UCA News



Updated: May 12, 1998 05:00 PM GMT
Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Share this article :

Archbishop Paul Nabil Sayah of Haifa, of the Maronites in Israel, discussed the relations between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East at a symposium in Rome May 8.

The Maronite archbishop traced the historical development of the relations from the rise of Islam to the present situation, and provided perspectives for the Church´s mission in the future at the symposium, held concurrent with the ongoing Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia.

The symposium was one in a series on Asian Church concerns, sponsored by SEDOS (Servizio di Documentazione e Studi, center for documentatioan and studies). Following is the full text of Archbishop Sayah´s presentation:



The relations between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East(*) is a topic of special importance; it has affected the history of the region since the early days of Islam and is liable to have a marked impact on the future history of this area.

Islam has a system of government that is an integral part of Revelation in which religion and power go together. For Muslims, this system ought to be applied wherever possible, especially in countries with a Muslim majority. This makes the impact of Islam on history all the deeper. And a Muslim will always consider his situation abnormal as long as he is living in a society that is not governed by the law of Islam.

Whenever one is reflecting on relations among people it is important to remember that those relations are always governed by self perception, the perception of the other and one´s own present vision of reality, as well as the outlook on the future.

And in light of recent political changes at the international level and the significant rise in religious sentiments, the study of the relations between Christians and Muslims, worldwide as well as in the Middle East, takes on a special importance. Hence the significant increase in recent years of initiatives taken in the area of interfaith and more specially in Christian-Muslim relations (1). The quality of such relations will no doubt affect the future history of the region if not worldwide.

But in order to understand the present state of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East and try to look to the future, it is very important to go back and look at the way those relations have developed all through history. This perspective determines the content of this paper which will be divided into three parts:

I. Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East from the rise of Islam to the present

II. Christian-Muslim relations in recent years. Two concrete examples will be considered: the cases of Egypt and Lebanon.

III. Future perspectives

Such a task is considerable and will necessarily impose a great deal of brevity in dealing with each part.

(*) The terms "Middle East," "Arab World," "Arab Nation," "The Orient" will be used in this paper to refer to the same reality.

I. Islam and Christianity: Beginnings up to the end of Ottoman Rule

Islam was born in an environment where Christianity was well known. The Prophet himself was, without any doubt, exposed to Christianity. Some Arab tribes had converted to Christianity.

When Islam started, Christianity was present in parts of Arabia, but its presence was rather diffuse except in regions like Yaman and Najran.

But Christianity was divided into various denominations, through theological disputes; and the people were exposed to some religious, economic and political oppression by the Byzantine Empire.

A theologically divided Christianity and therefore somewhat weakened, and a Christianity tired of oppression exercised upon it from within, viewed Islam at times as a liberating force. To some it appeared like a Christian sect.

The beginnings

The expansion of Islam started during the lifetime of Muhammad, and within a relatively short time the core doctrine of Islam (the Koran) the Word of God revealed literally in Arabic to the Prophet, had been finalized.

Islam expanded very rapidly. Syria, for example was overtaken within 6 years (633-639), Egypt within 3 years (639-642), and by the 8th century practically all Christian communities of the Middle East were under Islamic domination (except for Asia Minor).

Islam would probably not have spread so rapidly had it not been for the support, or at least the neutral stand, of the Christian communities in face of the invasion.

Another factor that seems to have helped in the spread of Islam was the fact that it presented itself, especially early on, as a protector, offering the Christians a "protection treaty" guaranteeing their security, freedom of cult in private, and some limited civil autonomy within the norms of the Shariah law. This meant, in practical terms, that a non-Muslim was always kept in an inferior status, not allowed to marry a Muslim or testify in court or assume a public responsibility. Against that "protection" the Christians paid the tax "Aljiziah," the poll tax. This was what was called the "Dhimmi" system.

Islam also manipulated the leaders of Christian communities. To exercise its domination over Christianity; they gave them some authority over their communities in exchange for a profession of fidelity towards the establishment, a situation which further weakened the Christian position.

Islam developed some internal problems early on; after the death of Muhammad there was a disagreement as who should succeed him, and during the Omayad period (661-750), ethnic ties were given prominence over religious solidarity and conflicts flared up between Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. This led to the massacre of the Omayads by the Abbassides who vowed to establish equality among Muslims, but maintained all others in an inferior status.

Some Christians continued to hold administrative positions because their skills were lacking elsewhere. Some had acquired a respectable professional standing in business and some played an important cultural role by translating into Arabic major scientific and philosophical writings from Greek, Aramaic and Syriac.

But this did not necessarily make life safer or easier for Christians in general. On the contrary the situation kept deteriorating until early in the 11th century when the Calif Al-Hashim started destroying the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which provoked a considerable emotional upheaval in the Christian world. This led to the creation of a force to defend the Holy Places and the beginning of the era of the Crusades.

The Crusades (1095-1291)

The defense or liberation of the Holy Places became an important issue. The Crusades were originally supposed to be a coordinated effort between the Latins and the Byzantine Empire, but soon rivalries started developing, which degenerated with time into Christians turning their arms against Christians, namely against Constantinople in 1204. Further divisions resulted from those events.

