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:
Middle East Christians: The Captive Nations
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.
Middle East Christians: the dividing line
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
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
The Christian resistance to the invaders varied, as did their initial reaction to the conquest. Those who had been oppressed by the Byzantine empire.
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.
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
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
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