THE UNEVEN CONDITION OF ARAB CHRISTIANS
by Saad Eddin Ibrahim
The Daily Star, Lebanon December 21, 2004
Ten years ago the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies (ICDS) organized a conference on "Minorities in the Arab World." As soon as invitations to the conference were issued, a storm of objections broke out.
Leading the attack on ICDS was the prominent Egyptian journalist Mohammed Hasanain Haikal, the former editor in chief of the biggest and oldest Arabic daily, Al-Ahram, and a close confident of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Haikal was fired from his job by President Anwar Sadat in February 1974, depriving avid readers of his weekly one-page editorial "Frankly Speaking," which had run uninterrupted every Friday for 20 years.
However, Haikal was allowed back to publish his attack on ICDS and the minority conference. Haikal and the Egyptian state, not on the best terms since he had been expelled, suddenly saw eye to eye on the issue of minorities in general and that of Egypt's Christian Copts in particular.
Haikal's argument was that the Arab world did not have a minority problem. Anyone who said otherwise, according to Haikal, was carrying out a Western, mainly American, agenda to fragment the Arab homeland along sectarian lines, to weaken the nation and to enable Israel to prevail forever. Haikal charged in the same article that the United States had earmarked $100 million a year for private research centers like ICDS to implement the sinister plot.
Though no evidence was provided to substantiate Haikal's allegations, about a third of the invitees to the conference declined. Over 120 articles followed in the same vein, denying the existence of a minority problem, attacking the conference, and casting doubts on the patriotism of the organizers. Egypt's State Security Agency (SSA) informed ICDS that protection for conference participants would not be provided, nor could the SSA guarantee the safety of the foreign guests.
Amr Moussa, then foreign affairs minister, pleaded with ICDS to cancel and/or postpone the conference and to spare Egyptian authorities pressures from a score of "sister Arab states."
The conference was held, not in Cairo as planned, but in Limassol, Cyprus. This rather lengthy background note is necessary to show both the sensitivity of the issue and the clumsiness of Arab officials and intelligentsia alike in confronting it. I have described this combination elsewhere as symptomatic of a culture of shame and denial.
Now on to Christian minorities in the Arab world. They make up between 7 percent and 10 percent of the total population - i.e. between 21 million and 30 million. These figures are always contested, with governments underestimating and spokespersons for minorities overestimating.
Using the colonial administration figures of a century ago as a baseline and calculating the final figure according to the respective country's rate of natural population growth would bring the figures closer to the larger estimates, except for the fact that Christians tend to emigrate at a higher rate to Europe, the Americas and Australia, and being generally more educated and well-to-do, their rates of natural growth are slightly lower.
These two caveats also reflect many of the problems that are often whispered by Christians at home and expressed loudly in the diaspora. They are better educated, more professionally placed in the labor force, contribute more to their countries' GNP, and have higher incomes than the majority. Yet, because of their minority status, Christians in most Arab countries do not have a commensurate share of political power.
Additionally, in a country like Egypt which has the largest Christian community, Christians have complained for the last half century of state discrimination in building new churches or repairing old ones, both of which require an a priori presidential decree, while any Muslim can build a mosque anywhere without even a municipal permit. While Muslim religious rituals and ceremonies appropriate substantial time of the state controlled media, their Christian counterparts are ignored. Likewise, school textbooks ignore 600 years of the history of Coptic Egypt, as well as the Christian contributions to its art, culture and architecture.
Christians in southern Sudan did not whisper or just verbally complain, but resorted to armed struggle for equality with the Muslim Arab majority in the north. Out of 50 years of the history of independent Sudan, 40 have witnessed protracted warfare, costing the country two million dead and three million uprooted and displaced. The southerners have an equally long list of grievances - ranging from Arab racism through socio-economic neglect to disproportionate power distribution. The situation steadily worsened with the advent of an Islamic-based coup d'etat in 1989, which attempted to enforce Islamic Sharia laws on non-Muslim southerners.
At the eastern end of the Arab world, Iraqi Christians were hardly heard from, positively or negatively, for four decades of Baath Party rule. True, a prominent Iraqi Christian, Tarek Aziz, was placed among the top elite until the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. The Baath Party had prided itself on being secular and nationalist, with no room or consideration for religious affiliation of Iraqis. Had this kind of political socialization been true or successful, we would not have witnessed the popular rise of the Shiite clergy after Saddam Hussein, or for that matter the targeted bombing of Christian churches, after which a mini-exodus was reported. Obviously, sectarian resentment and accompanying discontent were simmering below the surface.
The situation of Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine seems to be better. In Lebanon the Christians in general and the Maronite sect in particular have enjoyed a markedly privileged position. It was other sects that long complained about discrimination, a major factor underlying the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). But with the Taif Accord, some, if not all sectarian grievances have been addressed.
In Syria, appearances indicate that Christians do not have serious grievances. They seem to be loyal partners with the ruling forces. We must note that during the Syrian liberal age (1923-1958) and particularly following independence in the early 1940's when the first prime minister, Faris al-Khoury, was a Christian, no one fussed about it. That precedent has remained a remarkable exception.
Jordan's Hashemite monarchy seems to have been the most accommodating with its Christian minority, as indeed with all minorities. Early on, these minorities were assigned slightly more positions in the executive and more seats in the legislative councils than their proportionate weight in the population. This magnanimous attitude has kept all minorities appreciative, with no reported resentment from the majority. The Jordanian case is indicative of how easily minorities could be better integrated in the sociopolitical mainstream.
The situation with the Christians in Palestine has been complicated by two historical dynamics operating at cross-purposes. The Israeli usurpation of Palestinian land and political rights since 1948 has mobilized Muslims and Christians in a common national liberation struggle for self-determination.
That phase reached its apex in the first intifada (1987-1993). However, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad increasingly calling the shots, Palestinian Christians began a silent retreat from the public arena. Their role in the second intifada (2000-2004) has greatly diminished. Like their Egyptian and Iraqi counterparts, rates of out-migration have accelerated among Christian Palestinians, often with the tacit encouragement of the Israeli occupation authorities, especially among residents of the Greater Jerusalem area.
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 the four decades following World War I. Before that they had lived for centuries under the Ottoman dhimmi system, in which they had communitarian autonomy but incomplete citizenship rights.
The Arab liberal age came to an end with the series of military coups d'etat following the 1948 debacle in Palestine which came to be known as Al-Nakbah. A new era of authoritarian populism engulfed Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Algeria. Though propagating themselves as revolutionary, liberationist and justice oriented, it is under these regimes that minorities in general and Christians in particular suffered the most in the last century. Democratizing the Arab world promises to de-alienate and restore to Christians overdue full-citizenship rights.