Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fr. Georges Massouh: Towards a New Muslim-Christian Agreement

The Arabic original can be found here.

Toward a New Muslim-Christian Agreement

Metropolitan Georges Khodr says, “What truly allows us to characterize Christianity as Arab is that each of its groups without exception for the past thousand-odd years has written in Arabic. Graf’s book in German Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur gives the titles of Christian books that were written in Arabic by Copts, Suryanis, Nestorians, Rum, and Maronites, including thousands of titles, although they are not published […] and so if we do not resort to the nationalist argument, which did not exist in peoples’ minds in past ages, and content ourselves with the concept of civilization, then it must be affirmed that Christianity spoke Arabic both before and after Islam.”

Needless to say, from the beginning of Christianity until today Christians have been present in all the countries of the Middle East and Christians make up an essential part of the mosaic of these counties’ native populations: Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey. We do not possess any precise information about their numbers or their proportion relative to the general population. If numbers are true and unambiguous in the science of mathematics, for Arabs today they are a matter of opinion or perspective, like their polls, their elections, and their budgets. Thus the numbers of Christians in the Arab world range from high and low estimates depending on the goals of those announcing or publishing the numbers and their aims in doing so. Because the numbers are not precise we will not deal with them.

For years Arab societies have witnessed a withdrawal of the Christian presence in public life. The shared domains that had been able to gather Muslims and Christians together for common work—I mean Arab nationalism, socialism, and the secular parties—failed in creating a state of the people, democracy, freedom, citizenship, scientific and cultural revival, the liberation of Palestine… while at the same time they contributed to many frustrations. Even worse, the states that raised these banners turned into unbearable dictatorships. So the Arab Christians, after having shared a single common fate with Arab Muslims and after most Arab Christians having adopted Arabism as a common denominator with Muslims against the Turkification of the region then against the European mandates and against the Zionist Entity, the “Arab Nationalists” who held the reins of power deviated from the lofty goals that they had raised. And this is what gave people the notion that religious fundamentalism was the ideal alternative for solving all the problems.

This withdrawal of the Christian role from public life has been accompanied by intense emigration that has led to a worrying diminution the numbers of Christians. Dr. Tarek Mitri says that a group of writers and specialists estimated the proportion of Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine to be around ten percent. Mitri attributes this decrease in the number of Christians in the Arab East, which at the beginning of the 20th century is estimated to be a quarter of the population, to various causes depending on the time and the region. Mitri rejects the reduction of the reasons for the decline to a low fertility rate and high emigration rate among Christians caused by increasing feelings of estrangement and anxiety over the future. In talking about emigration, he points to very important economic factors. Christian emigration at the start of the 20th century cannot be separated from the increase in the number of Christians and the improvement in their standard of living. However, emigration in the 1960’s “was in turn fed by a desire for economic advancement.”

The issue of Arab Christians rests on the extent of their view of their role in this dear East. The role of eastern Christians first of all comes out of their faith in the importance of their presence in this East and in their speaking the language of the Qur’an, the Muslims’ book. We affirm the importance of their presence, while presence is not the same thing as mere existence; it is possible to exist without having a presence. Secondly, the existence of Christians in the Arab East must not be merely an accumulation of numbers, or museums, or memories, or traditions. They must be active in the life of their nations through being involved in the issues of their countries and peoples. The participation of the Copts in the Egyptian uprising, despite the support of their patriarch for the former president, is only a promising start that must be crowned with the adoption of a secular constitution based on equality, freedom, and human rights.

Despite the rise of fundamentalisms and religious extremism, Muslim and Christian Arabs must begin to think together about a new Arab agreement based on citizenship, equality, freedom, and democracy. Christian (and Muslim) fears are growing over the increase in religious extremism that uses violence as a means to realize its goals. On this level, Christians are the full partners of Muslims in building the future. However, until today there is no complete plan that puts Arab citizens at rest about what will happen tomorrow. Let us begin from here.


NOCTOC said...

I always thought that Arabic was spread from the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant and North Africa with the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD. I also thought that the indigenous populations of all these countries became Arabized, also due to the spread of Islam, with Iran being the big exception.
I don't know but this is what I read in the history books, and also I read that people spoke mostly Syriac but also Greek in the Levant countries before they adopted Arabic. On the other hand, in Egypt people spoke Coptic before Islam arrived.
What I don't understand is how people in the mentioned countries wrote in Arabic before Islam, since Arabic was not spoken by their populations at the time. However, it makes perfect since that Arab Christians wrote in Arabic after the arrival of Islam, since Arabic became their mother language, as well as for their brothers who adopted Islam.

Samn! said...

Semi-nomadic Arabic-speakers were quite widespread both in Mesopotamia and Syria prior to the Islamic conquests... a lot of somewhat revisionist history of the rise of Islam depends on pointing out these pre-existing (and mostly Christian) Arab populations and their role in the conquest. The most extensive treatment of Arabs and especially Arab Christians prior to Islam is Irfan Shahid's multi-volume "Byzantium and the Arabs in the [4th, 5th, 6th] Century" (kinda available on Google Books), and then his volume "Rome and the Arabs", which covers the pre-Constantinian period.

In addition to the nomadic and semi-nomadic Arabs, there were important Arab Christian urban centers as well. The Ghassanid tribe, Jacobite allies of Byzantium, had its capital at Jabiya, in modern Syria and the kingdom of the Nestorian Lakhmid tribe, allies of the Persians, was centered in al-Hira, near modern Kufa in Iraq. Al-Hira was quite important culturally, as it had many large churches and monasteries, and is most likely the place where the pre-Islamic Arabic translation of the Bible (recently discovered) was made.

So while Arabic was marginal to the major cities of the Near East prior to Islam, it was certainly a major presence in the hinterlands and was steadily growing into a language of Christian culture on the eve of Islam's rise....

NOCTOC said...

Thank you so much for explaining to me all these parts of history which I did not know.
This is another reason why your presence here with this great blog is so important, not only for me, but I am also sure for many others.
I will try to get a hold of these books that you pointed out.

Thank you again.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Arab governments need to confine themselves to protecting property rights and maintaining the social safety net. The Middle Eastern social fabric is damaged because the governors are concerned mostly with increasing their personal power and wealth. Large cohorts of young men without political connections are marginalized so they join extremist movements to gain status. Recall that one spark for the Tunisian uprising was a young man who immolated himself because he was unable to get a government permit for a produce stand.