The Crusades, an initiative originally well motivated, led to some unexpectedly negative results for the Christians: on the one hand, they became more divided among themselves, and on the other hand, Islam started perceiving them as part of a larger enemy, as a hostile force which had no place in the "Umma" any longer.

This situation led to another era which lasted for about 250 years.

The reign of the Mamluks (1250-1516)

This is an era which distinguished itself by its brutality and came to be probably the hardest period of the history of the Christians of the East. Rumors of new Crusades made the situation even worse. Christians were exposed to punitive measures everywhere. In the rural areas their villages were often raided which compelled them to take refuge in remote mountainous areas. In the cities punitive action left them the choice between exile or conversion, which explains the large number of conversions during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Ottoman Empire (1516-1918)

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 symbolically marked the demise of eastern Christendom. The Ottomans gradually extended their domination and consolidated their grip over the Balkan and Asia Minor, and later defeated the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt.

What is of interest to us here is that they extended the "Dhimmi" system and showed much rigor in the application of the "Shariah." This was probably a way of attempting to cover up the ethnic factor. (One has to remember that Mecca and Medina, the sacred Haramain of Islam, were no longer politically Arab.) Over and above paying the "Aljiziah," Christians were subjected to constant humiliation (having to bow down when they met a Muslim, having to wear distinctive clothes, having to partially bury the churches).

Gradually the Christians were somewhat unified; the Syrian orthodox, called Jacobites, and the Assyrians of the East referred to as Nestorians came under the Armenian Catholicos, and the Greek Orthodox under the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Members of the Greek Orthodox minority were the only ones eligible for higher ecclesiastical office because the Arab Christians were banned from entering Orthodox monastic life.

This situation writes Kenneth Cragg "made the tenure of the vital patriarchal throne a fertile focus of intrigues and insecurity" (2). It enabled the Turkish state to play politics with minority issues and thus instigated an unhappy tradition of strife and conspiracy.

"Heavy bribes were extracted or offered for the ´recognition´ of patriarchs by the state and of other hierarchy aspiring to office. Between 1595-1695 there were no fewer than thirty-one patriarchs with an average tenure of little more than three years. Some lasted less than a few weeks. Of the thirty-one many were deposed and reinstated making a total of sixty-one changes in that century" (3).

So the patriarchs were invested with some power over their communities (the Millet system) but were always manipulated by the Ottoman authority and held strictly responsible for any disorders. Some of them were executed because they failed the maintain strict order. The Maronite Patriarchs, well entrenched into their Lebanese mountains, were the only ones who refused to be invested by civil authorities.

Despite everything the "Millet" system contributed to the establishment of a period of relative tranquillity and some religious tolerance, but of course, always within the boundaries of Islamic law.

Such was the predominant atmosphere of the relations between Christians and Muslims during that period.

European Christianity in the Middle East

During the second half of the 17th century the Ottoman push towards Europe was slowed down and a process in the opposite direction started, which only ended in 1920 with the signing of the treaty of Sevres, marking the end of nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule.

But already in the middle of the 16th century some Europeans were granted commercial privileges with the possibility of recruiting local commercial agents as translators and facilitators of their enterprises. Christians were more likely to know foreign languages and more ready to associate with foreigners. Individual Christians were recruited and then whole communities in major ports were taken under the protection of foreign powers. Such persons or communities were in fact placed outside the "Dhimmi" status.

Gradually the Europeans encouraged in the Oriental Christians a desire for emancipation from the Ottoman rule, while secretly hinting that they would be prepared to protect them.

The harsh realities endured by Christians and the commercial interests of Western nations led to a situation in which the protection of Arab Christians served everyone´s purpose, at least for the time being.

But this, as we said, put Christian minorities somewhat outside the Arab-Turkish milieu, created some internal divisions, and made the Muslims perceive them more still as outsiders if not as enemies.

The Russians worked with the orthodox and the Armenians to strengthen their position in the area and to try to undermine the Ottoman Empire from within.

This made the British feel anxious because they were concerned about the Russians cutting off their commercial route into India. It made the French (Latin) anxious as well, but for a different reason: namely that the Russians were strengthening the domination of the Orthodox over the Holy Places and then undermining the Latin influence.

The Armenians in turn fought alongside the Russians against the sultan hoping to acquire their own autonomy. But this angered the Turks and Muslims who felt betrayed from within and this turned them against Christians in general and Armenians in particular.

The Anglo-Saxon intervention and the Protestant Missions

Toward the end of the 18th century the British, concerned about their route to India, wanted to neutralize the influence of the French and Russians in the Mediterranean region. They stirred up some Muslim communities in the East (particularly the Druze) against the friends of the French. The influence of the British slowed down for a little while but returned through Cyprus and Egypt. As a result France and Britain emerged practically with equal influence before World War I, which explains the post-war division of the area in two zones of influence.

