Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1207, (24 - 30 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Christianity in eclipse?

According to Iraqi intellectual Walid Khadouri Christianity is now facing an eclipse in its own cradle, writes Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In the Lebanese capital Beirut, where he, like no small number of Christian Iraqis, has been residing, Iraqi intellectual Walid Khadouri has been following the news from his home country with a sense of dismay. Christians are being forcibly evicted from their homes in the widely Christian-inhabited city of Mosul.

Coming second only to Khadouri’s hometown, Baghdad, Mosul has had a fast-declining Christian population, going down since the US-led invasion in 2003 from over one million — 1.5 million in the assessment of some — to around half a million today.

Turning on to the news on Friday, Khadouri was “devastated to hear of this terrorist — or rather Nazi-like forced eviction — of the very few families that are left in one of the oldest residences of Christianity in the Middle East.”

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized Mosul along with other parts of northern Iraq and over 30 per cent of the territories of adjacent Syria, last Friday decided to evict the few remaining Christian families from the town after giving them the choice of forced conversion or the payment of a special tax, the jizyah, which was paid by non-Muslims during the Ottoman period in return for protection and exemption from military service.

Khadouri was shocked to see the pictures from this once-glorious city that has over 50 of the country’s oldest churches.

“I could not believe it when I saw that these Nazi-style terrorists had imprinted the Arabic letter n, standing for nassara [Christians] on houses to indicate that the residents should be forced to leave and that the houses should be confiscated as the property of the Islamic State. It is a form of fascism that cannot be ignored.”

Khadouri was grief-stricken as he followed the testimonies of elderly people and children forced to walk after having been stripped by ISIS of private cars, money and belongings. On Monday, he followed news accounts showing a city voided of its once peaceful Christian community.

He did not hide his frustration at the failure of the authorities to provide protection for the evicted. He was unwilling, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from his house in Beirut, to dwell on official statements lamenting the humanitarian tragedy.

“What this boils down to is that after a decade of the emigration of Iraqi Christians, who like other Iraqis have felt unsettled by the instability that has hit the country and the escalation of military confrontation amongst the many militias, we are now seeing another very sad chapter in the story of the decline of Christianity in its own cradle — the Middle East,” he said.

Many of Iraq’s Christians have been leaving the country over the past few decades for all sorts of reasons. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, which, as Khadouri said, “was not marked by the targeting of Christians,” Iraqi Christians affiliated to various churches aimed to escape the dictatorship like other Iraqis opposed to the regime.

After the fall of the Saddam regime, it was chaos “at first but then with the increase of the tide of Political Islamism that particularly targeted Christians came their escape to north and south America, Europe and some Arab countries,” he said.

In his 2012 Booker Prize nominated novel “Oh Mary” the New York-based Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoun captured the life of a Christian family that had seen the emigration of some of its members in the late 1960s over political disputes and was now again seeing the emigration of its younger members to escape the chaos in Iraq, once a rich, stable and prosperous state.

Unlike Maha in the novel, in her twenties and devastated by the sectarian violence and her fears that her Christianity might be the reason for her victimisation, Youssef, in his seventies, is at odds with the idea of leaving the country, even with the escalation in the violence, which he acknowledges is partially but not fully sectarian.

“It has not at all been easy for the Iraqis. I still clearly remember the [2010] attack on the Notre Dame du Perpetual Secours Church in Baghdad, though this was not as horrible as what we have seen in Mosul. It is horrifying for someone to decide to blow up a place, especially a church, but it is even more horrifying to tell someone that they have to either change their faith or leave the place they and their ancestors have been living,” Khadouri said.

However, “the Sunnis of Mosul [the sect to which ISIS supposedly subscribes] are opposed to the eviction of their Christian neighbours with whom they have lived for centuries, and the Shias of the city are also being faced with the Nazi-like madness of ISIS,” he added.

Largely non-Iraqi, ISIS may have captured the sympathies of some Iraqi Sunni leaders who have been suffering from the sectarian policies of Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, subjected to wide criticism for his Shia bias.

