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The Plight of Eastern Christians Revisited

May 05, 2023
By Bassam M. Madany
Rev. Bassam M. Madany

These days, the media are preoccupied with the US presidential campaign. As for the overseas news, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq remains in center stage, with endless speculations about the resurgence of al-Qaida, and its plans to attack Western targets throughout the world. Hardly, any attention is given to the ongoing tragedy of the Christian minorities living within the vast Islamic world. Their ill-treatment is not episodic, but is based on the Islamic Shari'a Law, which has enshrined their inferior status in the law of Dhimmitude.* Contrast that with the status of the Muslim residents in the West who enjoy all the privileges of the citizens of the host countries!  

This lack of a just and equitable treatment of the Christian minorities in Islam was featured in the Arabic-language online daily, on 4 August, 2007. The author, a Syrian living in Paris, France, described himself as a "human-rights activist." Here are quotations from his article: 

"Eastern Christians have encountered great challenges as they sought to achieve their goal of becoming full members of a modern secular state, while enjoying full citizenship and political equality with Muslims. It is well known that the Arab Awakening** that spread democratic and liberal ideas in Syria and Egypt at the end of the 19th Century, was spearheaded by Christian intellectuals who were open to European culture. This movement led to the rise of political parties that sought independence from the Ottoman Empire.  

"Having achieved independence, the Christian elites realized the importance of the modern secular government as a guarantee to achieve a better status for Eastern Christians, who are the original inhabitants of the area.  However, the project for the establishment of a modern secular government encountered several challenges; the most powerful one came from Traditional Islam. It rejects modernity and secularism, and any separation of religion from the state. This conservative Islam insists on regarding the Shari'a Law as the basic source of legislation, thus constituting a distinction among the citizens, based on religion and ethnicity. Practically, a Muslim enjoys more privileges than a non-Muslim, especially in the area of government, where the ruler must always be of the Muslim faith.  

"More than a century has passed since the rise of the Arab Awakening, and now the peoples of the Middle East are facing concerted efforts for the establishment of an Islamic State. It is being offered by political Islam under the slogan of, "Al-Islam hua'l Hall," (Islam is the Solution.) It is being offered as a substitute for the crisis-ridden National State that has been controlled for a long time, by corrupt and oppressive regimes. 

"Due to Lebanon's special background, and the historical psychology of the Maronites, it refused to accept the Arab-Islamic recipe in the writing of its Constitution. Its political system was crafted in an agreement known as the 1943 National Pact, [where the President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister, is a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament, is a Shi'ite Muslim.] This modus operandi continued until the Civil War of 1975. The Taif Charter of 1989, that brought to an end the war, diminished at the same time, the political influence of the Maronites, giving more power to the Islamic communities, by shrinking the powers of the president of the Lebanese Republic. 

"A new era in the history of the Middle East in general, and of the Christian minorities in particular, was ushered in with the beginning of the American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The plight of the Christians has worsened, as a result of these military campaigns. They fanned the flames of the historic enmity that remains latent in the Islamic Arab world vis-à-vis the United States and the West. A struggle is going on between the United States and its European allies on the one hand, and the radical Islamic organizations such as al-Qaida, as a defender of Islam, on the other hand. As a result, it is the Eastern Christians who pay dearly, not because they have done anything wrong themselves, but simply and uniquely because they happen to be Christian!  

For example, in the backlash from the Danish Cartoons, and the recent lecture of Pope Benedict XVI, several terrorist attacks have taken place on the lives and belongings of Middle East Christians. A priest in Turkey, a nun in Somalia, and several priests in Iraq, have been assassinated. Church buildings and monasteries have been burned by radical Islamic groups in more than one Arab and Islamic capital. 

"Should we forget Hrant Dink, the Turkish journalist of Armenian background, who was assassinated by a young Muslim Turk on 19 January, 2007?  This event cannot be isolated from the terror that is being directed against Eastern Christians by radical Islamic organizations. It is no exaggeration to say that this crime points to the condition not only of the small Christian minority that is left in Turkey, but to the plight of the entire Eastern Christian minorities that remain in the Islamic Arab world. 

"Going back to Hrant Dink, it is important to remember that in spite of his great love for Turkey as his country, and his unending call to both Turks and Armenians to be reconciled, and to transcend the historic enmity between them; he was once convicted of defaming the Turkish identity according to Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code. In his last article, he wrote: 'I shall keep on fighting [for reconciliation] regardless of the threats.'  This article appeared in the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Nahar. Several Turkish newspapers began a campaign of vilification claiming that he manifested enmity towards the Turks. In this article, he had expressed his doubts about the integrity of the Turkish judicial system, as he referred to several cases of Islamist Turkish writers who had been charged with the same offense, but whose cases were dismissed! What is rather disturbing in Dink's case is that his assassin's picture surfaced in a video showing him draped with the Turkish flag. He was treated by the Turkish policemen as a national hero. It is reported that his mother said, ‘My son did his duty, he is a hero like Ali Aca,'*** the one who attempted to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981.  