Great Britain managed also to encourage the establishment of reformed Christianity in the Mediterranean region. In 1821 the American Board of Foreign Missions established itself in Jerusalem followed by Istanbul, Beirut and Syria. This presence was legalized by the Ottoman Empire and then they could spread everywhere.

The British intervention was not originally interested in the Oriental Christians, in fact it was among the Muslims and Druze in particular that they found support. Despite all that they were able to exercise some influence through the Protestant missions in the area.

The Ottoman domination of the Christians started violently and it ended with the great massacre of about 1,200,000 Armenians. The Europeans presented themselves as the protectors of the Christians, but ultimately they were not able to emancipate them from Islamic domination.

But if the European intervention did not emancipate the Christian minorities, they provided them with important cultural and educational means.

"As the Oriental Christians transmitted to the Arab world ancient thought, they themselves channeled modernity to it as well. They played a key role in its process of modernization" (4).

One of the important factors for Catholics was the opening of colleges in Rome starting in the 16th century, to train the clergy of the Oriental Christians. The Maronites founded their own college in Rome and held their first Synod of 1736 in which they recommended the opening of as many schools as possible.

Many were involved in this intellectual renaissance which soon led to political agitation. "The thinkers behind the renaissance (Nahda) belonged to different political currents and philosophical schools, but they were all preoccupied with the promotion of modern ideas of democracy, women´ emancipation and socialism" (5).

In 1905 the first manifest of Arab Nationalism was produced by Negib Azouri (a Maronite): "The awakening of the Arab Nation in Turkish Asia." In it he calls for Arab unity from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Oman. Two years later he founded in Paris the revue of "Arab Independence."

The Christians were at the avant-garde in the battle for Arab Nationalism because they had mastered, better than the Muslims, the conceptual tools for liberation which came to them from the West. They were convinced that this would be their only way out of their status as minorities and as, inferior second class citizens in that environment. This strategy proved eventually not to be a success, so far at least.

"Through this moderating ambition one could detect a clear concern of a minority wanting to escape its status by pointing out the value of all that could help her integrate into a wider environment" (6).

Others were attracted by some rationalistic ideas seeking independence from their Muslim environment. Some Muslim Nationalists, on the other hand, wanted to reestablish "the Arab Califat."

However, the Christian Arab nationalists remained an intellectual minority. This was perhaps not so much a vocation for Oriental Christians but a political response imposed on them by Islam.

When the European forces came to the region they changed profoundly the balance of power established since the Islamic invasion. The cultural riches and the diplomatic support offered to the Christians gave them a real advantage over the other communities and caused them to contemplate thoughts of total liberation. "The problem was that they were given the ideas without the means to implement them" (6a).

Moreover the Ottoman authorities perceived this process of emancipation, triggered by the intervention of external influences, as an act of treason aiming at the dismantling of the empire.

As an example one could mention the Maronites and the Druzes who, after having lived for centuries in total harmony, found their interests conflicting after the arrival of the Egyptians (1831) who had been supported by the French, but opposed by the British.

In 1838 when the Druze revolted against the Ottoman authorities the Maronites did not support them (upon the advice of the French). Those events led eventually to the 1860 massacres.

The end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire left the Christians stranded: after the Armenian genocide one third of the Lebanese died of hunger because of the embargo imposed by Ottoman forces. Many Syrian Orthodox (Jacobites) and Assyrians (Nestorians) who had traditionally been associated with the Armenians were also massacred. In 1933 thousands of Assyrians were gunned down in north Iraq and many more dispersed.

Such immense suffering was all the harder because it did not lead to the freedom hoped for. The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire brought to light the deep divisions among Christians and Muslims over the political future of the region.

After the end of the war, Great Britain had hoped for a large kingdom in which all Arabs would be united. But this idea did not coincide with the view of the Arab world because Britain itself had promised independent states to the Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians when inciting them to revolt from within against the Ottoman Empire.

France who had been influential with the minorities and aware of the diversity within the Arab world favored a more pluralistic approach and the creation of a number of different states in which old communities could find a place for themselves.

Muslims in the Middle East had hoped that the end of the war would bring them independence and unity. But the map of the Middle East was drawn differently; it divided the area into five political entities: two under French mandate (Syria and Lebanon) and three under British mandate (Iraq, Palestine, Trans-Jordan). Two autonomous entities were also established; Lebanon, mainly for the Christians and Palestine, where would be established the new state of Israel for the Jews.

As we can see, the various parties involved had each their own agendas. What is of interest to us in this context is that what happened worked against the Christian integration into the Arab states. (There are some who question, anyway, the very possibility of that integration, with equal rights for all.)

Christians and Jews found themselves again (as in the early days of Islam) the targets or scapegoats for unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. The departure of the British granting independence to Iraq without any guarantee for Christian minorities eventually led to the massacre of thousands of Assyrians.

The French tried to take measures to secure some autonomy for the Christians and equality with Muslims. Such moves were looked upon in a hostile way by Muslims.

