Christian Plight In The Middle East
The Philadelphia Bulletin
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI’s recently concluded visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, highlighted the demographic and political decline of Christian communities in the region.
Nearly a century ago Christians accounted for 20 percent of the region’s population — today they number less than 5 percent. Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christian social and political growth is taking place.
The Jihad out of Arabia by the Prophet Muhammad’s successors forced the vast majority of Christian and Jewish populations to choose between conversion to Islam or becoming a dhimmis (a tolerated, heavily taxed and humiliated second-class citizen — manifesting itself in, for example, the invalidation of their court testimony against a Muslim’s and, the restriction against building church spires that exceeds the height of a mosque). This process of Islamization took root and through the centuries millions of Christians converted to Islam by the sword and/or for economic survival. Christian communities that survived intact were usually mountain dwellers, specifically the Lebanese Christians.
In modern times, Christianity became a small minority in the region where they once constituted an absolute majority. In the 19th century, the arrival of western Christian missionaries revived, in small measure, Christian community life.
American missionaries built universities in Cairo, Beirut and in Turkey. Catholic and Lutheran schools (grade and high schools) revived education among native Christians but not much reverse conversion occurred. The fear of death on account of apostasy prevented large scale Muslim conversion to Christianity.
The rise of Arab nationalism gave Christians a role to play in various Arab States.
Christians seeking to be accepted as equals by the Muslim majority championed various universalist movements. Men like Michel Aflaq founded the Ba’ath Party, an Arab national socialist party that drew its inspiration from European dictatorships such as Germany and Italy. Khalid Bakdash, established the communist party in Syria and Lebanon, and George Habash formed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist Palestinian terrorist organization.
The participation of Arab Christians began to diminish in the 1970s following the Six-Day War, when Israel defeated the much superior forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq with contingents from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Yemen. Simultaneously, there was a meteoric rise of Islamism fueled by Saudi Wahhabi petrodollars. Millions of Egyptians and Levantines pouring into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in pursuit of job opportunities became Wahhabi devotees.
The resulting decline of Arab nationalism affected a change in the Arab psyche; an intense anti-Western attitude arose among the masses and the elites alike.
Arab Muslims wanted an authentic Arab answer to their political, social and economic plight, and Islamism became the answer. The success of the Iranian revolution also stimulated a Sunni-Islamist response. National identities retreated as religious consciousness advanced. The importation of ideas from the west during earlier decades, which pushed modernization and enlightenment in the Arab world, was gradually replaced by religious values centered on Islamic spirituality and conservatism. Political Islam became a force that attracted the young and educated.
Back in 1991, this writer interviewed Bethlehem’s legendary Christian mayor Elias Freij, who noted that 40,000 Christians had departed the area. He said, “Go to Santiago, Chile, that is where you will find the Christians of Bethlehem.” When asked why, he replied that “It was difficult for Christians here.”
Privately however Christians in the Bethlehem-Beth Sahor-Beth Jala triangle, plead with westerners to let the world know about their oppression at the hands of Fatah gangs. Palestinian Authority (PA) officials intimidate Christians into selling desired properties at undervalued prices. Christian girls are victims of harassment, rape and forced conversion, and Christian-owned businesses are often torched by PA-sanctioned gangs for non-payment of protection money.
Arab-Palestinian Christians are afraid to complain to the foreign press for fear of retribution in the form of rape of their daughters or wives, murder and beatings. Often times, they are required to make anti-Israel proclamations as an offering of loyalty to the Palestinian cause.The persecution of Christians is pervasive throughout the region.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah is likely to take over control of the government following the upcoming June elections and eventually modify the secular nature of the state that was created by the French ostensibly to accommodate Christians in the Levant.
And in Egypt, Coptic Christians, about 10 percent of Egypt’s 75 million, are feeling the brunt of the increasingly radicalized Muslim population which has drastically curtailed Christian employment in government, and reduced their once dominant role in the Egyptian economy.
Muslim violence against Christians in Egypt is ignored by the Mubarak regime. Churches are torched and young Christian girls are raped and forcibly converted to Islam. Relatives who go to the police end up being beaten and having to serve time in prison. Six years ago, the Christian population of Iraq was about 1.5 million. The deliberate murder of Christians by their Muslim neighbors and various jihadi groups has caused them to flee, reducing by half the current number of Iraqi Christians.
The apparent triumph of radical Islam in the Arab Middle East bodes ill for the remaining Christian minorities. Pope Benedict’s visit to the region should prompt the Holy See to launch a worldwide campaign that demands tolerance, religious freedom and human rights for all minorities in the Muslim world. The Pope must put aside political correctness and multiculturalism, and rally the Christian world including the European Union and the United States, to demand reciprocity from the Muslim world.
If Christianity is not allowed to exist freely in the Arab-Muslim world, then Muslims minorities should not be able to erect mosques, and enjoy full equality in the democratic west. Joseph Puder can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org