The Future of Arab Christians: One path, one destiny
The destiny of all ethnic and religious groups in the Arab world, in their multitude, is intertwined, making it only possible for Arab Christians to survive the current existential threat by taking up their responsibilities as an integral component of the historical and unifying collective identity, which is made up of the frameworks of the spiritual and social values which Arabism overshadows.
“Will there still be Arab Christians in the next 50 years?” This question has been brought to the forefront on several occasions in the past decade, whether directly or indirectly. However, it was not until 2022 and 2023 that this question was put before the leaders of the Church in the Middle East. It comes as no surprise that the continued presence of Christians in the Middle East is integral to the historical and unifying collective identity [whose social fabric encompasses a multitude of diverse faiths, cultures, and ethnicities] that is made up of the frameworks of the spiritual and social values which Arabism overshadows, and must be addressed thoroughly and swiftly.
Understanding the social fabric of Arab identity
Over the past century and a decade, the region currently known as the Middle East [whose name reflects a geolocation vis-à-vis Europe, and thus becomes inherently entrenched in Eurocentric misconceptions] has been divided into “spheres of influence” by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Despite the deep-rooted hatred of most Christians toward the Ottoman Empire, which is mostly grounded in the final century of a 400-year-old empire, it must be clarified that throughout Ottoman rule, at least until the empire was weakened in the 1800s, multiple sects have had their churches preserved under the empire.
It is important to note that the Crusades, which happened much earlier, were actually a greater threat to the region that was later divided into spheres of influence between the French and the British. This is mostly because Latinization, as explained in my previous writings, had threatened a multitude of Christian denominations that were indigenous to the land given that any Christian church that does not follow the Latin rite was condemned as heretic.
While a debate of history is not the topic, it serves to remind us that at the core of the identity of Arab Christians has been their coexistence in parallel to other ethnicities, which in turn coexist within the larger Arab national identity. It also underscores that the same religion could extend across a number of ethnicities. For example, Assyrian and Coptic Christians, both of which are part of the Arab national identity, consist of an ethnicity that adopted a Christian religion. In another example, the Kurdish people, an ethnic group that is also a constituent of the Arab national identity, comprises Sunni, Shia and Alawites, Christians, and Zoroastrians.
Arab Christians beyond borders
Since its inception, Lebanon has been dubbed the protector of Arab Christians, however, Arab Christians have never been limited to the Lebanese border. While much can be explained by drawing from a century and a decade of a policy of divide and conquer launched by the West, today, the existential crisis faced by Arab Christians requires a holistic response rather than preoccupation with secondary disputes. Humbleness must be at the core of any solution as the Christians of the Arab world suffer a great deal, and mere rhetoric will not alleviate their pain.
Christians across the Arab world must unite under the banner of Arab Christianity as they suffer the same existential threat, as the invasion of Iraq, the war on Syria, and the occupation of Palestine have altogether targeted Christians of all denominations and ethnicities. The same applies to Egypt and Jordan. While many would like to blame Islam for the slaughter and immigration of Christians, this Western-led heresy must be silenced, for all Arabs face the same destiny if they do not unite.
In Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, [These countries are merely examples given their recent histories] Muslims have time and time again fought alongside Christians for the war was never against a denomination but rather against a larger national identity that once emerged will threaten large-scale economic gains achieved by the West, in the Middle East, throughout the past century and decade.
In Jenin, Palestine, a now majority Muslim city, where Israelis have time and time again attempted to falsely depict Palestinians as not only Muslims that threaten the existence of other religious groups, but also as savages, the fourth oldest church in the world still stands: the Burqin Church of the Greek Orthodox church. This is to show that Islam, in and by itself, has not been a threat to Christians, for the constituents of the Arab national identity have historically established mechanisms of coexistence that had proven successful until their fragmentation through colonization and imperialism.
Also in Jenin, there is a Latin Parish that has also long been protected by the people of Jenin. However, yesterday, the church suffered at the hands of the Israeli occupation Forces who targeted and damaged it. While circumstantial at best, the incident serves to show, once again, that Christians are threatened by the West and Western-supported entities. With that in mind, it would be good to turn to the statements made at some of the latest synods discussing the issue of Christian existence in the Middle East.
