1999: Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations / Walid Phares

This article by Walid Phares was originally published as “Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations,” in Malka Hillel Shulewitz, ed., The Forgotten Millions: The Modern Jewish Exodus from Arab Lands (London: Continuum, 1999), pp. 15-22. See it on Amazon.com at this link.

This was, of course, before 9/11/2001, and clearly refutes the idea that Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to the vigorous response by the United States. Sadly for the members of these Middle-Eastern Christian organizations, the already terrible treatment that they have been undergoing for centuries has been intensified, as Islamists have used their response to persecute, kill, or drive out increasing numbers of Christians.

See the original of this article on the “Free Copts” website at this link:

Thanks much,
Steve St.Clair

Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations
Walid Phares


Writing about the Middle East Christians in a political context is a risky intellectual mission. In contrast to researching other ethno-religious groups, investigating the history, the present and future of the native peoples of the Middle East is unique. This is largely due to the fact that in the ‘Arab Middle East’, and invariably in the wider Middle East, ranging from Turkey to Iran, the majority-minority formula has a reductionist influence on minorities. Globally. majorities tend to assimilate and integrate minorities, whether at the national, ethnic or religious levels. These tendencies are adopted by the traditional state system of the regions as well as by its ideological elites.1

In the circle of Arab states. reductionism has an additional dimension: the negation of the cultural identity of the targeted minority.2 For example, Arab governments do not recognize the existence of the Coptic people in Egypt, the Kurdish and the Assyrian peoples in Iraq, the Berber identity in Algeria, the African ethnicity of southern Sudan, or the Lebanese Christians.3 Moreover, the native Christian ethnicities are under a constant state of oppression.
In Lebanon, where Christians enjoyed constitutionally guaranteed parity until a few years ago, hundreds of Christians are being arrested. tortured and jailed by pro-Syrian forces. In the south of Lebanon, Christian villages are bombarded constantly by Hizbullah. In the event of an Israeli withdrawal. the Christian community will be threatened by fundamentalist militias.4 Similarly, dozens of Christian villages in Egypt are routinely attacked by the Islamists. As an example, the village of Manshiet Nassr in Upper Egypt has been repeatedly attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. Dozens of people have been killed or injured.5
Today, south Sudanese Christians are targeted by the Islamist forces of Khartoum. Entire villages are being destroyed by the northern regime. Yet these tragedies, like others in the Muslim world, go unreported by the Western media and unchallenged by Western leaders.6
These examples do not represent isolated events. Nor is the neglect they receive from the media and world governments unpredictable. Thus the public in the United States is largely unaware of the Middle East that non- Muslims of the region know only too well. Christians are targeted by Islamic fundamentalists. The latter are tacitly encouraged by many governments of the region who, at best, do nothing to stop them and, at worst, actively aid and abet those responsible for the pogroms.7
Middle East Christian populations and their locations
Middle East Christians suffer collectively. Yet few people in the West are aware of the size of these communities. The common image of Middle Eastern Christianity is that it is limited to a few groups or individuals among the Palestinian population. In reality, the Palestinian Christians are only a fragment of the millions of Christians to be found from Sudan to Armenia.
The Copts of Egypt – Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants – are estimated at between ten to eleven million, dispersed across the country. They claim descent from the ancient Egyptians living under the Pharaohs. Their numbers shrank after the Arab invasion in AD 640. Much later, they enjoyed a temporary flowering under the British in the nineteenth century. One million Copts live in the diaspora, principally in the United States.


Seven million black Africans live in the south. Many of these tribes are Christians – Anglicans, other Protestants and Catholics. Following the Islamic conquest, the Africans of Nubia were displaced to the south. As a result of the recent civil war. more than one million south Sudanese were exiled.


There are about 1.5 million Christians in the Land of the Cedars – Maronites, Orthodox, and other communities including Protestants. As a result of the 1975 war, hundreds of thousands were displaced and exiled. There are around seven million Lebanese Christians in the diaspora and more than 1.5 million Americans are of Lebanese descent. About one million Christian Assyrians (Orthodox) and Chaldeans (Catholics) live in Iraq. Most of the Christian demographic centers are concentrated in the north. In addition. about one million Christian Mesopotamians live in North America, Scandinavia and Australia.


One million Syrian citizens are Christians. including Aramaean-Syriacs, Armenians, Orthodox and Melkites.


