The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
From Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East
© 1998 Oxford University Press
Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press
2. Preliminary Objections
Although objectively speaking Arab Christianity seems to be a valid subject of study from the aspects we have mentioned, objections are sometimes raised as to the legitimacy of such studies. Not, of course, because of any doubt about the existence of Arab Christians, but because they are composed of so many different ethnic groups and are spread around a large number of different countries. There is therefore a risk of considering them as a single community with common interests, which acts as such.
The second objection, which has been raised several times, is that if there really is such a thing as Arab Christianity, meaning a number of Arabs belonging to the Christian religion, this affiliation ought to be a strictly personal matter, as it concerns individual conscience. The religious beliefs of individuals should not have anything to do with a wider social or national definition of the existence of Arab Christians. Many Christians in the Middle East identify themselves solely as Arabs. The refusal to be seen in terms of religious denomination, the preference for an Arab identity as opposed to a religious one, a demand from the laity for the separation of religion, as a personal creed, from politics, as a nondiscriminatory area of public activity, are all reasons why the term 'Christian' should be restricted solely to the area of personal conscience. This secular current of thought considers that to pick out a sociological and analytical category of 'Arab Christians' from Arab identity would be both problematic, in terms of finding a valid basis for defining the category and dangerous, as it would sanction the confusion of religion with politics. What is more, it must be pointed out that the intellectuals of Christian origin who influenced the development of the Arab world or of their own nation or region, for instance thinkers in the late nineteenth century movement of Arab renewal, Nahda, never stressed the fact that they were Christians. On the contrary, to give a more recent and more political example, the Christian Palestinian leaders have never played on their religious affiliation. So why insist on singling out 'Christian' Arabs when we should only be talking about Arabs?
These objections are not purely formal. They show the difficulty in defining a social entity which is distinguished solely on the basis of religious creed, as well as the need to consider the whole context of Eastern Christianity. If nothing else, a consideration of these objections will at least lead researchers to give more precise parameters to their field of study.
In answer to the first objection it could be said that Arab Christianity is not in fact a single entity and its plurality removes an implicit presumption that Eastern Christians possess the same aspirations and the same attitudes, just because they have the same faith. Arab Christians are different from each other. The fact that they all have one faith, manifested by a large number of denominations and rites, does not mean that they act as one body, or that they exist as one united community ignoring state boundaries. It is of course interesting to note that this type of unitary vision is expressed when the Church hierarchies, particularly those of the Catholic communities, meet to examine the overall situation of their Churches. By contrast it is never found in any circumstances in politics. Although there are almost ten million Christians in the Arab East, they do not form political parties across nations and they have no political structures which unite them over different Arab territories. In other words they are politically loyal to the State to which they belong. Consequently affiliation to a community of faith does not necessarily lead to the formation of a specific cultural community. On the contrary, it is their affiliation to the Arab cultural community which gives Arab Christians a sense of their special identity as Christians within the Arab world. The fact of being Arabs is what makes them different in the eyes of the rest of the world, particularly the West, with whom they share the same faith. Their Christianity is what makes them different in the Arab world, with whom they share culture and destiny. Middle Eastern Christians are thus Arabs by culture, Christians by faith, and citizens of separate States by political definition.
It must not be assumed, however, that all the Christian communities regard their Arab identity in the same way. Some identify with Arab culture more than others. The Orthodox communities for instance are the most ready to call themselves Arabs. On the other hand the Lebanese Maronite community has a difficult relationship with its Arab identity. The extent to which the different communities identify with Arab culture depends on many factors: how long they have existed alongside Islam, how late their liturgical language was changed to Arabic script or to the Arabic language, how much contact they have had and especially how close their relations are with the West, as well as whether or not they have benefited from the West's protection. For this reason even when Arab Christians place their religious identity before their Arab one, stressing their affiliation to Christianity or to a particular Church according to the circumstances, it must be understood as just one way of reacting to and dealing with their environment. Yet this reaction confirms the three levels of identity (cultural, religious, and political) on which Arab Christians act. It simply establishes a different set of priorities, giving more importance to religious identity particularly in periods of crisis and self-reflection.
The other objection, that the emphasis laid by certain Arabs on Christianity amounts to integrating religious belief into the definition of political citizenship, can only be answered by looking at the extent to which these States and the mentality of the people have developed. Although there is a political current, particularly among Christians, struggling for secularity and an end to communities based on religious affiliation, in some Arab countries (such as Lebanon), affiliation to a religious community is taken into account, sometimes on an institutional level, in the formation of governments and the administration of the State. In other countries, (such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria) there may be an unofficial requirement for the representation of Christians in politics and administration. In any case differentiation still exists on a social level, as individuals still recognize each other according to their religious identity. Although this identity is not the main factor that determines social status, it is nevertheless an important one when the distinction is not encouraged by Christians themselves. A religious sociology of Arab societies can therefore justifiably consider the existence of communities whose complex links with the State, with civil society, and with the other communities must be specified within each separate national context. This sociological approach to the communities does not mean that Arab society is reduced to a 'mosaic', or an agglomerate of minorities. It simply recognizes that contemporary Arab societies are not national States built exclusively on links of citizenship. The persistence of divisions between religious communities is the clear sign of the limits of the 'modern' State and in a way, of its failure. 4 The Arab national State, as everyone knows, has an official religion, Islam; its head of State is Muslim (except in Lebanon) and family law is administered by religious courts or by jurisdictions which apply the law of the religious community. This observation does not mean that community links are permanent or in some way irremovable. Neither does it mean that plans to modernize Arab political society have been halted. It simply denotes awareness of the difficulties of the national State in facing the authoritarianism of Arab political societies, which penalizes the full participation of Christians as citizens in the life of the nation. Likewise the recent threats to the already precarious status of Arab Christians posed by attempts at Islamization and the application of Muslim law, the shari'a, should also be pointed out. These limitations of Arab society, which do not allow the religious and ethnic minorities to benefit from the rights due to them as citizens, may paradoxically lead the minority communities to negotiate with the democratic elements of civil society for a wider participation, on a more or less equal level, in political life. 5 We must hope at least that the cautious attempts at democratization within the Arab world will lead to this.
In the following pages I will deal with the origin of the Arab Christian communities and the changes they have undergone throughout history. I will start by showing the important stages in their evolution, from the time of the Empires (Byzantine, Muslim, and Ottoman) to the birth of the modern States. In the process I will consider the 'Eastern question', which marks the beginning of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the strategies of the Western powers towards Arab Christians in the Empire. Lastly I shall examine the geopolitical situation of the Arab Christian minorities within the individual states created after the First World War.