كنيسة اللاتين في جنين يطالها القصف الاسرائيلي للمدينة— Elias Al Khoury 🇵🇸 🇱🇧 (@akh1e) July 4, 2023
Roman Catholic Church of Jenin is also under Israeli attacks pic.twitter.com/XO89uerGt9
Arab Christians will face the challenges and emerge united
In the conference on "The Future of the Christian Presence in the East" held in the Syriac Orthodox Church's Patriarchal Residence in Al-Atchaneh, Lebanon, His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and all of the East, of the Syriac Orthodox Church, opened the conference with a statement:
"In this region, which has been plagued by wars and rivalries for generations, man loses his dignity every day as he strives to provide for his necessities for life. Perhaps more than others, Christians are afraid of what awaits them, because of the experience they have gone through over the past few years, namely the barbaric attacks of takfiri terrorist groups that have spared neither human nor stone in an attempt to obliterate all that characterizes these lands from the material, spiritual or moral cultural heritage.”
The Patriarch then underscored, "Christians rushed before others to emigrate, and thus our East is almost devoid of its Christians who contributed to building its civilization and left indelible imprints on it throughout the ages." "Without a doubt, this Christian absence is not only detrimental to Eastern Christianity, which today embodies true Christian values after the weakness of the West… but is also a blow to the entire Levantine society: the Muslim also needs the continuation of the Christian presence in our region so that this country does not become monochromatic..."
He further explained that “the Christian presence in the Levant is an urgent necessity for the people of the region, of all affiliations, because of the historical illuminating presence of Christians in the region, which was best manifested through their role in establishing the Diwans of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, and their scientific and cultural activity under of the Abbasid state in Baghdad, especially the authorship and translation movement led by Syriac scholars. Not to mention their effective role in the revival of Arabic language and literature at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century."
The Patriarch concludes: “The survival of Christianity in this country and its promotion to be effective and influential is a responsibility shared by more than one side.”
In his statement, the Syriac Patriarch reaffirms all that has been mentioned above regarding the historical and unifying identity brought together through the framework of the spiritual and social values that Arabism overshadows, on one end, and highlights that in response to decades of slaughter, the Christian communities have opted to emigrate. This does not come as a critique of the decision to emigrate but rather as a description of reality.
While Muslims had less opportunities to emigrate, they were forced to remain and to fight in the hopes of defending themselves, which they have done at the cost of thousands of martyrs. In other words, briefly, the offering of countless emigration opportunities to Christian Arabs as opposed to the opportunities offered to their Muslim counterparts is merely a plot to further fragment the region and pit Christians against their Muslim counterparts.
However, there is no point in debating this at the moment, as the threat faced by all Arab constituents becomes more and more imminent. The Patriarch announced the cruciality of the survival of the Christian Arabs across the Arab lands.
In that regard, as part of this community, and given that Christians are an integral part of the Arab identity and are required to take responsibility for their future alongside their counterparts, it must be confirmed that there exists a thirst among Christian youths across the lands to become part of something bigger; to engage, from their position, in addressing existential threats and challenges, with the tools presented and available to them, before they are pushed to extract and create these tools (at the dismay of any entity profiting from the fragmentation of the Christian constituent).
As such, a framework of engagement must be put in place in parishes and among social institutions, because the fight for existence trumps any secondary disagreement, now that there is a clear definition of the historical and unifying identity that brings together the multitude of religions, ethnic groups, and peoples.
This draws on an opportunity that was missed in Syria, as the Syrian Arab Father Elias Al-Zahlawi, pastor of the Church of Our Lady of Damascus, has noted with much sadness and dismay, “during the infernal war that was waged against Syria, all ecclesiastical institutions clung to their own positions, and none of them, as far as I know, showed any sign of joint action” to assist Syrian parishes facing imminent threats by terrorist militias.
In his critique, Father Al-Zahlawi stated that, “Yes, I was expecting from the highest officials of churches whose very existence and continued living and effective survival in their primordial land are so brazenly threatened, a firm stance of glory and defiance, befitting those who watch every day, and with their own eyes, a war of real and final execution for all their sons and daughters in this East of ours!”
However, the Damascan priest reaffirmed through faith, for those who have difficulty seeing through science alone the possibility of survival, that “what happened in Damascus in particular, since late November 1982 until today, in the humble neighborhood of Soufaniya, ascertains an inevitable and bright resurrection,” as he referenced the messages spoken through apparitions to Myrna Al-Akhras, whose experience is worth reading, as she delivered time and time again the words of Mary, mother of Jesus, Christ himself, thus solidifying he certitude of continued Christian presence in the East as a component amongst others who share moral, values, culture, heritage and history.
“My last command to you:
Return, all of you, to your homes, but carry the Orient in your hearts.
From here a new light has emerged, of which you are the radiance for a world seduced by matter, sensuality, and celebrity, to the point that it has almost lost touch with values.
As for you, preserve your Orient-hood. Do not allow yourself to be stripped of your will, your freedom, and your faith in this Orient.” 10/4/2004 – Damascus, Syria.