Christians in the Arab East
Robert Brenton Betts, Christians in the Arab East. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978, 318 pp., $12.00
A review by Bassam Michael Madany
It was in 1980, when I reviewed “Christians in the Arab East.” I found it a compelling explanation of the “Plight” of Middle East Christians living under Islam for almost 1400 years. My purpose in posting this review 35 years later is to show how the advance of years has not lessened the turmoil in this part of the world. As for those Eastern Christians who formerly were a significant part of the mix of peoples in the Levant, suffering has been their ongoing experience. Their accumulating sorrows are ongoing and dreadful and pose serious current and future problems for the countries they are attempting to escape to.
During the decade of the 1980s, President Anwar Sadat ruled Egypt; Saddam Hussein was about to launch his eight-year war against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran. In Syria, an Air Force General, Hafeth al-Assad was in his tenth year as the undisputed ruler of the country. Next door in Lebanon, the Civil War was raging after five years of chaos and blood-letting, a war that was to continue for another ten more years!
By 2015, Iraq, some of it parts having come under the rule of the Islamic Caliphate (known as ISIS and by its Arabic acronym, Da’esh,) is gradually being emptied of its Christian population. The Civil War in Syria, that began in mid-March, 2011, has not abated. Many factions are fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad even as many of them fight among themselves. Egypt, after a one-year of rule by President Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now ruled by President Abdel Fattah el-SiSi, a former military officer. This change was largely welcomed by the population; however, the condition of the Christians in Egypt hasn’t improved greatly. Libya is in extreme turmoil with a government barely in control as it deals with political factions and terrorists. Furthermore, people from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, transit through Libya on their way to Italy, many of whom are drowning in the process. How sad that freedom and good government and economic stability are absent in most of the Middle East. Its Christians, in particular, are being systematically eliminated by one means or another.
Ever since the Arab conquests of the seventh century, a pervasive continuity has enveloped the lives of Christians in particular. The work of Dr. Robert Benton Betts had a place in explaining one era of that continuum as it affected the status of Christians in the lands of the “Arab East.”
The Book Review
It was Easter Monday 1975. A busload of Palestinian commandos drove by a Maronite church in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon. They shouted some slogans in Arabic. A group of Phalangists came out of the church service and a bloody battle followed. That sparked the war in Lebanon.
Five years later, the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt called off the official celebrations of this great festival. He was protesting the persecution of his people and the apparent reluctance of President Sadat to do anything to help the Christians of his land.
I have cited these two facts in the modern history of the Middle East in order to emphasize the plight of the Christians of that area. The West is so preoccupied with the larger questions concerning the Middle East, that we are apt to forget its Christian minorities. This is why Christians in the Arab East, by Robert Brenton Betts is such a welcome publication. It seeks to inform and enlighten the readers about a subject which is seldom discussed; except among some specialists in the State Department, or the theologians who are interested in the Eastern churches. The author, we are informed on the inside cover of the book, “took his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.” Dr. Betts has added a sympathetic heart to his academic and professional career, which qualifies him to speak with love and objectivity.
What many Western Christians, Protestant or Roman Catholic, may not realize, Christians in the Middle East belong to a community which can tract its tradition back to the second or third centuries A.D. Unfortunately, their history has been filled with strife and persecution. The early theological controversies which were “officially” settled at Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) brought into being several “heterodox” churches.
“Thus when the armies of the Caliph (Khalifa) ‘Umar ibn-Al-Khattab stormed
stormed out of the Arabian Desert into Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, they
encountered two empires, each exhausted by lengthy wars against each other,
and populated on their southern flanks by non-Orthodox Christians – Copts,
Jacobites and Nestorians, all of whom were outside the prevailing ecclesiastical
law and hostile to both Persian and Byzantine governments. For these Christians
the invaders from the south, racial and linguistic cousins, were far preferable as
rulers to the Greco-Roman Byzantines and te Aryan Persians. Not surprisingly,
therefore, the Christians of Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia in many cases aided
the invaders in defeating the imperial armies. And once removed from the political
authority of Constantinople the Monophysites became like the Nestorians, beyond
all hope of reconciliation with Orthodoxy. The Arabs like the Persians in
Mesopotamia, found it expedient to perpetuate those divisions within Christianity
which prevented the majority of their non-Muslim subjects from feeling a sense of
loyalty, religious or political, to Constantinople. Thus both heresies, condemned by
the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon were permanently crystallized.” P. 7
On the whole, the Arabs were more tolerant of the Christian minorities than the non-Arab Muslims (especially the Ottoman Turks) who succeeded them in the management of the vast Islamic Empire. Christians and Jews were always regarded as second class subjects. Dr. Betts gives us a brief and helpful account of their tragic history.
