Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1249, (4 - 10 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A Christian contract for the Arab world

A new social contract is needed to discourage the Arab world’s Christians from leaving their homeland to live permanently abroad, commentator Tewfik Aclimandos explains to Dina Ezzat

Tewfik Aclimandos
Tewfik Aclimandos
Al-Ahram Weekly

This month, in an important precedent for the Vatican, Pope Francis canonised two Palestinian nuns who died in the 19th century. It was meant to show solidarity with the Christians of the region whose numbers have been falling and whose safety has been gravely compromised in both Iraq and Syria.

Overall, says Egyptian researcher and lecturer Tewfik Aclimandos, the drop in the size of the Christian part of Arab populations, “either for economic reasons or for religious grievances that were at times actual massacres,” started in the early years of the past century.

Today, Aclimandos said, there has been an about two-thirds drop in the number of Christians against what there was a century ago, when around 25 per cent of the entire Arab population under Ottoman rule was Christian.

“Discrimination was there. It was sometimes, but not always, from the Ottoman caliphate, and it was actually more from the ultra-Turkish nationalists” than from the Ottoman authorities themselves, he said.

“Of course, the whole history of the Ottoman Empire is layered, and we have, for example, the massacre of the Armenians. But in some ways this was more about the Armenians being Armenians than about their being Christians. Or at least it was not just about their Christianity, but rather about their ethnicity as much as their faith,” he added.

The decline of the fortunes of Christians in the Arab world under the Ottoman Empire started with the decline of the fortunes of Christians in Turkey at the very heart of the caliphate, Aclimandos said. All the Christians living under the Ottoman Empire were never fully-fledged citizens, but they were largely protected, though with some systematic discrimination.

“The decline, or let me say the fast decline, that resulted from persecution started towards the end of the 19th century, in around 1880, with the falling power and increasing fears of the rulers in Istanbul,” he said.

“Then the plight of the Christians forced them to move away elsewhere in the Arab world, and Egypt under the rule of Mohamed Ali, where modernity was pursued and openness was promoted, was certainly a destination for waves of inter-Ottoman Empire migration.”

At that time, Aclimandos added, the pursuit of modernity was making Egypt an attractive destination for Christians in the Levant who were feeling vulnerable as a result of growing political factionalism. This is why, he said, Egypt has so many churches introduced into a country that was otherwise predominantly Coptic Orthodox.

However, given that the largest part of the Christian exodus from the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, took place in the years around World War I, Aclimandos is willing to argue that it was essentially economic motivation that caused large numbers of Christians to leave the Levant on boats heading for Latin America, a new, rich and unexplored world where their fortunes grew fast.

“With almost every family that left for Latin America there was a success story to induce other families to follow and reach out to this part of the world that had nothing to do with the bloody war going on in the Middle East,” Aclimandos said.

A little later, with the rise of the first waves of Arab nationalism, when language trumped religious faith and united large parts of the population, excluding groups who shared the Islamic faith but not the Arab ethnicity like the Kurds, the Christians felt they had a reason to forgo their fears and pursue citizenship rights, “even if not full citizenship,” he said.

This was more or less the formula achieved following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the later independence of the Arab countries from European colonisation and the subsequent rule of pan-Arab ideology.

“Even in their dictatorship phase, which was by far the longest, the pan-Arab rulers, like Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Egypt and the Baath Party in Iraq, granted Christians the basic protections of faith, worship and life,” he said. But then, in the few decades before World War II, the search for a more prosperous future prompted subsequent waves of migration.

These waves were “not just of Christians, because there were Muslim families too who pursued the dream of starting anew in the US or Canada, especially after the end of World War II. But of course it was essentially the Christians who had other motives related to their status as minorities,” Aclimandos said.

DEFINING A MINORITY: Aclimandos does not subscribe to the debate about “numerical minority and not religious minority” that some commentators wish to promote. For him, in the absence of equal citizenship and under the premises of Sharia-based rather than a common law-based status for Christians in the Arab world, they are purely and “simply a minority.”

“They are a minority that is not necessarily always persecuted and whose rights are at times more observed than at other times, but they are a minority that has had enough reasons, which are not always problems and which are not always related to their relations with Islam, to get them to leave and to drop from some 25 per cent of the population at the beginning of the last century to less than 10 per cent today,” he said.

Obviously, the most obvious case that Aclimandos refers to is that of the Christians of Palestine where the Israeli occupation is working to empty the Palestinian Territories of all Palestinians in order to take control of the land.

The nationalisation-sequestration policies that then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser adopted in Egypt in the early 1960s was also a reason why so many Copts left Egypt, “more as the rich fleeing the socialist regime than the Copts leaving an uncomfortable situation,” Aclimandos said.

“Even though Nasser had an issue in some ways with anyone or any particular group that he perceived as in affiliation or affinity, even if ever so remotely, with the West, he was keen, as a modernising president, to appease at least the basic concerns of the Coptic Church,” Aclimandos argued.

The exodus at the time also included many of the Syrians and Lebanese who had come to Egypt decades earlier in pursuit of economic prosperity and felt that their fortunes were being undermined by the nationalisation-sequestration policies.

Following the defeat in the 1967 War and the growing political anger and economic decline in the countries that had lost territories to Israel, more people than ever “were giving up on their lands of origin and pursuing a less tenuous life elsewhere, in Europe and in North and South America, for example,” Aclimandos said.

He lost some two thirds of his Christian classmates from the Cairo Jesuit School in a few years between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. “We are not talking about people who were intimidated by the state, but about people who were scared by the consequences of the war on the economy, politics and culture,” Aclimandos said.

