present


Introduction

Most people know the basic story of Jesus Christ – a man from Nazareth who claimed to be the son of God sent to save the world. He taught the Jewish people a higher law, worked marvelous miracles, organized a church, and was killed at the young age of 33. After his resurrection he left his church and Gospel in the hands of men and commanded them to share his message with the world. Most people know that Peter and Paul, two great Apostles, made their way to Rome, which later became the headquarters for Christianity,  but what of the followers of Christ in Jerusalem, Egypt, and surrounding areas? They too have a history, but one that is mostly unknown to the world. The following is a general history of events and ideas that will give an understanding of the Arab Christian situation in the Middle East today.

In the Middle East today there is a wide range of life styles for Christians. Some face extreme prejudice, persecution and poverty while others live peaceful and comfortable lives. There are many variables determining Christian lifestyle, though most revolve around the Christian/Muslim relationship in each given country. This relationship is incredibly complex and deeply rooted in history from the creation of Islam to the present. They involve political, social, and economic issues, as well as issues around the phenomenon of fundamentalism and identity, including religious, ethnic, and national. It is impossible to address all this here on a single webpage, let alone in the scope of a book, but we can though, identify the problem and begin to understand it by taking a brief look at history – specifically the periods of the birth of Islam, the crusades and especially colonialism – and then comparing that with the present-day situation. By doing so we will discover that the cause for discrimination and violence towards Christians in the Middle East today has become less religious over the centuries and more and more political and social.

Jesus Christ to Mohammad (1st-7th century)

Christianity spread rapidly from Jerusalem along major trade routes. It is believed that the Apostle Thomas took the Gospel to the east and Saint Mark took the Gospel to Egypt. By the 2nd century, the faith was firmly established in Egypt with Greek and Coptic being the two prominent languages. Alexandria and Antioch became two major strongholds for Christians. In 314, the Edict of Milan proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire, and Christianity rapidly rose to prominence. Though in the 5th century a disagreement between Alexandrian and Antiochian theological opinions caused a separation between the church. By this time there existed the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church, just to name a few.

Expansion of Islam (7th-13th century)

When Mohammad began preaching the doctrines of Islam in 610AD, he wanted all to accept the message he had received from God, but respected the decisions of others and regarded Christians as ‘people of the book’, since they too were descendants of Father Abraham and believed in the prophets of old. In the Hadith it is written that, “Whoever does harm to a Christian or Jew, against him will I myself [the prophet Mohammad] bring an accusation on the day of judgment” (1). Such a strongly protective statement by the leader of a major world religion shows great respect and illustrates the lack of prejudice that religion should embody. According to the Quran, a forced conversion is illegal: “There is no compulsion in religion” (2). But even though Mohammad stood up for others and religious force was, as a rule, avoided, pressure was still brought on Christians to convert to Islam (3). Since the creation of Islam, this pressure to convert, with the exception of the Abbasid period, has always been an unspoken, maybe even inconspicuous, pressure caused by the dhimma system.

The word “dhimmi” literally means in Arabic someone who lives “under the protection of”… and entails a consequent reduction to second-class status. Dhimma allows rights of residence and guarantees personal safety and security of property in return for paying a tribute tax and acknowledging Muslim rule (4). The Quran tells its readers to fight any non-believer, “until they pay the Jizya [tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (5). This discriminatory statement is supported by a statement in the Hadith, which says, “If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya” (6). Along with paying a tax, Christians and other minorities under the Dhimma system were “not allowed to carry arms, give evidence against Muslims in the courts of law or marry Muslim women” (7) just to name a few.

At first it would seem that Dhimma is quite opposite of the respect that Mohammad seemed to have for the Christians, and perhaps it is. Further research is needed. For the sake of this explanation, it is important to know that dhimmitude in the beginning was not extreme. With the creation of ideas such as equality, citizenship, and individual rights during the age of enlightenment, societies started to change, but dhimmitude remained the same. It is then that the dhimmis system became extreme and fundamentalist. “Muslims, whether the mob or the ruling elite, were outraged at the deliberate violation of their centuries-old system of dhimmitude through the sudden introduction of the idea of equality between them and their non-Muslim subordinates” (8).

The dhimma system may have at first produced “protection”, perhaps even at an exorbitant price, but over time it seems that many dhimmis yielded to the unspoken pressure and preferred conversion to Islam and renunciation of their faith in order to escape the hardships of dhimmitude or to avoid losing protection when unable to pay the Jizya (9). From the time that Islam began to rule in the region, Christian communities were dominated and subjugated thereby being forced to give up an existence of complete liberty and to succumb to dhimmitude in their own ancestral lands. Today, the majority of Arab Christians, over 90 percent, live in dhimmi communities, with some countries being much better than others (10).

