Important reflections on the Christian communities of the Middle East from Habib Malik, one of the most superbly insightful commentators on the scene today. From Lebanon’s Daily Star, with thanks to Ted Robertson and Dagald Walker:
Christian communities native to the Middle East are passing through turbulent times. In Egypt, where the Copts constitute the largest concentration of Christian Arabs anywhere in the region, the community finds itself caught in the crossfire between an authoritarian government and radical Islamist groups. The Copts, despite sharing strong sentiments of Egyptian nationalism with the Muslim majority, are often beset upon by both the authorities and the fanatics because they are perceived as a convenient scapegoat. In southern Sudan, though a peace agreement may be near, Christians were locked in a 20-year civil war with an Islamist government in Khartoum bent on imposing Sharia on them by force.
Christians in growing numbers are daily fleeing the chaos in Iraq, where their churches have been bombed and their livelihoods threatened by Islamist militants leading the armed insurgency against U.S. and coalition forces. In the Holy Land, in places where ancient Christian communities reside, like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the Christian presence has shrunk dramatically due mainly to emigration, as Christians see themselves being marginalized by a conflict increasingly defined in terms of Jews versus Muslims. And in Lebanon, following 15 years of war that resulted in open-ended Syrian domination, the Christians, who number close to 40 percent of the population, have seen their freedoms steadily erode, their numbers dwindle, and their political influence shrivel.
Two distinct historical narratives define the way of life and the destiny of the Middle East’s diverse indigenous Christian communities: a narrative of subjugation and a narrative of freedom. On one side lies the vast majority of Christian Arabs – over 90 percent – in their respective regional and cultural contexts. Since the rise and spread of Islam these communities have been relentlessly reduced to dhimmi status, or second-class status in their own homelands, being forced to forfeit any semblance of free existence. The Christians of Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria and the Holy Land belong to this vanquished category.
On the other side stand the Christians of Lebanon, numerically a minority, but with a unique historical experience of freedom that was defended and preserved over the centuries at a high cost in terms of blood and treasure. Here the entrenched Maronites, affiliated with Rome since the year 1180, serve as spearhead for a host of other lesser denominations who have thrown in their lot with them to form an exceptionally rooted and tenacious Christian community largely resistant to the ravages of “dhimmitude.” However, the combined toll in recent years of war, foreign occupation, economic deterioration, and attrition through emigration has weighed heavily on Lebanon’s Christians, causing them for the first time since the mid-19th century to experience an appreciable loss in the precious freedoms to which they have clung so fiercely for so long.
I urge you to read all of this magnificent piece, which goes on to examine the differences in mindset between dhimmis and free Christians in the Middle East.