“There are deep-rooted problems there for sure, but this is not to say that the Sunni residents of Mosul, no matter what their grievances, were in favour of the forced-eviction of Christians,” Khadouri said.

He is also well aware that this week’s accounts, which have received some, but insufficient media attention, are not isolated incidents. Both in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria, Christian communities had at first joined the movements of the Arab Spring before their hopes for democracy had retreated in favour of their fear of the presence of Al-Qaeda and now ISIS.

In Lebanon, which has seen sectarian violence for decades while remaining the only Arab state with a Christian president, a supposedly newly established Sunni group calling itself “the battalion of free Sunnis” last month threatened to “cleanse” parts of the country of Christians.

The Christians of Lebanon, who despite declines in numbers before and after the country’s civil war, still represent no fewer than 30 per cent of the population of the country, making them one of the largest Christian community in the Middle East. A century ago, Christians were around 20 to 25 per cent of the population, and in the region as a whole they have now declined to around five per cent. 

Even the very cradle of Christianity, the birth place of Jesus in Palestine, has been suffering a serious decline in numbers. This started with the onset of the Arab-Israeli struggle, but it has taken a harsher turn in recent years because of increasing Israeli restrictions on Palestinian citizens, both Christians and Muslims.

The waves of Christian emigration from the Middle East have had ups and downs, either due to economic, political or finally sectarian reasons. But Khadouri says that radical Islamism is the key to the most recent wave. “The rise of fundamentalism is a serious concern. The spread of fundamentalism has been unfolding for quite some time, and governments have turned a blind eye to it. Now entire societies, not just Christians, are suffering from it,” he argued.

He says that the issue cannot be treated by security solutions alone. “It has got too complicated; most of the groups have expanded beyond their original foundation and have attracted new and mostly foreign followers,” he argued. There is a need to provide protection for targeted Christian communities, he added.

One thing that is over-due is standing up to the radical reading and interpretation of Islam, he said. “This is the role of Muslim ulamas, Islamic scholars and institutions. Where were they when this mood of radicalism was taking over the Arab world? And why have they not acted to face up to it? The time is now ripe for them to see what they can do to cut these groups away from their sympathisers,” he said.

He is well-versed in the economics of oil and knows first hand the Arab Gulf countries from where radical readings of Islam and radical Islamist leaders are said to have found their way to the rest of the Arab world. But he is not willing to argue that the rise of the influence of the traditional Gulf culture, along with the oil boom, is in itself to blame for the export of Wahhabism or other kinds of radical Islamism.

First, Khadouri argues, Wahhabism is not the only radical Islamist source, given the radical thinking of some Muslim Brotherhood leaders in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Second, the oil boom was something that the Christians of the Arab world benefited from too. They, “exactly like Muslims, went to work in the Gulf before going back to their own countries, whether Iraq, Syria or elsewhere,” he said.

Khadouri is convinced that Cairo’s Al-Azhar could play a role in correcting radical versions of Islam, since traditionally the modernisation of Islamic scholarship starts at Al-Azhar.

“Al-Azhar needs to take the initiative. It needs to find a way to cut through this network of expanding radicalism, and this can only be done through the efforts of religious scholars,” Khadouri argued.

He added that throughout history it has been the enlightenment of leading Islamic figures that has been the buffer against the targeting of minorities. It has also been the decline of the influence of modernising scholars that has allowed for violations of the rights of minorities.

Testimony of this is found in the history of the Middle East, not just throughout the 19th and 20th centuries but also earlier under the rule of the Ottomans, when Christians lived affiliated to different churches.

In his “Minorities in the History of the Arabs”, published in 1994, scholar Aouni Farsakh argues that the Ottomans’ bias towards Sunni Muslims was essentially political, either to serve their interests at the internal level or to garner support for them in political battles with Shia Iran.

Ottoman rule, Farsakh argues, often showed greater tolerance towards Christians than to Shia Muslims. This did not mean that there were no incidents of discrimination against Christians, given their association with the western powers of the time, however, and there was much in Ottoman rule that prompted Christian emigration.