In the early years of Islam, while still in Mecca, Mohammad and his followers were persecuted by local tribes. Perhaps this can be explained in the old adage that a prophet is never accepted in his own country. In 622AD he and his followers moved from Mecca to Medina in what is known as the Hijra to escape the persecution. In December 639 ‘Amr ibn al-’as entered Egypt with 4,000 troops and Islam began to spread as they conquered cities westward. By 711 Muslims had conquered North Africa and entered Spain. “By the time of the crusades [in the eleventh century] the Christian population of Egypt was less than half of the total, and Arabic was rapidly replacing Aramaic and Coptic as the first language of the indigenous inhabitants” (11).

The Crusades (11th-13th century)

In the eleventh century significant conflict between Church and state, or rather between two radically different views, arose as to whether secular authorities such as kings, counts, or dukes, had any real role in appointments to ecclesiastical offices such as bishoprics. People became personally engaged in a dramatic religious controversy known as the Investiture Controversy, and as both sides “tried to [rally] public opinion in their favor, the result was an awakening of intense Christian piety and public interest in religious affairs” (12). It was at this time also that Christian piety was strengthened by religious propaganda caused by the Church’s advocating of a Just War in order to retake the Holy Land of Jerusalem from the Muslims.

Pope Gregory VII struggled over the doctrinal validity of a holy war and the shedding of blood in God’s name, but in the end he justified violence. Afterall, what was most important to the Pope was that the Christians who made pilgrimages to the Holy Land were being persecuted and needed relief (13). It seems that the crusades were an outlet for the intense religious piety created. Both Muslims and Christians respectively exploited the call to holy war and to take up the cross to mask ulterior motives such as the commercial interests of the Italians to offer ships for the transportation of crusaders in order to have renewed contact with the Levant and produce much profit.

One of the great tragedies of the crusades and also key examples for understanding the problem is that “many hapless [Christians such as] Jacobites, Armenians, and even Greek Orthodox, suffered death at Crusader hands simply because they looked too much like Muslims when encountered in the heat of battle or the aftermath of pillage” (14). Every time a new wave of Crusaders arrived from Europe the same problem occurred. What does this say about their perception of the other (Muslims) or even themselves (Christians) for that matter? The implication here is that the crusaders didn’t recognize those who were on their own team simply because they thought that all Christians could be categorized as the same – “westerners” equal to themselves. Or on the flip side, the crusaders actions imply that they believed all Arabs were Muslims. This mistaken identity created violence toward the Arab Christians not because of religion, but because of cultural and ethnical ignorance on the part of the European crusaders.

Colonialism (16th-20th century)

There are many who believe that the causes of the confrontations between the East and West during the crusades and the colonial era were primarily religious in nature. Indeed, research does suggests that these two periods had a tendency, because of the experience of the masses, to have religious characteristics, but the more the West “progressed”, the more social, economic, and political in nature these confrontations became (15). The causes for religious fundamentalism are not so much religious, but rather are changes in the economy, in society, or in the nations policies. Colonialism and imperialism had exactly these kinds of changes.

Colonialism expanded during the nineteenth century with the European powers fighting to obtain land and expand their empires around the globe. Some imperialists took a more religious approach to empire. They argued that Europeans (and Americans) had a Christian and moral responsibility to spread the message of Christianity and educate ignorant peoples into higher culture. To many Europeans and Americans, the prospect of saving souls seemed as important as the prospect of expanding prestige and profit. Most Europeans though, justified their actions with humanitarianism, arguing that colonialism benefited the indigenous peoples by bringing them science and education and the benefits of higher civilization. For example, “King Leopold of Belgium rushed enthusiastically into the race for territory in Central Africa [saying,] ‘To open to civilization the only part of the globe where it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which envelops whole populations, is a Crusade worthy of this century of progress’” (16). Imagine what the Arabs must have thought as white Europeans entered their countries to either convert them or educate them.

In much of the Islamic world today, there is a suspicion of the West, and for Islamic fundamentalists, this suspicion is often transformed into outright hatred. The collective memory of foreign invasion and imperial control brought on by the crusades and colonialism has served as a “pretext to scapegoat indigenous Christians because they have been perceived as sharing the same religious beliefs with the vilified Westerners (17). In October 2005 there were violent attacks on several Coptic and other churches in Alexandria by fundamental extremists. “When seething mobs approached to burn and pillage, the state’s security forces simply stood by and did not interfere” (18). Speaking of the Trash City in Cairo, Markarios Nasser Eshak, a Coptic who grew up in the Trash City and who is now attending Cairo University said, “it lacks infrastructure and often has no running water, sewage, or electricity. Residents are not legal residents but squatters living under perpetual threat of being kicked out at any moment by the government. It was very difficult growing up there” (19). On a more political level, in 1981 President Sadat of Egypt imprisoned the distinguished Pope Shenouda III, the 117th spiritual leader of the Copts, and exiled him to a desert monastery. “In 1983, President Mubarak of Egypt, in testimony to a joint meeting of the two Foreign Relations Committees in the U.S. Congress, denied any antagonism to the pope and promised his release” (20). Violence and discrimination against Christians in Egypt has not always been this bad. Throughout history there have been periods of flux and only in recent years has there been a resurgence of Islamic Fundamentalism.

