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.