However, as Massaoud Daher noted in his 2009 book “The Emigration of Shawam,” this emigration was mostly from within the Ottoman Empire, which, despite the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, had also welcomed Christians escaping totalitarian rule in Europe to live as a safe minority in an Islamic empire.

Lebanese novelist Ragaa Nei’ma suggests in his novel “Have you seen Warda?” that the Christians mostly emigrated to escape the persecution of local rulers rather than the Ottoman authorities or their neighbours, who engaged with them with perfect ease.

Khadouri laments that this may not longer be the case. The Palestinian Christians who left for Jordan and Syria where they have been settled for decades are now faced with much unease, particularly in Syria.

“Let’s face it: short of clear measures to protect Christians, especially in the Levant, it might not be too long before we see a Levant empty of Christianity. This is unlikely to be the case for Egypt, where the Coptic population seems to be stable, however,” Khadouri said, while acknowledging that there was no exception across the Arab world to the declining number of Christians.

In his novel, Nei’ma writes of the love of Warda and Bichara, a Muslim and a Christian. It is, Khadouri says, a story now interrupted by the radical Islamic groups, who are making it increasingly difficult for such relationships to take place.

“Sectarian segregation was not something that Iraqi Christians would earlier have reckoned with. But now we are seeing Christians forced to leave their homes at the point of a gun,” Khadouri said.

Speaking of his own country of origin, Khadouri shows realism. “Iraq is effectively a confederation where there is a place for the Sunnis, a place for the Shias and a place for the Kurds. The Christians, too, should have their part in this confederation in the form of a place where they can live in peace,” he argued.

Such realism forced the separation of the south of Sudan in 2011, where most Sudanese Christians live, from the predominantly Muslim and radical-ruled north some three years ago. For most Arab scholars, however, much of Sudan is more African than Arab despite its membership of the Arab League.

Khadouri is not willing to compare the context of the Levant to that of any other part of the Arab world, including North Africa where Christianity is far more limited than it is in the Levant. The scene is quite diverse, since there are small and mostly new Christian communities in North Africa, unlike in the Levant.

In Libya, the largest Christian community, lately the target of attacks from radical Muslim groups, is of Egyptian origin, having moved westwards in search of economic opportunities and now complaining of socio-economic discrimination.

In the Arab Gulf, which has lately seen the construction of the first churches, most Christians are also emigrants, particularly from Egypt, Syria and Iraq. “In Kuwait in particular there are Kuwaiti Christian nationals who are originally Iraqi emigrants later given Kuwaiti citizenship,” said Khadouri.

Across the Arab world, Khadouri noted, the largest parts of the Christian population are part of less advantaged socio-economic groups. “Those who had a good education or who had financial resources managed to find themselves a better chance elsewhere. Most of the disadvantaged ones had more limited chances, though they would likely wish to emigrate given the chance to do so,” Khadouri said.

“We are already very late in acting, but the longer we wait the harder it will be to stop the tide of emigration. This may not come at the point of the sword, as we saw in Mosul, but it could come as a result of fears of such incidents continuing,” Khadouri said.

According to Khadouri, governments should work with churches to help support, both financially and emotionally, those Christians who might be tempted to leave. The world, he added, should also reach out to help document the cultural influence of the Christians of the Arab world.

“If not, it might not be that long before Christians in this part of the world will be something from the past – as some radical Muslim groups want and as many Christians and Muslims fear,” he insisted.

Fears over the fate of the Christians of the Arab world have been an increasing concern since the reversal of the tide of the Arab Spring, which had been thought by some in its initial phase to mark the beginning of the re-integration of the Christian community.

This week, this fear was widely expressed by many churches across the world, among them the Roman Catholic. “The world needs to move beyond the expression of fear and move to a more constructive approach by showing real solidarity with the plight of Christians in this part of the world, which was the birthplace of Christianity,” Khadouri said.

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