"The governments of the Arab and Islamic states have not been supportive of their religious minorities. Otherwise how can we explain that they marshal all their forces to combat radical Islamists when they attack governmental agencies, but they act slowly and hesitantly against these terrorists when they murder innocent Christian citizens in their homes or their churches? Furthermore, the government-controlled media often deceive the public by offering lame excuses for attacks on Christians, claiming that these Irhabis were mentally deranged, or had some previous unresolved issues with the murdered Christians! These discriminatory policies spread despair and anxiety among the Christian minorities. So, instead of the governments doing their utmost to strengthen the minorities' national loyalties by treating them on par with the majority population, they spread doubts about the minority's national loyalty, thus justifying their marginalization."  

The above words, taken from an August 2007 article on the challenges facing the Christian minorities within the Household of Islam remind me of a book that was published in 1963, under the title of, "A LONELY MINORITY: THE MODERN STORY OF EGYPT'S COPTS." The author of the work was Edward Wakin, an American journalist. Even though more than four decades have passed, its findings describe the plight of the Christian minorities today, not only in Egypt, but throughout the entire Muslim world. Here are some quotations that should make you deeply concerned about the treatment of the original inhabitants of the lands of the Middle East. 

"Viewed today from the West, the Copts are a major test of modern coexistence between a large Christian minority and a Moslem majority. In the Middle East, the Copts constitute the largest body of Christians in that part of the world where Christianity was born. For Egypt which is trying to mobilize all its human resources into a modern state, the test may be decisive. For a mosaic of minorities in the Middle Eastern countries of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, the Coptic story can be read as handwriting on the wall. For the Christians of Lebanon, who are maintaining an uneasy dominance in a country evenly divided between Christians and Moslems, their prospects in Moslem Arab hegemony can be deciphered from the Coptic situation in Egypt. It is a problem echoed nearby in the tenuous Greek-Turkish partnership of Christian and Moslem in the island republic of Cyprus." P. 4 [These words were written before the brutal Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974.] 

"The cross suits this cruel culture of poverty and persecution, both as identification and an outlet for the Copts. It is their brand and their balm; it gives a meaning to life when there are only blind nature and inexplicable misfortune. If Western Christianity gives prime glory to Easter, the day of Resurrection, deliverance and confirmation of Christ's divinity --- Good Friday is more appropriate psychologically to the Copts. On this day when the cross was born as a universal Christian symbol, modern Copts say ‘Kyrie eleison' (Lord, have mercy upon us) 400 times at home, 100 times in each direction, and flock to their churches. P. 136 

"At the end of this intimate rendezvous with the Copts, a concluding moral note is unavoidable. The obligation to oppose tyranny wherever it 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.  [Emphasis mine] 

"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, that troubled, enduring, lonely minority. Pp. 175 and 176 

By quoting from portions of an article on the sufferings of Eastern Christians during the early years of the Third Millennium, and going back half a century to quote from a scholarly research on the plight of Egypt's Copts, I don't mean to simply add to your knowledge of their fourteen-century old sufferings. I want you to consider your responsibility as Christians vis-à-vis this intolerable position of a dwindling Christian minority that suffers silently, with hardly any attention given to it by the conventional media. We are exhorted in the closing chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews to "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated, as if you yourselves were suffering." (13:3) In other words, let us put into practice the Kononia of the Saints which we confess in the Apostles' Creed. This is accomplished in our daily prayers on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the Household of Islam, and making their plight known by all the means available to us. 

Millions of Muslims have come to reside permanently among us in the West. They enjoy freedoms not even accorded to them in their homelands. We should remind our political leaders, who quite often manifest an abysmal ignorance of Islam that it is their duty to speak out about the tragic plight of all minorities in the Muslim World. The civilized and tolerant culture that grants Muslims the rights that are enjoyed by other citizens in the West, has never been reciprocated in a quid pro quo treatment of the Christian minorities in Islam. What a shocking commentary on a culture that parades under the banner of the Religion of Peace! 

*Dhimmitude: The status of being a Dhimmi, an Arabic term that refers to Jews and Christians who live under Islamic rule, subject to strict laws defining their limited rights. 

**The Arab Awakening: The cultural renaissance that began in Egypt and the Levant in the aftermath of Napoleon's brief military campaign in the closing years of the 18th Century. It introduced Arabic-speaking intellectuals (both Muslim and Eastern Christian) to the European civilization, and its accomplishments in the arts and sciences. 

***Aca: The name of the man who attempted the murder of Pope John Paul II. In the Turkish Latinized alphabet, the letter "C" is pronounced as "J"; so Aca is pronounced Aja.

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