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
9. Arab Christian Communities and their Strategies in the Individual States
This is not the place to recount the details of the historical events which led to the formation of national States in the Middle East under the auspices of France and Great Britain, from the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) to the Sevres treaty (1920) or the Lausanne treaty (1923). 13
In these newly created States, as well as in Egypt, a much older State, Arab Christians experienced different situations. We can divide them into four different national patterns, which emerged after the First World War.
First of all there were Arab Christians living within an ancient national structure, like the Copts in Egypt. Their Church is a national Church and has always been present in the history of the country. That is why the Copts, although a minority, identify with their State. Despite this, however, they participate very little in the State, a situation they are continuously trying to reverse.
The second situation is the opposite of the first. It concerns the Maronites, a Christian community which obtained its own State in 1920, through the help of France and the mobilization of the community, led by its Patriarch. It must be said that the intervention of the European powers in 1860 and the semi-autonomous status obtained in 1864 paved the way for Lebanese independence. In 1920 the Maronites succeeded in exerting the necessary pressure on Clémenceau, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, to obtain acceptance of the idea of a greater Lebanon. Together with other Christians, the Maronites formed the majority in this State. As the national Church, the Maronite Church and its followers identified with the State of Lebanon and played a dominant role in its political life. All the subsequent problems were to arise from the loss of their position as the ethnic majority after a war which was disastrous for this community. Hence the present danger of a loss of identification with the State, and consequently, of a lack of their participation in it. It is a modern-day situation of ihbat (disillusionment).
The third situation is that of Christian communities which are divided among different States, within which they are all minorities (the Greek Orthodox, the Melkites, the Chaldeans). Although the élite and leading members of some of these communities campaigned in 1920 for the creation of a great Arab State, under the auspices of the Emir Faysal (in place of the territorial divisions which were eventually imposed by the Western States), their integration into the new States is unquestionable, as is their loyalty. At the beginning of the century however, a sense of frustration still remained over the setback to the plan for Arab unity. This is the reason why the expression of their national loyalties, particularly those of Orthodox Christians, oscillates between siding with local power (or with the local community in power) and trying to look beyond the national State towards a larger Arab community, the umma .
The fourth situation is one which must be mentioned, both for the sake of historical accuracy and remembrance. Like the case of the Armenians, it concerns a State within which a minority was promised privileged status. This is what could have happened to the Assyrian 'religious and national' minority. These Christians from Kurdistan, who lived in an area between Mosul and Hakkiari and still used their own language, were promised a State by the British. Later, the Treaty of Sevres added a vague protection to the section regarding the minorities (Article 62, as well as 141, 145, 147). In 1933 a large number of them were massacred and over sixty of their villages were raised to the ground.
These different patterns of integration of Arab Christians have given rise to different political approaches. An examination of them reveals a phenomenology of the different approaches rather than real strategies.
In the first situation the Copts were induced to negotiate the way in which they were to participate in the life of the nation. There is no question about their adhesion to the State. They participated in the struggle for national independence and were actively involved in the political parties, especially Wafd. Historical figures such as Makram Obeid, who placed Egyptian patriotism before religious loyalties, had great influence. During the period of the monarchy and between the two wars the Copts' representation in parliament was guaranteed through elections. The period of Nasser's presidency marked a sharp reduction in the Copts' presence in politics. President Nasser inaugurated a constitutional practice of nominating Christian members of parliament to compensate for their absence. This approach is a very good example of the subordination of 'members of parliament' to executive power, to whom they owe their mandate! The rising dominance of Islam during President Sadat's term of office weakened the Copts, who were easy targets for the Muslims' revenge. The reaction of Coptic Church leaders to the policy of the State, as well as to its negligence and to the fact that it had openly favoured the radical Muslim groups, opposing the communist or left-wing groups, brought Patriarch Shenuda's arrest and his forced internment in a monastery. At the same time calls began to be heard within the community for a stronger stance over the situation the Copts found themselves in. A powerful movement was set up among Coptic emigrants, particularly in North America, to criticize the Egyptian government and denigrate its image abroad. It was this which gave rise to the violent reaction from the government inside the country. Nonetheless the situation of the Copts, which contained hidden discriminations, as well as clear obstacles to equal access to posts of public responsibility (in high officialdom, in the army, and in higher education), left a continued feeling of discontent and did nothing towards achieving the national consensus which the Copts never tire of proclaiming their support for.
In the second scenario, that of Lebanon, the political approach of Christians, especially of the Maronites, has been one of self-assertion and prominence. Here participation in political life has undoubtedly been achieved, unlike all the other cases in the Arab world. The same applies to equal rights within the system of communities and the distribution of power. Although the Lebanese system based on religious communities has been widely discredited and held responsible for all Lebanon's troubles, it is the only one in the Arab world within which a genuine democracy has been created. The Maronite community never took advantage of the positions it held within the Lebanese State (in particular the presidency or the command of the army) to impose a sectarian dictatorship, like the Sunnites in Iraq or the Alevites in Syria. The aim of the Christians was always to stay close to the centre of power in order to obtain institutional guarantees for their political freedom, as well as for the freedom of society as a whole. Their mistake was in not allowing greater participation for a growing community like the Shi'ites and in neglecting the need to secularize certain aspects of the political system. Their stubborn defence of Lebanese independence led them, through lack of foresight, to follow a dangerous policy of alliance with Israel. Looking at it now purely from the point of view of the Maronite community, their resort to a State not yet accepted by the Middle Eastern world, which aroused unanimous Arab hostility towards it and provided a continuous source for political action in the surrounding autocratic States, seriously damaged the image and the overall strategy of the Lebanese Christians, especially the Maronites of the Lebanese Front. Having chosen a policy which set the rest of the Arab world against them, the Christians found themselves short of allies. Europe was powerless in the Middle East, the USA was not interested in the Lebanese problem, except indirectly, and Syria was just waiting for an opportunity to take control in Lebanon. Thus the war between Christian factions of 1989-90 began to underline an overall failure brought about by pressures which were too heavy for such a small country, by a hostile environment in the surrounding area, but also by the irrational behaviour of those who had aimed to protect the independence of their country.
In the third scenario a number of different political approaches can be seen. For the Christian minority scattered among small communities, they range from the need to stay close to power to guarantee their protection (in Jordan), to the whole-hearted, patriotic involvement in a struggle for national freedom (Palestine), or a modest participation in power together with other minorities (Syria, Iraq). This scenario must also include the approach which today leads Christians to join pan-Arab parties or to participate in the administration of power in the present-day Ba'thist regimes, and which in the past led them to participate in the national coalition governments (in the newly independent State of Syria, for example). For these Christians the ideal of integration lies in secular nationalism. As a minority whose role has become redundant, they are trying to find a new position for themselves in society, a position defined by secular criteria and no longer by sectarian criteria.