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BACKGROUNDER: OCCUPIED TERRITORIES

A recent call by the Palestinian Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah, for Christians in the region to protest Israel's policies on Jerusalem raised once again the question of Christians in the Middle East. Political statements by so-called "Christian representatives" in the region, such as the PLO's Hanan Ashwari, receive extensive coverage, suggesting to media consumers world-wide that Middle Eastern Christian sentiment is firmly anti-Israel, pro-Arab - even pro-Muslim. But there is another side to the story.

WHO ARE the Christians in the Islamic Middle East? Where did they come from? And on whose side are they in the Israeli-Arab conflict?

According to Professor Walid Phares, president of the World Lebanese Organisation, there are more than 26 million Christians in the Middle East - 12 million in Egypt, seven million in southern Sudan, 1,5 million in Lebanon (and another 4,5 million Lebanese Christians living elsewhere), around one million other non-Arab Christians, and just 600 000 Christians who are ethnic Arabs.

Sabah, Ashwari and others certainly cannot claim to speak on behalf of the 26 million non-Arab Middle East Christians. Moreover, Phares points out, they cannot even speak for the 600,000 Middle East Christians who are ethnically Arab, for not all of these hold anti-Israeli views. Those who fear the rapid Islamisation of their communities in places such as Bethlehem are one example. Many Evengelicals are another.

Before the 7th century Arab-Islamic conquest, the ethnic map of the Middle East looked vastly different to the one we have today. There were Persians in modern Iran, Armenians in today's Turkey and Azerbaijan, Greeks in western Turkey, Phoenicians in Lebanon and parts of Syria, Hebrews in ancient Israel, Copts in Egypt and Nubian Africans in Sudan.

Nomadic Arab tribes were restricted to the Arabian peninsula. Under the banner of Islam, Muhammed was in a remarkably short time able to unify these tribes into a nation, defeat the Christian and Jewish tribes of Arabia and launch jihad in a bid to conquer the known world.

"Out of Arabia the Arab-Muslim armies marched across the upper Middle East," explains Phares. They conquered Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, then marched into Persia, into Egypt.

No force on earth was able to stop them. They conquered Cyrenaica - Libya today - then into Algeria, the land of the Berbers, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, marched into Spain, and into France, where finally in 740 their advance was halted.

Within 50 years an Arab-Muslim empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans. Christians and Jews living under this occupation had four basic options: convert to Islam; become second-class citizens (dhimmis), subject to discriminatory taxes and curtailment of basic rights; suffer displacement and "ethnic cleansing"; or resist.

Later, the Islamic Ottoman Empire replaced the Arab Muslim dynasties, and non-Muslim minorities found themselves under the double tyranny of local Arabs and ruling Turks. Change finally came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at the hands of colonial powers.

As European capitals carved up their areas of influence and drew borders on their maps, they sowed the seeds of future discord. Thus they created in Iraq a state comprised of Arab Sunni Muslims in the centre, Arab Shi'ite Muslims in the south., and Kurds, Sunnis and Assyrians in the north. The French formed a Lebanon with a centre core of Christians surrounded by Muslims. A Sudan was contrived, which lumped African Christians in the south with Arab Muslims in the north.

Each Christian minority found itself swamped by an Arab-Muslim majority, and faced the same bleak choices as had their forefathers centuries ago.

BUT THEN, for the first time since the 7th century, one non-Muslim nation returned from dispersion, settled on its historic land and created a state - the most powerful state in the region.

Phares: "The most dispersed, oppressed non-Muslims of the world, the Jews, returned from thousands of miles away, created a state, repelled five Arab armies ... of course, this had an impact on other oppressed nations in the Middle East."

For many of these minorities, the Jews offered the best model to follow to liberate territory which, he says, "had been occupied, not since 1948 (the date of Israel's rebirth, usually cited as the beginning of "occupation of Arab lands") but since 636. Following the Zionist example, they launched their struggles:

Phares' assertion that "only a Jewish-Christian alliance will be able to ensure the survival for both the Jews and the Christians in the Middle East" is a far cry from the rhetoric one usually hears from Arab "Christian spokesmen", who not only routinely rewrite history and Scripture to suit their political agenda (their attempts to transform the Jewish Jesus into a "Palestinian" is one of the more breathtaking examples), but also falsely claim to voice the anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-Muslim proclivities of "millions of Middle Eastern Christians".

Back to Middle East Digest - November 1996
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