In Iran, the Christian population, native Persians belonging to Evangelical or Catholic denominations, or Assyrians and Armenians, reached half a million before the Islamic revolution. No accurate figures are available today, In Turkey, Christian Assyro-Syriacs, Greeks, Armenians and others do not exceed 20.000 persons living in Istanbul or in the south-east of the country.8

Middle East Christians: the dividing line

Before assessing the various attitudes of the Middle East Christian minorities, some distinctions are necessary. Due to the nature of the governing systems in the region, few accurate figures are available about the Christian communities. The main difficulty lies, on the one hand, in the tendency of governments to reduce the official numbers of their minorities, such as in Egypt and Iraq, and, on the other, the trend of the targeted groups to exaggerate their demographic realities.9 This is particularly pronounced as far as Egypt’s Copts and Lebanon’s Christians are concerned. Regarding the former, Cairo’s official estimates are between three and four million. In the Lebanese case, demographic estimates are about 50 per cent each for Muslims and Christians (based on the last census held in 1936 in which 54 per cent of the country’s citizens were counted as Christians). Recent figures put Muslims at 65 per cent of the population (after calculations made for Christian migration).10

Despite the paucity of studies, the sum total of the available numbers of each group, based on parish records, puts the Christians in the Middle East between a low of fourteen million and a high of twenty million,11 In terms of ethnic identification, the dividing line runs between Arab Christians and non-Arab Christians. The former. including a large section of the Palestinian Christians, the bulk of the Jordanian Christians and many among Syria’s Melkite and Orthodox elements. constitute no more than 10 per cent of Middle East Christianity.12, These ‘true’ ‘Arab Christians’ are clearly attached to the Arab language, culture and sensibilities. However. most Christians in the Middle East are historically non-Arab.13 They comprise the Assyro-Chaldeans of Iraq, the Copts of Egypt. the south Sudanese and the Aramaeans (Maronites, Syriacs and others) of Lebanon and Syria.14

Although ethnic Arabs are a minority among the Christians of the Middle East, Christian Arabists formed a majority among the intelligentsia throughout the twentieth century. Their compatibility with mainstream Arab-Muslim currents and regimes facilitated the ascension of Christian Arabists in the socio-political pyramid.15Everywhere in the Levant. prominent Christian figures have become leading figures in Arab governments, such as Tarek Hanna Aziz. Foreign Minister of Iraq: Butros Butros Ghali, former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Egypt: George Kuriye. Director of the Presidential Office of Syria: and Hanan Ashrawi. former Spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks. In contrast. Christian nationalists have been kept out of public life and. in certain cases, even outlawed.16

The assimilationist trend. however. has suffered two major setbacks. One is the ascendance of Islamic fundamentalism, which is an intellectual and political threat to the secular dream. The second is the re-emergence of ethno-nationalism among the majority of the Christian peoples of the Middle East. Influenced by the worldwide explosion of religious ethnicities, these minority ‘nationalities’ refer to historical legitimacy and in most cases also make territorial claims.17

Historical background
Prior to the Islamic era, the region of the Fertile Crescent was inhabited by native populations such as the Copts of Egypt, the Assyro-Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, the Aramaeans of Syria and Lebanon, the Hebrews of the Land of Israel. the Armenians of Asia Minor, and other less numerous groups. In AD 636, Arab Muslim invaders crushed the Byzantine army at Yarmoukl8 and invaded the Middle East. From that vantage point they marched through North Africa into Spain, reaching the borders of India through Persia.

The Arab-Islamic conquest had a major impact on the region’s destiny and identity.19 The conqueror imposed a new religion on the autochthonous people implementing a fast and irreversible Islamization of the mainly Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Middle East. Initially in the cities, then throughout the rural areas, millions of people among the conquered populations had three options open to them:

At first, adherence to Islam, which would guarantee them the same citizens rights as that granted to Arabs. Second. the right to maintain their own religious beliefs, but deprived of their political, social and cultural rights. This option, known as the dhimmi status, required the payment of a special tax called the Jizya. The tax was supposed to guarantee the ‘protection’ of Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule.20

The third option was confrontational: conversion to Islam by the sword. The conquered people were thereby forced to accept the new religion. If not. they were either eliminated or forced to leave the area.21

Within a few decades, formidable pressures forced the majority of the indigenous masses, from the Caspian to the Mediterranean to accept Islam.22 In addition to religious coercion, Islamization included the imposition of the ethnic cultural and linguistic Identity of the Arabs. Thus Arabization accompanied the spread of Islam, albeit within a smaller geographical region than the total Islamic world.23