If the period of the mandate secured some emancipation for Oriental Christians compared to the Ottoman times, it did not help their integration into their environment, neither did it provide them with guarantees of permanent security.

Parallel to the process of the edification of different states a Pan-Arab ideology continued developing. A Christian Greek Orthodox, Michael Aflak, is the strongest theoretician of this ideology, which was behind the creation of the Baas movement that seized power in Syria in 1967 and in Iraq in 1968, calling for the assimilation of minorities. This eventually will fail, and Michael Aflak himself will become a Muslim.

Looking back over this brief and somewhat "sketchy" historical survey one could attempt to draw some conclusions:

1) Since the Islamic conquest Islam has always been considered the norm in dealing with non-Muslims. As a result a non-Muslim finds himself always in an inferior status.

2) Divisions among Christians have always weakened their position and had a detrimental effect on their dealings with Muslims.

3) Foreign intervention for the protection of Christians in a predominantly Muslim environment, independently of the motives involved, ended up usually doing more harm than good to the local Christian communities.

4) Despite the inferior status Christians were subjected to, they often managed to make significant cultural, economic and administrative contributions to their environment.

5) The quality of the personal relations with the rulers and attempts at keeping good communication channels open had often a positive effect on the climate of interaction.

6) Relations between Christians and Muslims were usually at their best whenever the Christians, through their relations with the West, contributed in a special way to the development of their societies.

II. Christian-Muslim relations in recent years

The Institute of Islamo-Christian Studies at Saint Joseph University in Beirut published a study entitled "Christian-Muslim Declarations issued between 1954 and 1992," cited above.

A total number of 251 declarations were reported as a result of as many gatherings. About 50 of those were held in the Middle Eastern region. The sheer number of such declarations in the period of 38 years is a clear indication of the efforts deployed in the field of dialogue (7).

Those declarations dealt with various issues: spiritual values, dialogue and its importance and requirements, its boundaries and fruits. Some consultations dealt with common moral values, the importance of cooperation in facing various common threats, the status of minorities, social, religious and cultural diversity, religion and the state, the status of women, the concept of freedom, emigration, proselytism, etc.

Contacts have been intensified since then through various groups and institutions, among which figures prominently the Middle East Council of Churches. The council constituted a regional committee for Christian-Muslim dialogue in which various issues of Christian-Muslin relations are discussed such as the status of minorities, co-living, fundamentalism, emigration...

A. Some Christian attitudes

1) Sharing in the same cultural identity

Christians and Muslims have worked together since the early days of Islam to build a common Arabic culture. It is a historical fact that in the 19th century the Christians played a fundamental role in the Arab Renaissance, refusing to withdraw in on themselves and adopt a defensive minority attitude. This cultural factor in Christian-Muslim relations was underlined by the Catholic Patriarchs of the Orient in their Pastoral Letter for Easter 1992 entitled "Christian Presence in the Orient: Witness and Mission" where they stated:

"We (Christians and Muslims) share in a unique heritage in a civilization that we have both enriched by bringing to it our own contributions. ... The Arab Christians are an integral part of the cultural identity of Muslims, just as Muslims are an integral part of the cultural identity of Christians. ... We are responsible for each other before God and humanity" (8).

2) Sharing in the same linguistic expression

Since the 7th century the common use of Arabic has greatly enhanced Christian-Muslim interaction, as well as facilitating dialogue among the various Christian Communities. Christians and Muslims have engaged in dialogue explaining their religious beliefs to one another, in an atmosphere which was open and liberal at times, and more polemic and apologetic at other times. ...

Father Samir Khalil, a prominent scholar of Arab Christian heritage writes:

"Cultural exchanges between Christians and Muslims and among Christian communities of the Orient themselves became frequent, thanks to the Arabic language common to all. ... As an important example we wish to mention the relations among the ´Nestorians´ and the Copts, two communities deeply divided on theological issues and belonging to two different countries (Irak and Egypt), and two different cultures (Syriac and Coptic)" (9).

3) Co-living, an important issue for all

Christians and Muslims have lived together for centuries and their relations were at their best when they both were contributing to the development of their societies. The Middle East is the birth place of Christianity and the Christians living there feel a very deep sense of belonging to the region:

"We have been historically rooted in this part of the world and we consider our presence here to be a part of an ongoing ´incarnational´ process" (10).

4) Christian contribution

Christians feel that they can, in the future, as they did in the past, make a valuable contribution to the development of the societies they are sharing with the Muslims, and are eager to put their talents to the service of all:

"Together we can enrich each country of the region with the talents of all its citizens. If we are divided our countries will be all the poorer for it" (11).

This is why Christians and Muslims both share in the responsibility of the promotion of an atmosphere of entente and positive cooperation. The Muslims who are in the majority in the region carry an even greater responsibility in this process; their attitude towards the Christians will be instrumental in maintaining the Christian presence and securing the Christian contribution to the social, cultural, spiritual and economic development of their common societies.

