One of the major issues in the upheavals that have been shaking the Arab world these last months is sectarian division. The future of the popular movements will largely depend on their ability to invent a new social and constitutional contract in which citizens will come first, but without denying the rights of individual societies. It needs to be done in such a way as to avoid sectarian clashes, which are a major setback for the new movement for political, social and cultural change across the region.
Christian communities are particularly affected, as shown by events in Egypt. At the start of the year the former interior minister (now in prison) was accused of trying to use violence against Copts in Alexandria to deflect the popular uprising. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the violence has continued, flaring up in May. Some, especially in the United States which has a large Coptic community, have called for the “Coptic question” to be internationalised. Both the transitional authorities and the leaders of the popular movement have rejected this, seeing it as interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.
The attack on al-Qiddissin (Two Saints’) church in Alexandria on 31 December, in which 21 people were killed, was unanimously censured, internationally and in the Arab world, especially since it was the second such attack; 46 people had died at the church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad on 7 November. Arab commentators wrote that they felt shame and dismay; the grand imam of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, the Saudi government, Muslim Brotherhood, Sunni and Shia clerics and businessmen all condemned the attacks. The former Lebanese prime minister, Selim al-Hoss (a Sunni), said “verbal condemnation is not enough” and called for “a meeting of Arabs to agree measures to cut short these attempts at creating discord.” Hizbullah in Lebanon agreed: “Words of anger and sadness are inadequate in the face of these bloody attempts to destroy socio-religious diversity in several Arab countries, particularly Palestine.”
The western media did not report these reactions at the time, but concentrated on what was happening to eastern Christians, even though in Iraq this was hardly new: Christian and Muslim places of worship, especially Shia mosques, have been attacked ever since the US invasion. The western rhetoric is old and familiar: Christian minorities are oppressed for their faith and suffer martyrdom, persecution and purification, so the West must protect and defend them. This rhetoric offers no solution to everyday tragedies, but rather sustains the theories of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington on the “clash of civilisations” and of religions.
The conceptual confusion that muddles religious and socio-political identities has led to Christians being seen as isolated, and set apart from their environment. Opposing fundamentalist discourses -- western and Islamist -- reinforce each other: The West sees the eastern Christians as its representatives in the Muslim world (dar al-Islam), while Islamists denounce eastern Christians as “foreign.”
The term “eastern Christians” covers a complex reality. They are not an autonomous social group, far less an ethnic one. Their history cannot be separated from the mutations, acculturation, intermixing and multicultural regroupings that shaped the human landscape of the region through the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the schisms of Rome and Constantinople and the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. Urban and rural Christian communities are spread across the Middle East, but found especially in Iraq, Greater Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine) and also Egypt; they include Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics, all with their own autonomous institutions and patriarchs.
Allied against the Hapsburgs
The 16th century Franco-Ottoman alliance between Francois I and Suleiman the Magnificent, intended to counter the power of the Hapsburgs, was decisive in relations between these Christian communities and Europe. Agreements, called the Capitulations, gave French subjects travelling or residing in the Ottoman empire freedom of worship and movement and the right to trade, while French consuls regulated their business in legal disputes and matters of inheritance on Ottoman territory. Soon other powers such as England, Austria-Hungary and Russia were included in these agreements, which became the legal basis for building, over time, differentiated economic, commercial, political and cultural ties between European powers and the communities of the Ottoman empire, including the Catholics.
These links assured the local authority of the communities and served Europe’s plan to break up the Ottoman empire, achieved at the end of the first world war after the Ottomans’ slow decline. The colonial aspirations of England, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary were shared, but in competition. In response to the “Eastern Question,” they developed a policy of interference, made easier by the huge debt the Sublime Porte (Constantinople) had run up with European banks, and used the “protection of minorities” as a pretext for exerting control over Ottoman affairs.
At Mount Lebanon in 1860, social conflict between Druze and Maronites worsened into sectarian massacres; Greek Orthodox Christians were murdered in Damascus. Napoleon III’s military expedition imposed a new administration (mutasarrifat) on Lebanon, which created a system of balance between the different religious communities under the joint sovereignty of the powers. Ottoman power in the Syrian provinces was slowly reduced, especially in Palestine, where the many English, Russian, Austrian and German missions presented themselves before the Sultan, and disputed with the French power on the division of protection.