In the 19th century, Christians were in the forefront of the movements for the revival of the Arabic language and culture. This led to the rise of Arab nationalism, a movement which sought to divorce politics from religion, or at least to make it possible for non-Muslims to be accepted as fellow citizens. It appeared for a while, especially in Egypt, that at last the Christian Arab was going to achieve the dream of being accepted by the majority of his fellow countrymen. But the events of the First World War were shattering. They were,
“for the Christians of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia a purgatory
from which they emerged broken and decimated, a tragic chapter in
the history of suffering which today, more than fifty years later, remains
an omnipresent memory even to those born long afterward.” P. 28
For the Christians of Lebanon, especially for the Maronite church, that meant the absolute necessity of obtaining from the West (specifically from France) the assurance that they will never come under the dominion of an Islamic government.
This attitude of Lebanese Christians was not necessarily to be followed by other Christian Arabs. On the contrary, the Copts in Egypt, and the Greek Orthodox and Protestants in Syria and Palestine, worked hard for the dawn of complete independence from the European colonialism. However, they had always in mind, an Arab nationalism which will bring into being some “secularized” form of an Arab state. It is quite intriguing to notice as we continue reading this book, how the Christian Arabs (this term does not refer to their personal faith, but reflects a nomenclature employed by the Muslim conquerors in their classification of their subjects) were in the vanguard of propagating Western political ideologies with proper adaptations for local consumption. For example, the father of the Ba’ath Party which is the dominant political movement in both Syria and Iraq is a Greek Orthodox Syrian, Michel Aflaq. But somehow, the feeling was always there, i.e., among Christians that, no matter how hard they work for the good of the country, they remain suspect. Their patriotism is always in question!
One of the most valuable parts of Christians in the Arab East is the last chapter: “Future Assessment.”
The big question remains,
“Whether or not the Muslim majority in the seventh decade
of the 20th century was ready to accept the ‘total immersion’
into the life of the Arab states by Arab Christians.” P. 220
Dr. Betts seems to be a little hopeful that such a thing might take place. Writing the revised text of his book in 1978, the author showed some guarded optimism about the fate of Lebanon.
“What is certain is that the Christians of Lebanon, more
so than any of their brethren elsewhere in the Arab World,
are determined to survive in the face of any challenge
which Islam, whether in the guise of nationalism or not,
might afford.” P. 227
I wish I could be as optimistic as that as I write in 1980. The Islamic revolution in Iran has changed everything. I am not simply referring to the political, economic and international aspects of this revolution. But Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has re-kindled the fires of Islamic exclusivism and superiority throughout the entire Muslim world, from Indonesia to Morocco. Long after the tragic episode of the 50 American hostages has been solved, the problem for the Christians of the East will still be with us: how to survive as Christians in an ocean of Islam!
Great and informative as Dr. Betts book has been, unfortunately it fails to challenge Western Christians about their responsibility to help their brothers and sisters still living in the Arab East! However, with my own deep roots in the Middle East, I end my review with a quotation from another work that was published fifteen years earlier; it dealt with the same subject. Edward Wakin,[i] writing on the plight of the Christians of Egypt ended his book, A Lonely Minority, with these moving and prophetic words:
At the end of this intimate rendezvous with the Copts, a concluding moral note is unavoidable. The obligation to oppose tyranny stands even when the tyranny is elusive and unannounced, even unintended. It begins with labeling injustice long before shop windows are smashed, icons broken, and families torn apart. This labeling is an antidote to the danger of dulled sensibilities in our time and while the Copts can be accused of hypersensitivity, their problem is by no means imaginary. They are feeling pressures that inflict suffering without mutilating, that intimidate relentlessly without exploding sporadically, that wound without bloodshed.
The Copts are numbed and helpless as well as anxious as their historic cycles of acceptance and rejection, their recurring stages of toleration, discrimination and persecution move inexorably in the direction of rejection. Persecution is still the nightmare, discrimination the reality in the latest chapter of a long story of a people. They are there in Egypt and there they remain, the ‘true Egyptians,’ the ‘original Christians,’ the four million Copts of the Nile Valley[ii], that troubled, enduring, lonely minority.
Perhaps we can do very little for them and for the other Christians of the Middle East. But by reading books on the Eastern Christians we become more aware of them and their predicament. They will be grateful just to know that their brothers and sisters in the West are aware and do care about them.
1 In the 1950s, Edward Wakin (1927-2009) and his then-wife traveled extensively in the Middle East, where he wrote articles for the Scripps-Howard News Service. He also wrote for Harper’s, Saturday Review, Catholic Digest, The Christian Century, and American Way and Beyond Computing magazines. In an obituary for his father, Daniel Wakin, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote that A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt's Copts (William Morrow & Company, 1963) was arguably Edward’s most important book. “The Copts, the largest Christian community in the Arab world, were a sensitive subject in Gamal Abdul Nasser's Egypt, and Mr. Wakin said he had to smuggle his notes out of the country hidden in his luggage,” Daniel Wakin wrote. “Even 40 years later, Egyptian Copts would contact Mr. Wakin in appreciation of the book.”
[ii] The actual number of Copts in Egypt varies greatly; Mr. Wakin mentioned 4 million, some Copts claim the number is much higher, as much as 8 million. Going back to the late 19th century, most Middle Eastern Christians who settled in the United States were primarily from Lebanon and Syria. The Immigration Law of 1970 allowed Middle Eastern people to come in great numbers to the US, including Copts from Egypt.