"Our region is undergoing deep changes, the Patriarchs stated, and one of the great challenges facing it is the entente and cooperation among the various religions living there, especially between Christians and Muslims. ... Muslims being in the majority ought to make the Christians feel safe. And what makes them feel safe is to be considered as real partners, enjoying equal rights and assuming equal responsibilities" (12).

5) Challenge to both Christians and Muslims

While stating this the Patriarchs are fully aware of the difficulties involved. We have seen how, since the Islamic invasions, non-Muslims have always been considered inferior and could not possibly enjoy the same rights and equal opportunity in public life. This is why the Patriarchs call upon all concerned to double their efforts in order to free our societies from discrimination and make sure that no citizen is marginalized because of their religious affiliation.

"The biggest challenge facing our society is equality among citizens of the one country, independently of their different religious affiliations. ... The Christians wish to be considered as full citizens equal in every way to all others, and not as minorities to be "protected by the Muslim majority" (13).

In the present situation where Muslims and Christians are experiencing difficulties relating to each other in some parts of the world, Middle Eastern Christians could perhaps play a role in fostering deeper understanding because of their common history with the Muslims since the beginning of Islam, and the sharing of the one faith with other Christians throughout the world.

"Christians of the East are co-citizens with their Muslim brothers and sisters, sharing with them a common culture. At the same time they share the same faith with their Christian brothers and sisters all over the world. This situation calls upon them to play a role of mediation... in order to promote cooperation based on mutual respect" (14). The same spirit of openness is encouraged in various other Christian declarations in recent years (15).

B. Some Muslim attitudes

It is much more difficult to get a unified or a representative Muslim stand concerning the way Muslims look at their relations with Christians. Who among Muslims has the right to represent Islam?

This is not an easy question to answer. The Sunnis would say that there is no person or institution that could speak in the name of Islam:

"The Mufti or the Cheik of Islam or the Chief Teacher and others like that are civil servants exercising their duties, and their opinions are honored by the State, but what is certain is that they do not represent any of the faithful Muslims because they do not have the right to do so" (16).

According to the "Ulama" (scholars), no Muslim leader will usually take a stand in principle against dialogue or against relating to another religious group. But they feel that unless good intentions are shown, dialogue would be useless and what is meant by good intentions is the stopping of preaching or any missionary activity in Islamic countries. Then the scope of dialogue should be restricted to talking about noble values and the promotion of Justice and Peace.

The attitude voiced by the representative of the Chia Imam in Beirut, Doctor Seoud Al Mawla, appears to be quite different when talking about the ways Muslims and Christians in Lebanon ought to go about building together a unified society:

"We wish to have a pact which would organize shared existence ´a living together´ and the creation of a unified political society respecting the diversity of its various citizens, based on mutual respect, equality and justice for all. ... The basis for a true and sound ´co-living´ is knowledge and freedom. True knowledge of the others (as they wish to be known) is a prelude for the respect of their rights and especially the right to be different" (17).

The Imam Muhammad Husain Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Hizb Allah movement, sees things differently; he wishes to apply the Shariah law on the minorities which consists in offering them three alternatives: "The state of war will cease between the People of the Book and Islam by the acceptance of the former to adhere to Islam, or pay the ´Aljiziah,´ the poll tax," (18) otherwise war will continue, "and you have to fight them until they pay tribute out of hand and are utterly subdued" (18a).

It is important to remember that the quality of Christian-Muslim relations remains a function, not of what is said only, but especially of the willingness of both to trust each other and to accept each other as different, and to cooperate in the building of a common social environment in which they all feel at home.

Despite all that is being said by an intellectual elite, it is apparent that, in recent years, the Christians of the Arab world seem to experience an ever increasing sense of anxiety. This anxiety may vary between one country and another, but it does remain a somewhat generalized phenomenon. This anxiety is often more reflected in the writings of Western analysts (19).

The causes of that anxiety appeared to be first and foremost economic and political. This led to the emigration witnessed by Egypt and Palestine over the past 50 years, and in Lebanon since the late seventies and during the successive wars that raged on Lebanese soil.

More recently, the Islamic movement perceived both as a political and religious phenomenon, became increasingly vocal, which caused many Christians to feel that they were heading towards some kind of a regression to a condition of Dhimmies, especially with the rise of fundamentalism more or less generalized in the Arab world.

While this led, in some countries, to more emigration or withdrawal, it resulted in others in a greater determination and deeper awareness of the their responsibility to witness to Christianity in this part of the world where Christianity originated.

There is also an increasing number of Muslim moderate voices loudly affirming the importance of the Christian presence amidst their societies and reminding their Muslim citizens of the spirit of "tolerance" advocated by the Koran.

In order to make the reality of Christian Muslim relations more tangible, we shall view very briefly the situation in two countries where the Christian presence has been traditionally more significant: Egypt and Lebanon.

Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt

The violence against the Copts, which is one of the most dramatic examples, is increasingly interpreted, (at least publicly) not so much as an attack of a Muslim majority against a Christian minority, but rather as an expression of a kind of frustration and a revolt against an establishment that lacks a sense of justice, leaves no room for political freedom and pays very little attention to the deteriorating socio-economic situation.