Elsewhere across the Arab world the increasing strength of dictatorial regimes that abolished all forms of opposition meant that many Christians left even though their status as nationals meant that they were not more persecuted by the state than the Muslim opposition. With the rise of Muslim migration to the oil-rich Arab countries, which are strictly Muslim societies and practice ultra-conservative modes of Islam, the last large tide of Christian migration came from many countries, particularly Egypt, where the prospects of the Christians were now lower than ever before.

In a country like Egypt where there were once many Christian churches, ranging from the Catholics to the Coptic Orthodox, Aclimandos said, today there are only a few non-Orthodox churchgoers, with many churches closed or almost empty. In a sense, he added, many churches in Egypt are sad today, as a result of the decline of the Christian community from being a key social and cultural player in the country and, previously, also an important political and economic player.

POLITICAL ISLAM: Inevitably, the rise of Political Islam, Aclimandos said, cannot be disassociated from the plight of the Christians in Arab countries, though emphasising this alone is “not an overall diagnosis of the problem.”

“For example, in Lebanon the issue has been more of a power play between different factions, including the Christian community. It was during the country’s civil war that, in many assessments, the Christian Maronites tried to rid the country of the Palestinians, but that actually led to many of them leaving the country instead, though the Christians of Lebanon are still around one third of the population,” he argued.

The establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 20th century, Aclimandos added, did not immediately lead to a drop in the socio-political status of the Christians of Egypt. Instead, this happened gradually, and “it really depended on who was running the show because at times the guide of the Brotherhood was more moderate but the influential members less so. This was not the case over the past few years, when the top figures in the movement have seemed to subscribe to the more fundamentalist track.”

But the Muslim Brotherhood and its off-shoots are nothing compared to the much more radical and militant Political Islam groups like Al-Qaeda, which was produced by a Western-Muslim coalition during the Cold War and that has been targeting Muslim minorities like the Shias too, Aclimandos said.

He added that more aggressive versions of such groups as Jabhat Al-Nusra and Islamic State (IS) have proven to be “exterminating factors for the Christian population in Syria and Iraq” in a way that no other radical Political Islam group has ever been.

“Given that there is hardly any serious Christian presence in North Africa and that there is no Christian national presence in the Gulf, it is predominantly Egypt and the Arab mashreq that has been suffering the decline of the Christian population,” Aclimandos said.   “Today, when all is said and done, it is the Christian population in Egypt and Lebanon that seems to be more stable, while those in Syria and Iraq are fast dwindling in the face of the inability of the Arab governments to react and the hesitation of the West to intervene for fear of coming across as Islam-hating.”

Inevitably, the rise of such aggressive versions of militant Islamism, Aclimandos said, is increasing the level of compassion felt for Christians in Arab countries. “I guess it is very obvious that even the most conservative Muslim Egyptian family who might not be willing to interact much with Christians as a matter of religious principle were very disapproving of the attacks on churches in Egypt last year, and the Muslim families in Iraq and Syria are truly, according to many testimonies I have heard, heartbroken over the plight of their Christian compatriots,” he said.

Meanwhile, the decline in Christian numbers is bound to continue due to the political and economic problems that the countries of this part of the world have been facing since the beginning of the Arab Spring, suggested Aclimandos.

The worst part, however, is not the decline as much as the segregation of those who stay on, he said. “Let me be clear here that this segregation is not necessarily imposed by Muslims, but it is at times the choice of the Christians themselves and also the Church as they fear that their lifestyles and rules could be diluted into the more dominant Muslim atmosphere,” he argued.

“You often hear the call for equal citizenship rights. That does not only mean a unified law for the construction of churches and mosques, but also a unified personal status law and the elimination of the walls of segregation. I cannot say that in the case of Egypt in particular this is the wish of the larger part of the Christian population right now,” he said.

In countries having much greater ethnic diversity like Syria and Iraq, Aclimandos is not sure either that the remaining Christians will want simply to melt into the wider Muslim milieu.

As for the Lebanese system, Aclimandos said, “This is the optimum sectarianism-based and not equality-based formula that was produced after the long and harsh years of a civil war, meaning that it is also sectarian.” He added that the numerical balance in other cases may not allow for a Lebanese formula, and “I cannot defend it as a patriotic formula as such.”

He continued, “My impression is that the governments of the Arab countries concerned do not wish to see their countries voided of the Christian presence, and the Christians of these countries who want to stay, or who would have to stay, are not keen about pursuing full-citizenship rights. They accept living under Muslim rule as a minority that is granted rights. They just want more protection and more rights.”

In essence, said Aclimandos , what is at stake today is the search for a new “social contract” that the Christians could agree to with their governments and their Muslim compatriots in order to ease their lives. This is not an impossible scenario, he said. It could, however, be seriously challenged as a result of the role played by Iran in the region.

“Iran is always using sectarianism as a tool to advance its political schemes. Iran is almost officially present now in Iraq and therefore the Sunni-Shia squabbles there are likely to get worse. At that point not so many people will care about the Christians of Iraq and they will continue to dwindle,” he said.

Overall, Aclimandos sees no clear way to stop the Christians of the Arab countries from leaving their homeland. “Again, this is not just about their being Christians, but also about their being citizens who wish to escape the socio-economic and political hassles of life in the Arab world.”

According to Aclimandos, the plight of Christians in Arab countries is thus also part of a wider dilemma that all Arab citizens face.

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