The Arab conquerors used their bureaucratic power to replace local cultures and languages, such as those of the Coptic. Assyro-Chaldean, Aramaic and Hebrew peoples. The process of assimilation, which took decades in some areas and centimes in others, succeeded in creating an Arab sphere of predominance. The Ottomans took over the former provinces of the Arab caliphate from the Mameluke dynasty. The new empire imposed the Turkish tongue on the administration but left Arabic as the dominant popular language in its Near Eastern provinces.24 For four centuries the dhimmi peoples – particularly Christians – found themselves under multi-layers of socia-political pressure: The Arab socio-cultural assimilation, the Ottoman political and colonial domination, and the caliphate Muslim-Sunni rule.25

The vanishing Christian Middle East

n the aftermath of the Arab-Muslim conquest of the Middle East, the Christian presence lost out to the conqueror. From Armenia in the north of Asia Minor to the Nubian Nile, early Christianity had flourished and its major cities constituted important centers of the Roman world. Since the conquest, however, the Christian East has shrunk both demographically as well as in its socio-political dimension. Pre-Muslim peoples of the Near East, such as Assyro-Chaldeans, Copts and Aramaeans, were Christianized in the First century. Yet by the seventh century, Arab-Muslim culture flooded the region and sought to dominate the existing identities.26

The Christian resistance to the invaders varied, as did their initial reaction to the conquest. Those who had been oppressed by the Byzantine empire.
Coptic ordeal

Like the Assyrians. the Coptic people have pre-Arab roots. Following the conquest of Egypt by the Muslim armies in AD 640, Coptic uprisings spread all over the country between 725 and 830.36 A considerable proportion of the population was forced to convert to Islam and the remaining Christians became a minority under the dhimmi burden. According to Peter Mansfield. ‘[t]he Coptic language of the ancient Egyptians was progressively extinguished as the Arab occupation changed into full-scale colonization and assimilation, although it survived at least until the 17th century’.37

In the early twentieth century, while Egypt was under British rule. the Copts were offered political recognition as a separate identity within the country. Yet the majority of the Arabized elite accepted an ‘Egyptian identity’ in deference to the Muslim majority among whom they lived.38 Another group called for the establishment of a distinct and separate Coptic state. A Coptic Congress held in Assiut in March 1910 was attended by 1158 delegates. who presented a list of Coptic claims.39 The first group advocating national unity won the battle by allying itself with the Muslim political elite.40

Despite this loss, the nationalist Copts did not relent.41 In 1953, under the leadership of a young lawyer, Ibrahim Hilal, the group launched a political party called The Coptic Nation. Two weeks later, Gamal Abdul Nasser dissolved the party, jailed its leadership and forbade its activities.42 After this repression, many activists emigrated to the West, where they founded an expatriate network.

In Egypt, the constitution and laws have never recognized the existence of this community. One example is their political under-representation in government. Indeed. although the community represents one-fifth of the Egyptian population. it has only six seats in a parliament comprised of 420 seats. Moreover, the six Coptic members are nominated by presidential decree, i.e. they are hand-picked by the Muslim majority.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt led to anti-Coptic pogroms in Cairo and various parts of the countryside. In 1981. President Anwar Sadat, in an attempt to appease radical factions upset over the Camp David Accords, ordered the incarceration of the Coptic Pope Shenouda III and denounced him for anti-governmental activities, alleging there was a Coptic plan to establish a separate entity in Egypt.43

Sadat’s repression led to an increase in Coptic nationalist activities among exiled groups operating from Christian East Beirut, Australia. Europe and Canada. but mainly from the United States.44 In 1992, Chris Hedges wrote in the New York Times:

in the last four months more than thirty people have been killed in Assiut Province, which embraces this town. including 13 Christians massacred by militants one morning in May. Assaults on Christians and the burning of their houses and shops are a daily occurrence.45

Currently, large-scale Islamist attacks on Coptic quarters and villages are increasing despite the denials of Cairo’s authorities.46 The Coptic opposition denounces the government and the Islamic groups, accusing the ‘Muslim-controlled Egyptian state of a conspiracy against the Coptic nation’,47 Yet the Coptic associations do not openly call for a separate entity. Instead, they focus on human rights issues. One reason they have not called for self-determination is because of demographic reality. Although they constitute the largest Christian population in the Middle East, the Coptic people do not possess the strategic advantage of other less numerically strong minorities in the region: a geographically homogeneous area of residence. Scattered all over the country, they can hardly claim, as the Kurds do, an enclave for a safe haven.48 Meanwhile, the ongoing persecution of the Coptic community does not seem to end.49 South Sudanese saga

Seven million African Christians and non-Muslims live in the southern and equatorial provinces of Sudan. The north has been Islamized and Arabized by successive waves of tribes marching from Egypt and Arabia. The advance of the Arabs into Sudan was facilitated after the Muslim victory over the African Christian kingdoms in 1504.50 The attempts to assimilate the south have created resistance among its population and ignited many revolts against Khartoum’s governments. Since the creation of the Sudanese entity in the late nineteenth century, a number of these uprisings were led by the Nilotic tribes. mainly the Dinka and Nuer.51

