What are the Challenges Facing Eastern Christians?
December 07, 2022
International Relations and Diplomacy
On 28 November 2022, Schiller International University organized an IRD Global Talk on the theme: “What are the Challenges Facing Eastern Christians?” Tigrane Yegavian began his talk by underlining how important it is to deconstruct common misconceptions: 1. all Muslims are Arabs (the latter are in fact a minority); 2. all Arabs are Muslims (there are many Christian minorities still living in the region and one also often forgets the Eastern Jews of Arab culture); 3. the history of the Middle East does not begin in the 7th century with the hijra, namely the year 0 of the Muslim calendar designating the departure of Muhammad and his companions from Mecca to the oasis of Yathrib, the former name of Medina.
Using a rich set of historical maps about Christianity as an Eastern religion, Yegavian recalled that it is in the region that Christianity was formed. Eastern Christians are indeed the source of Western Christianity, as well as the precursors of Islam and Arabism. They also had to suffer from Western Christianity itself. Unfortunately, the news remains bloody, with the destruction of many Christian churches and attacks against Christian communities essentially linked to the weight of regional geopolitics.
In this context, what can be said of the so-called “protection” of Eastern Christians by the great powers? Lebanon is a mosaic under threat, a country that used to be a refuge for vulnerable minorities, but also an anachronistic denominational system where Christians were weakened by the civil war and split into two camps (pro-Sunni and pro-Shiite). Beyond old challenges attached to issues of political sectarianism and citizenship, the Lebanese polity is also confronted with the question of Syrian refugees and their future.
As for the Copts of Egypt – a demographic reservoir of Eastern Christians – they find themselves between the Islamist hammer and the authoritarian anvil. Their integration, which started in the early 1950s, was a failure in large part due to the Islamization of Egyptian society and its consequences at both the constitutional level and in everyday life. There was a spiritual revival in the 1960s, but political patterns have remained marked by exclusion and marginalization, and the resurgence of sectarian violence and persecution like in the case of Upper Egypt that was hit by many terrorist attacks over the recent period.
In Syria, Christians has been the direct victims of war. They lost their status of “protected minority” because of a comparable process of Islamization of Syrian society and the effects of last conflict, therefore often seeing in the Assad regime a lesser evil. From emigration to sectarian withdrawal, the price they had to pay has been huge.
Is Iraq an “impossible Lebanese formula?” Iraqi Christians have formed a weak and fragmented minority. While the Christian population represented more than a million in the 1980s under the Saddam Hussein regime, Christians were only two million in the 1970s. There are today only 200 000. In fact, Iraq’s Christians might well be on the way of disappearing from the country. They have been the collateral victims of both the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the civil war that ensued, as well as the primary targets of Muslim fundamentalists who would like to see the region purged of all non-Muslims.
In Palestine, Christians are on the verge of extinction. Their number has been almost divided by 10 compared to before 1948. In 2017, no more than 47,000 Christians lived in Palestine, i.e., the occupied West Bank (Ramallah, Bethlehem), East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Bethlehem used to be 86% Christian. But after the Israeli occupation of 1967 and the construction of the separation wall in 2002, Christians were driven out of their historic city. Current estimates place the total number of Christians in the population of Palestine at less than 2%, primarily due to: 1. the difficulties caused by the occupation (land expropriations, humiliations, etc.); 2. marginalization due to the Islamization of Palestinian society; 3. the reduction of Israel’s Arab Christians to second-class citizens subject to “divide and rule” policies.
In this environment, Jordan might seem an exception, sometimes referred to as the “kingdom of happy Christians.” Although the Christian community is numerically small, it enjoys positive discrimination. The country’s official religion may be Islam, but the Hashemite monarchy guarantees freedom of worship and ensures that Christians are present in key ministries and the army. In fact, Jordan’s 200 000 Christians are rather well represented in parliament, with 6% of the seats. King Abdullah II appointed 10% of Christians as ministers in 2010. At last, powerful Christian businessmen hold a virtual monopoly in sectors like luxury catering and control nearly 30% of the economy.
What are the present options for Eastern Christians? Federalization, secession? In fact, Christians are needed as mediators within their societies. Many advocate the abandonment of sectarianism and clientelism that are two core obstacles to equal citizenship and opportunities. The necessary rejuvenation of Eastern churches towards unity and modernity must take into account the geopolitical, social, as well as economic context in order to provide concrete answers to the faithful and re-root these churches in the Eastern/Islamic-Christian dialogue.
Eventually, all Eastern churches, except the Coptic Orthodox, have more members in the diaspora than in their countries of origin. Indeed, transnational logics go well beyond traditional solidarities, meaning sustained political lobbying in the West – and by extension in countries of origin – for a democratization of the Middle East.
* Tigrane Yégavian is a researcher at the French Centre for Research on Intelligence (CF2R), as well as a member of the editorial board of Conflits. He is the author of several books, including Minorités d'Orient, les oubliés de l'Histoire (Le Rocher, 2019) and Géopolitique de l'Arménie (Bibliomonde, 2022).
This event was convened by Dr. Myriam Benraad, Global Academic Chair in International Relations & Diplomacy at Schiller International University.