Active in Arab reform
Some clan-like Christian elites found this dependency to their advantage, although their intellectuals, with their Syrian and Egyptian Muslim counterparts, played a major role in the emergence of the nahda, the Arab political and cultural renaissance, inspired by reformist ideologies and new scientific and positivist thinking from Europe.
These elites looked for ways to achieve political emancipation, but Britain, France and Russia had other ideas for the people of the region. The Sykes-Picot-Sazonov accords of 1916, followed by the 1917 Balfour agreement to create a home for Jews in Palestine, sanctioned the sharing of imperial gains between the European powers, and marked the breakup of the Arab East. The writer Ameen Rihani, a theorist of citizenship, supported Feisal I’s plan to create a unified Arab kingdom, a plan thwarted by Britain and France.
However, Christian figures were at the centre of a nascent Arab nationalism that opposed attempts by the colonial powers to break up the region, using the authority of the League of Nations. Christians were important in the secular Arab nationalist movement. Among the famous names are Fuad Nassar, an early Palestinian leader; Michel Aflak, founder of the Ba’ath Party; Georges Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Monsignor Hilarion Cappuci, former archbishop of Jerusalem; Farjallah Helou, secretary general of the Syrian Communist Party, and his Lebanese counterparts Antoun Tabet and Nicolas Chaoui.
In the Arab world, emerging from the breakup of the Ottoman empire and decolonisation, only two countries had strong national state structures reaching back in history: Morocco with its makhzen and Egypt, reinforced by Mehmet Ali’s reforms. In Egypt the fight against colonialism did not distinguish between Muslims and (Coptic) Christians. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took power with his Free Officers in 1952, consolidated national sentiment by linking it to his Arab nationalism. However, his successor Anwar Sadat attempted to manipulate confessional allegiances. His aggressive free market policies and taming of secular parties worked to the advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hosni Mubarak tolerated religious discrimination, aggravating tension.
Elsewhere, Arab countries took shape through a proactive struggle for independence. Christians played their part, particularly when rulers stressed citizenship, as in Syria, Jordan and republican Iraq. Lebanon’s institutions were built on a confessional system under which organised Christian communities took on a central economic and political role, though not without tensions.
Effect of the Iraq war
The upheaval of the US occupation of Iraq created new circumstances. It established a colonial mechanism for dislocating society, founded on the institutionalisation of religious denominations as the basis for state systems, with power distributed according to communities or national groupings. This encouraged communities to withdraw into themselves through fear of violence. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians, the secular heirs of eastern Christianity, flocked to the region of Nineveh; hundreds of thousands took refuge in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. That this US strategy was similar to Israel’s wish to see Arab states broken into fragments made them anxious. The Synod of Eastern Catholic Churches, in October 2010, emphasised the fate of Palestinian Christians, victims of systematic discrimination designed to force them into exile.
Palestine remains a key issue for Middle Eastern Christians because of the symbolism of Jerusalem and the involvement of Palestinian Christians in the nationalist movement. Beyond religious identity, what has most marked Christian communities in the Middle East is regional politics: US dislocation policies recall the methods of 19th century European powers. Yet the political fault lines of the Arab Middle East cross Christian and Muslim communities. Among eastern Christians, the disastrous Iraqi invasion has touched the churches as much as the secular world. The head of the Coptic Church, Shenouda III, is a fierce critic of the Egyptian authorities’ indulgence towards Israel and the United States. In Lebanon the movements of General Michel Aoun and Sleiman Frangieh, which represent a sizeable part of the Christian (especially Maronite) communities, are allied to Hizbullah, and some Christian political leaders belong to Saad al-Hariri’s coalition. In Palestine, Christians have been part of municipal councils headed by Hamas.
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq also revealed the profound crisis within the Arab Middle East, showing the blocks in the dominant currents of political Islam, locked in sterile exploitation of politics and historical memory (sometimes with deadly consequences), and revealing the paralysis of pan-Arab unitarian movements. This crisis, exacerbated by religious communities’ withdrawal into themselves, has turned the idea of citizenship into a fantasy; and Arab Christians, in all their diversity, have suffered most from the consequences.
Conservative Muslim preachers and those who talk of “protecting minorities” draw their arguments from the same source. They tear eastern Christians from their roots and transform them into short-stay guests who must be accepted out of charity or tolerance. An apostolic exhortation from the pope recognised the deep roots of eastern Christians in the region in 1996. There can be no confessional response to these challenges; for they concern society as a whole and demand a common secular response.
Translated by Stephanie Irvine
Rudolf El-Kareh is a university lecturer.
Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global