After taking a look at many black and white photographs of Egyptian society from the middle decades of the twentieth century, one thing in particular stands out. None of the women wore veils or any Islamic headdress and they all carried a style identical to that of British women. Pictures today from Cairo of music concerts, dinner parties, or the local market will invariably show a large number of the females with their heads, if not more, totally covered. In the eyes of the West this appears like a regression or a return to the fundamentals. What is the cause of this resurgence of fundamentalism?

British rule over Egypt lasted 32 years, but the British presence remained for an additional 30 years until 1953 when Egypt became a republic. When the British completely pulled out of Egypt, the country was left without a real sense of national unity or identity. After almost three generations of British influence over a people whose roots tie back to the Mohammad and nomadic tribes in the vast desert, it appears that the Egyptians have decided to unify the nation by returning to the past. What better way to instill Arab pride and create their own national identity then through a “uniform”. As can be seen in many ways, “today’s Middle East is a different place than it was two generations ago” (21).

Post-Colonialism – Present

The question of Arab identity is a source of much discussion and entire books have been written on the topic. The social changes in the Middle East post-colonialism have created a huge question of Arab identity that has been a cause in Christian persecution today. The Coptic religious leader Marqus Simaika once said to a Coptic crowd, “all of you are Copts: some of you are Muslim Copts, others are Christian Copts but all of you are descended from the ancient Egyptians” (22). It is true that the Coptics are indigenous to the land of Egypt and therefore are very much so, Arab and Egyptians in particular. The issue here lies in the change that has occurred in the past several decades of what it means to be Arab. In August 1980, the Libyan president, Colonel Qadhafi, declared that Arab Christians simply had to convert, since “it is a contradiction to be both Arab and Christian.” … He declared that if Christian Arabs were to be authentic Arabs, they would have to accept the Islamic faith. “Christians who live in the Arab world,” he stated, “have closer links to the Vatican than to Mecca. They have a European spirit in an Arab body” (23).

The statements made by Qadhafi illustrate the contemporary problems that are faced by these two religious sects. More and more the Coptics in Egypt are being kicked out as if they are non-Egyptian. And colonialism may have ended in the early 1960’s, but from the standpoint of the Arab people, is there really any difference between a British ruler and an Arab dictator? Thankfully the United Nation’s Special Committee on Decolonization and dozens of independence movements and global political solidarity projects ended colonization roughly half a century ago, but imperial rule still continues today. Israel’s rule over Palestine, the United States’ rule over in Afghanistan, President Bashar al-Assad’s rule over Syrian, or the Egyptian Military’s rule over Egypt are all examples of how the imperialism of the colonial era continues to exist today, only with a new face.

With this understanding of history we can see that Christian persecution in the Middle East may have started as primarily religious, but over the years with the changes in politics, the economy, and society, religion has become far less of a cause for the persecution. The percentage of Christians is rapidly decreasing and Muslim-Christian relations have deteriorated greatly. In Egypt, the “Christians have accused the post-Mubarak governing military council of being too lenient on the perpetrators of recent attacks” (24). Recently on March 12th of this year, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah declared that, “it is necessary to destroy all the churches of the region” (25). With such a bleak current situation it is only natural to ask, so can an Arab Christian in the Arab world be and remain a Christian? What future do Christians have in the Middle East? It may look bleak, but only time can tell.

 

Endnotes

  1. A. Wessels, Arab and Christian? Christians in the Middle East (Kampen, the Netherlands: Kok Pharos House, 1995) 2.
  2. Qur’an 2:256 (translation: Dr. Ahmad Zidan and Mrs. Dina Zidan)
  3. Wessels, Arab and Christian?, 188.
  4. Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984) 10,20.
  5. Qur’an 9:29
  6. Hadith, Muslim (19:4294)
  7. Albert Hourani, Minorities in the Arab World (London: Oxford UP, 1947) 18.
  8. Habib C. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East(Standford: Hoover Institution, 2010) 17.
  9. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians, 18.
  10. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians, 13.
  11. Robert Brenton Betts, Christians in the Arab East: a Political Study (Atlanta: John Knox, 1978) 11.
  12. Unknown, “Crusades,” Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crusades (accessed 27 April 2012).
  13. “Crusades”, Wikipedia
  14. Betts, Christians in the Arab East, 13.
  15. Wessels, Arab and Christian?, 215.
  16. Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: A Brief History, 7th ed., Vol. 11 (Boston: Wadsworth Centage Learning, 2011) 522.
  17. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians, 7.
  18. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians, 47.
  19. Markarios N. Eshak, ”Living in Cairo: An Interview with a Coptic.” E-mail interview. 29 Apr. 2012.
  20. Mordechai Nisan, Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-expression (Jefferson: McFarland, 1991) 115.
  21. Malik, Islamism and the Future of the Christians, 37.
  22. Kenneth Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991) 173.
  23. Wessels, Arab and Christian?, 1.
  24. “Guide: Christians in the Middle East”, BBC News
  25. Ben Cohen, “The Future Looks Bleak for Middle East Christians,” Haaretz, 09 March 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/the-future-looks-bleak-for-middle-east-christians-1.420140, (accessed 22 March 2012).