It is important to remember here that the very large majority (if not all the Arab States, with the exception of Lebanon) have included in their constitutions a recognition of the Shariah as a source, a main source or the source of legislation. This includes the Palestinian Constitution which is still in its draft form.

This reminds us of the position adopted by people like Taki al-Din al-Nabahani in Al-Azhar (19a) where he refuses to accept any laws except God´s, and considers democracy to be a system of unbelief.

Sayyid Qutb (20) sees that only Islam and its system of government could save the world from the atheism "Jahiliah" of the 20th century. Islam should enjoy superiority in any society since it is the superior religion which offers the perfect system of government.

And more recently, Mustapha Mashhour (21), head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, proposed that the Christians should not be allowed to serve in the Egyptian army, but pay the "Aljiziah" and become "utterly subdued."

The Christians in Egypt (around 8 to 10 millions) are not represented at all in political decision making. Some of the reasons for this lack of representation are said to originate in the increasingly sectarian climate which equates political activity with Islam. The Copts see an increasing discrepancy between what is said by the establishment and what is practiced in daily life where equal opportunity is denied and the Copts considered as a minority which refuses to participate in the life of the community (22).

On the practical daily level one notices the discrimination in the media where Christians are denied the right to respond to any allegations made against them, while others are given more or less a free hand in publishing anything they wish concerning the Christians. There is clear discrimination in employment and public service, and it has become increasingly difficult in Egypt to build a place of Christian worship or even to make the slightest repairs on them. Such small repairs need a special permit that can be granted only by a presidential order.

There are moderate Muslim voices that try to stand up against such practices but they remain quite ineffective in the face of an increasing wave of fundamentalism. Some intellectuals have tried to bring about a kind of religious renewal, but have not been that successful in general. Some of them have been killed, and the latest was the case of Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid who tried to introduce a methodology of rational analysis of the Koran, which stirred up considerable controversy (23).

The situation in Egypt in particular has prompted some groups in the United States, over the past couple of years, to wage a campaign in the media against what they termed "religious persecution of Christian minorities in the Muslim world and in the Arab world." There were hearings in the U.S. Congress and there is talk of the proposition of a law to guarantee "Freedom from Religious Persecution" through the "Wolf-Specter Act," which would impose political and economic sanctions on countries that persecute religious minorities.

During the first week of April 1998, a meeting was held in Cairo attended by various political parties and representatives of the Coptic Church to protest against this "new type of crusades," which is liable to do more harm than good to the Christian minorities in the area. History seems to be repeating itself in a surprising way, with a slight change of actors because of what has come to be called "the New World Order."

Christian-Muslim relations in Lebanon

In Lebanon, Christians and Muslims have lived together for centuries mostly in peaceful cooperation and sometimes in conflict. Together they struggled to reach independence and both communities paid with their blood for that cause.

The Lebanese political system is one that tries to strike a balance of power between Muslims and Christians and it is the only system in the Arab World where no mention is made of the application of a particular religious law to the civil legislation.

The Higher Chiite Council in Lebanon presented an official paper at the "Congress of Religious Dialogue," held in Khartoum, November 7-11, 1994, entitled "Our Chart for co-living in Lebanon" (24) in which it was stated: "Lebanon without Christians has no meaning, and without Muslims he need not exist. ... The country is built by all its citizens and for them all, and whatever religious differences there are they should not be covered up, but we should emphasize a relationship based on mutual acceptance and complimentarity" (24).

In 1995 a Committee representing the Christian and Muslim Spiritual Authorities, called "The Islamic-Christian National Dialogue Committee" was set up. In its official declaration it stated that Lebanon is:

"An ample human terrain of freedom and dialogue among the followers of the divinely revealed religions, a land of life shared in common between Christians and Muslims, in which the aspirations and goodwill of all Lebanese come together and interact to build their state and political entity on the basis of a free republican, parliamentary, democratic system, under the protection of complete equality in rights and duties among the people of one single country. ... A state committed to the principle of the freedom of religion, thought and information, as well as economic freedom, without monopoly nor anarchy" (25).

Despite the political declarations which call for complete equality of rights... the way the Christians perceive their present situation, as well as the future, remains largely conditioned by the regional political situation which they judge to be discriminating against them. This was clearly reflected in the working paper presented by the Maronite Patriarch and Bishops to the Prime Minister on the 6th of March, 1998. This of course could not be attributed purely and simply to the behavior of local politicians, Christians or Muslims, because the decisions are made outside the country and imposed on all parties! But if looked upon in a historical perspective one could not help but feel that the Christian-Muslim dimension may not be totally absent.

This situation did not lead the Christians into isolation, but they continued to seek dialogue and call for cooperation. And there is a deep conviction shared by many, though not always expressed loudly, that if left alone, Muslims and Christians in Lebanon could live and work together as harmoniously as any pluralistic society. A recent research was carried out by the "Institute for Educational Development" in Lebanon, in which about 90 percent of Christian and Muslim Senior High School students stated that they would be willing to live and rebuild their country together. 85 percent said they would like to make friends with young people from the other religion.

The visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Lebanon on the 10th of May, 1997 offered a very clear example of very fruitful and successful cooperation among the various communities without any exception. And the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation urged Christians and Muslims to "collaborate in all possible areas in order to build together a better common future. ... This ´working together´ is bound to give all Lebanese a greater confidence in each other and in the future, thus allowing them to realize together what is best in modern living" (26).

Another fact ought to be mentioned; a very large number of people in Lebanon, both Christians and Muslims, are always quick to condemn fundamentalist attacks wherever they may occur, but especially in the Arab World.

On the other hand some sections of the Christian population that project some suspicious attitudes and voice concerns about Islamic fundamentalism (27).

III. Future perspectives

After having looked briefly at the way Christians and Muslims have managed to live together since the beginning of Islam, we shall attempt to look toward to the future, keeping in mind the difficulty of such a task because of so many "unknowns" that could influence the situation in one way or another.

Christians are concerned

Christians have been, in recent years, increasingly concerned about their presence in the Middle East, as it is apparent from the numerous documents and meetings that we have mentioned above. They are aware that they are a minority in a predominantly Muslim society. With the exception of Lebanon the power in everyone of the Middle Eastern countries is in the hands of Muslims and the Shariah law is more or less the source of all legislation. This situation goes directly against the aspirations of Christians to a life of freedom in an atmosphere of equality and mutual respect, and their main concern has been centered around their civil, political and religious rights.

"Whether attributed to the Islamic world view or to its Islamist interpretation, Shariah is depicted as incompatible with modernity and more particularly with what is seen as one of its greatest achievement: the Universal Declaration of Human rights" (28).

Many Christians have been opting for a life elsewhere where they feel they could offer their children a better future. But many Christians have stayed and see their future where they are, among Muslims, in the Middle East.

Christians feel that their presence can be enriching

At a consultation held in Beirut in 1996 on the theme "The Christians in Lebanon and the Orient, a look towards the future," Kamal Salibi, a Professor of History at the American University of Beirut presented a paper in which he proposes that there is only one choice for the Christians in the Arab World, if they want to have a future, and that is to join ranks with the Muslim majority and work together against fanaticism, of which the Muslims feel as threatened as the Christians. Then he calls on the Christians to take the lead in promoting dialogue between the Muslims and Western Christianity (29).

Farid Khazen, a Professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut who contributed to the same consultation, more from a Lebanese perspective sees the future in light of a close cooperation between Christians and Muslims in the political, social, economic and moral spheres. He calls on the Christians to remain open towards everyone but to remain firm on questions of independence, freedom and sovereignty of Lebanon. He appeals to young people to become more involved in the political process (30).

Another Lebanese politician, Albert Mansour, also speaking from a Lebanese perspective, sees the future of the Christians also in a Christian-Muslim cooperation as building together a democratic political system where all citizens enjoy equal rights and responsibilities. This unique Lebanese formula may not be valid for other Arab countries, but it should be safeguarded and held up as a model for the world. "Lebanon is more than a country, it is Message" (31).

Christian Presence: a lost cause for some; a Mission and Witness for others

Different voices are heard concerning the future of Christians in the Middle East, sending alarming messages to the effect that Christians will simply vanish from the area, either by adopting Islam quietly, or by emigrating. They remind us that many nations, thousands of years old have disappeared leaving behind them empty monuments, churches and monasteries.

Jean-Pierre Valognes, states that some Christian leaders (32) have relied on the fact that full participation in the destiny of the Arab Nation would facilitate their integration and give them some legitimacy, and remarks that this did not work. If Arab Nationalism is to play a role in the rapprochement between Christianity and Islam and facilitate that integration, Islam ought to follow the same process of transformation undergone by the occidental religions. And he concludes: "Considering the rate at which Islam is modernizing itself the risk is that no Christians will be left to witness the result of the process" (33).

Arab Nationalism failed to lead to the assimilation of Christian minorities, and Islam has, and is still resenting such assimilation. The Arab identity which is supposed to unify Christian and Muslim communities has preserved an Islamic predominant content. And after the rise of Islamic fundamentalism what will the Oriental Christians do? asks Valognes, with a very pessimistic note. Will they continue to work for a process of integration, which seems to be gradually driving many people, in some countries, to seek a better life for their children elsewhere and compelling some in other countries to convert to Islam, despite considerable effort deployed by their Churches? "With that the Oriental Christians will be compelled to revert to their religious identity, which could become the occasion of another, and perhaps the ultimate tragedy" (34).

Kenneth Cragg, slightly more moderate in his views, talks about the future of Christianity with Islam with a question mark in mind. The title of his chapter 12 is: "A Future with Islam?" But he hastens to say: "The question mark can be removed, for there is no future for Arab Christianity except with Islam" (35).