In recent history, two revolutions were led by the south. The first one started in 1956; it was organized by the Anyanya movement and quickly spread in most equatorial and southern districts, In 1972, an agreement was reached with the central government to freeze the confrontation and discuss autonomy for the African and non-Arab zones. 52

In 1983, as a reaction to a massive campaign of Islamization initiated by Khartoum. a second southern uprising was led by the Sudanese Popular Liberation Army (SPLA), achieving significant success in the field. Most of the southern provinces of the country came under the control of the SPLA;53 but a split within the SPLA and the SPLF led to internal clashes. The civil war in the south gave an opportunity for the Arab north to renew its offensive. With support from Iran,54 as well as from Libya and Syria, the new Islamist Khartoum government recaptured many strategic strongholds and marched into the southern hinterland.57 Tens of thousands of Christians were displaced or massacred.56 Currently the southern resistance is facing a major threat, but since January 1997, many Christian towns have been liberated by the SPLA.57 Two million southerners were killed in the course of the conflict.

Lebanese Christians

By the beginning of the seventh century, the Lebanese population had a distinct identity: they were predominantly Aramaic in their ethnicity and of the Christian faith. The latter included various communities such as the Maronites, Melkites and other oriental sects.58 Between AD 676 and 677, a general revolt against the occupier was led by the Christian forces, known also as Marada (rebels). In less than two years, the resistance succeeded in establishing an independent entity in Lebanon at a time when the Arab empire stretched from Persia to Spain. The first Maradite state, which had frontiers that reached coastal Syria and the Galilee in northern Israel, held its ground from AD 676 to 1305.59

For 600 years. the Lebanese Christians lived under Arab and Ottoman occupation. During the Arab Mameluk domination, Lebanon’s populations experienced harsh repression and their demographic presence shrank towards the northern part of Mount Lebanon.

In 1975, war erupted, pitting the Christian community against a Muslim-PLO-Syrian alliance. After fifteen years of confrontation, more than 150.000 Christians were massacred and dozens of towns and villages destroyed. The Syrian army invaded the last stronghold in 1990 and eliminated the Christian resistance. With the collapse of the central free area of Lebanon, the Christian resistance lost its ability to fight for its goals.60

The ‘new order’ in Lebanon is ideologically Arab, spiritually Muslim and politically Syrian. Embodied in the (Saudi-sponsored) Taef umbrella agreement and reinforced by a US endorsement, a new era dawned for the Christian community which will inevitably lead either to its long-term dissolution or to a slow, massive emigration of those who can leave.61 In Lebanon, extensive human rights abuses are taking place.62 In the south, the Christians are targeted by Hizbullah,63

Barring no major developments in the next decade, the changes occurring in Lebanon vis-a-vis the Christians will no doubt produce a chain reaction in Lebanon and perhaps also in other parts of the Middle East. First, there will be an implacable Arabization followed by the Islamization of Lebanon because of the absence of a credible Christian political opposition.64

In addition, the suppression of the Christians in Lebanon caused repercussions among the other Christian minorities of the region. such as the Copts of Egypt and the Assyrians of Iraq, whose hopes were fuelled for a long time by the fate and the success of their Lebanese brethren, whose fall will undoubtedly weaken their historic will to survive.

It is perhaps pertinent to mention here that. symbolically, as far as the ‘peace process’ is concerned. the Mideast Christians are noticeable by their absence! Neither individual Christians nor representatives of the region’s national Christian communities have been invited to participate. While an organization such as the PW has been welcomed to the negotiating table, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). the SPLA and other non-governmental groups have been kept at bay.

While Palestinian community leaders and Islamists are constantly solicited by international media, representatives of Christian movements are marginalized. The ‘peace process’ clearly excludes Mideast Christians.65

Palestinian and Jordanian .Christians

Palestinian and Jordanian Christians include ethnic Arabs and other minorities such as Armenians, Maronites and other Aramaeans. The Arab group, with a majority of Orthodox. Melkites. Roman Catholics and Protestants, traditionally supported Arab nationalism.66 Leaders such as George Habash, Nayef Hawatmeh, Hanan Ashrawi, Bishop Capucci and Bishop Kaf’eety emerged as historic spokespersons for the Palestinian struggle directed against Israel and the West. Until the Intifada of 1987, Palestinian Christians sided with the PLO. But this secular elite was not able to cope with the surge of Islamic radicalism following the launching in Oslo of the ‘peace process’. The fact is that Hamas and Islamic Jihad – whose aim is the creation of an all-Islamic Palestine – do not present a viable alternative to the Christians.67 In the last few months even while these lines were being written, under the Western-supported Palestinian authority of Yasser Arafat, Christians feel insecure. On the West Bank. evangelicals have been arrested and jailed because of their faith.68 In Jerusalem. the Church of the Holy Sepulture was desecrated by Ararat’s religious authority.69 Worse, in June 1997, anti-Christian activities reached within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The Christian population of the town of Tur’an was attacked by mobs who burned houses and cars and killed a university student. In Jordan. Christians are under the King’s protection. but events across the Jordan River have already elevated tensions in that small and vulnerable kingdom.70

Iranian Christians

Under the westernized Shah regime, the nearly 500,000 Christian Iranians lived in relative peace. With the onset of the Islamic revolution, the community fell under the wrath of Khomeinism. In the course of two decades. their numbers shrank dramatically to about 50.000 souls. In the early 1990s the evangelical groups were particularly targeted.71 Between 1994 and 1997 three successive leaders were assassinated or executed by government agents. There is no Iranian-Christian agenda beyond the hope of mere physical survival coupled with a minimum of human rights. In the diaspora. particularly in the United States, Iranian Christians are active and vocal.72

Christians in Saudi Arabia

There is no Christian presence in Saudi Arabia since, by law. only a Muslim can be a Saudi citizen. Churches and religious centers are not allowed. Though there once were thriving Christian communities in Arabia, today that country is ruled by an extremist anti-Christian regime.73 Reports from the Saudi kingdom constantly reveal the capital punishments, torture and imprisonment inflicted on Christian residents of all nationalities. However. neither European nor American foreign policy-makers interfere with Christian persecution in that oil-rich country.74
Western abandonment
Despite the large-scale oppression of Middle East Christians and the large numbers of victims, both as communities and as individuals. Western powers have rarely considered intervening to help them. Although minority protection systems were provided for the Muslims of Bosnia, the Turks of northern Cyprus, the Kurds of northern Iraq and the Palestinians, the Mideast Christians, including Copts of Egypt, Africans of southern Sudan, Maronites of Lebanon and Assyro-Chaldeans of Iraq, to name a few were never considered an endangered species deserving similar attention.75
This Western abandonment of the Christian nationalities was general, systematic and clearly political. There are many factors, which contributed to this policy. One is economic. Western governments and the various US administrations acquiesced in the pressures of Arab governments not to raise the issue of minorities for fear of economic – principally oil – retaliation. A second was the Cold War and the necessity of maintaining those Arab regimes involved in ethnic supremacy in the anti-Soviet camp. With the end of the Cold War, the ‘peace process’ became another factor causing the Christian communities to suffer international indifference. In the wake of the Camp David agreements (1979-80), a wave of governmental repression shook the Coptic community. Pope Shenouda was imprisoned, Coptic quarters in Cairo were under siege, and numbers of Christians were either jailed by the authorities or killed by Islamists. After the signing of the Oslo I and II agreements, Islamist attacks on Copts increased at an alarming rate. In the region, the ‘peace process’ was totally negative as far as the Christians were concerned. In Lebanon, Syria was granted a dominant role at the expense of the Christians as a way of inducing Damascus to sign a peace treaty with Israel. For years the last free enclave of Lebanon’s Christians in the southern security zone was denied its right to resist and liberate its country for fear of upsetting President Assad. In Sudan and northern Iraq, similar reasons were forthcoming to prevent Western support for the Africans or Assyrians. However, the fundamental reason behind Western betrayal of the Christian minorities is ideological: it is the Arabists.76

Arabists and Arab lobbies

Since the middle of this century, a pro-Arab lobby sympathizing with Arab nationalism has developed both in academia and in government circles. Later, Arabists became predominant in journalism. For decades, senior conceptualizers and field operatives of the US State Department simply rejected the existence of non-Arab, particularly non-Muslim, ethnic groups in the Middle East. Good relations with the ‘Arab majority’ meant neglect of the rights of the minorities in the region, concluded essayist Robert Kaplan.77 However, a recent surge of interest created in the West may yet mobilize some support for the cause of Mideast Christians



1 Comment

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One response to “1999: Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations / Walid Phares

  1. Anonymous

    Walid Phares piece is remarkable. It challenges the academic establishment and the classical Middle East Studies which does not research this topic. Today, 10 years later, this article brings about an amazing dimension as we discover the threat of the Islamist Fundamentlaists, or as Phares calls them today, the Jihadists.

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