In his view Christianity cannot but live with Islam and dialogue with Islam because the alternative to dialogue is conflict or disappearance. And because Islam is a marriage between religion and power, and because the secular option is far removed, especially in the Middle Eastern context, the future of the minority has then to be on Islam´s terms. Then he goes on to say: "There are however aspects of modernity that enliven the Christian vocation, despite the adverse assessments. Christian faith should never be deterred from living in hope of opportunity even in situations where it cannot readily foresee how it may eventuate. To make hopes actual first requires that they are not forfeited. Christianity´s future with Islam is, therefore, thrown back on the content and quality of its own relevance" (36).

This relevance is perhaps what the Latin Bishops of the Arab World had in mind when they wrote: "Living in a predominantly Muslim world we are called upon to live according to the Gospel precepts along the following lines of action:

-- Disinterested service to the poorest in our societies;

-- Deep respect for each person´s journey towards God;

-- Looking for ways of safeguarding the rights of all especially religious rights. (And that in the name of the principle of reciprocity)(37).

The Apostolic Exhortation issued at the end of the Special Synod of Bishops for Lebanon proposes to the Lebanese a similar line of action as mentioned above.


I wish to conclude by going back to the two recent Pastoral Letters of the Catholic Patriarchs of the East, Easter 1992 and Christmas 1994 mentioned above. In the latter the Patriarchs state that, despite some difficulties "There are many positive points, sane attitudes and true friendships which bind together Christians and Muslims, in different walks of life and different social classes... . No matter what could be said concerning some inevitable negative aspects no one can deny this primordial truth: Christians and Muslims in the Arab countries belong to the same land, share one destiny and experience the same sensitivities vis a vis both local and international challenges" (38).

Another suggestion offered by the Patriarchs, which could help promote better understanding in the future, takes the form of an invitation extended to both Christian and Muslim scholars to study each others religious writings objectively so that "they may promote true mutual understanding, tear down the barriers and allow a new and sane atmosphere of communication, collaboration and pursuit of common goals to prevail" (39).

The Patriarchs concluded their letter with a final statement stressing the togetherness of the Christians and Muslims on their common journey: "We Christians and Muslims do not form two fronts or two parties opposed to each other. We are all first and foremost present before God. He is the Creator of the universe and no one can claim to own Him exclusively. We are all His" (40).

From the Muslim point of view on future perspectives, one has to refer to the various opinions mentioned earlier. Those opinions vary from the "Dhimmi" straight forward formula mentioned by Mohammed Housain Fadlallah, to more open statements accepting equality for all within the same state.

It is clear that the Christian opinion can never be a reaction to the attitude of others but one that emanates from Christian principles of respect for all human rights. Christians may call for reciprocity, but their behavior towards others cannot be motivated simply by other people´s attitude towards them.

Christians have been in the Middle East for 2,000 years, and they are there to stay. Since the beginning of Islam they have been in a minority situation and have been living, more or less, constantly in a state of anxiety as to their future. They have survived for the past fourteen hundred years and have witnessed to their faith within the limits of circumstances. They have been able in some periods of their history to contribute in a very valuable way to the development of their society; culturally, socially, economically and spiritually. And those were golden periods in their history. Their future is, to a certain extent, a function of their attitude. They will continue to feel threatened perhaps, but is this not part of their very existence in this part of the world? They have to be careful not to withdraw in on themselves and forget their vocation and their very "raison d´etre" in this part of the world.

More voices than ever are now raised calling for change in attitudes towards minorities both in the East and in the West and this is liable, with time, to lead to some change. The world has become very small and everyone is called upon to be more and more accepting of the other as different. There are calls to the contrary of course, but they ought to be put always in context.

Finally I think we have a tendency to forget sometimes that Christianity was never promised a tranquil and an ever happy, easy existence, but rather the contrary. And the more I live and work in the Church and the more I become acquainted with the history of the Church the more I become convinced that it did not survive and develop through two thousand years by virtue of human calculations and the integrity and wisdom of its leaders. I am totally convinced that had it not been for its Divine Dimension the Church would have disintegrated long ago.


Support UCA News...

As 2020 unfolds, we are asking readers like you to help us keep Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) free so it can be accessed from anywhere in the world at no cost.

That has been our policy for years and was made possible by donations from European Catholic funding agencies. However, like the Church in Europe, these agencies are in decline and the immediate and urgent claims on their funds for humanitarian emergencies in Africa and parts of Asia mean there is much less to distribute than there was even a decade ago.

Forty years ago, when UCA News was founded, Asia was a very different place - many poor and underdeveloped countries with large populations to feed, political instability and economies too often poised on the edge of collapse. Today, Asia is the economic engine room of the world and funding agencies quite rightly look to UCA News to do more to fund itself.

UCA News has a unique product developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes. Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to - South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.

And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters that cover 22 countries and experienced native English-speaking editors to render stories that are informative, informed and perceptive.

We report from the ground where other news services simply can't or won't go. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don't have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.

With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.

Click here to find out the ways you can support UCA News. You can make a difference for as little as US$5...
UCAN Donate
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
Living Church - Contribute to help UCA News
Living Church - Contribute to help UCA News
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia