Iraq's Christians - from

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, April 23, 2003 at 2:32PM :

Interesting article - not bad. What does anyone else think about this?

On another note: I thought "Assyrian" (language) = "Syriac"? Interesting how he calls us all "Arab" Christians.... Why not just call us all "Middle Eastern" Christians? That way, those people concerned with "ethnic" names will not get upset & perhaps listen to an argument they otherwise would ignore or protest merely because they are called "Arab," "Assyrian," "Chaldean," etc.
Iraq's Christians and the challenges of the post-war setting

George E. Irani, The Daily Star

22 April 2003

Two decades ago, while I was researching a book on the role of the Vatican in the Middle East, the late Lebanese scholar and jurist Edmond Rabbath told me that Arab Christians were in the process of becoming "fossilized" communities. This statement seems prophetic in retrospect when we consider the state of the Christian communities in the Arab world today. Their plight has become even more dramatic in light of the current US-led invasion of Iraq.

In the last 30 years, Arab Christians have attempted to weather several storms: the Lebanese war, the intifada and Israeli violence, the Iranian revolution and the resurgence of Islamic revivalism, and now the war on Iraq. Lebanon's civil war began in 1975 and lasted more than 15 years. Though it has become popular in recent years to reduce the war years to Christian vs. Muslim, or Lebanese vs. Palestinian, the actual picture was much more complex.

Some Lebanese Christians waged battles with and without weapons to maintain their hegemonic status in the country. These "Christians" decided to deploy their faith in an ethnic contest. A supposed fight for survival superceded religious values. During the war, some influential Maronite politicians and clergy chose to take a confrontational approach not only with the Muslim world, but with the Vatican as well. These Maronites thought that they could count on the total and unswerving support of the Holy See in their struggle against the Palestinians and their Muslim allies, simply because of their Christian identity.

However, it was the welfare of Christianity in the Middle East in general that dictated (and still dictates) the Vatican's approach to Lebanon's Christians: the Holy See's goal was to save Lebanon as a sovereign entity in order to save the Christians. This policy explains the Pope's consistent opposition to partition or other schemes, such as federation, cantonization, etc. proposed by some Maronite groups. If Lebanon were to be carved up into small ethno-religious entities, the creation of a Christian mini-state could have negative repercussions on other Christian communities living in Arab and Islamic countries, the Vatican held.

At the war's end in 1990, and with the signing of the Taif Accord, Lebanese Christians saw their power attenuating rapidly in a new political milieu dominated by US, Saudi, and Syrian interests. Today, Lebanese Christians suffer from a serious leadership deficit, with the exception of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who still wields influence and garners respect in Lebanese politics.

In 1993, a group of Maronite intellectuals living in Paris issued a document (which unfortunately never received the follow-up attention it deserved). They held that, since independence, the Maronites have traded their religious heritage and teachings for positions of power. In so doing, they substituted a volatile political order for the cultural foundations of their own community and thus, that of wider Lebanese society. According to these intellectuals, religion has been tribalized and reduced to a political identity. Maronites "need to go back to their monastic traditions, intertwined with prayer, silence and modesty" in order to heal themselves communally of the political vices of the war years.

The predicament of Lebanon's Christians is not as dramatic as that of the Christians living in other countries of the Middle East. Non-Lebanese Christian communities have faced the same problems encountered by other communities in the Levant. In fact, throughout history, under Arab and Ottoman dominations, non-Muslims (Christians and Jews) were treated as dhimmis -- tolerated and protected minorities by the Muslim majority.

In the Ottoman Empire, tolerance of Christians was defined by the millet system. This system estranged Christians from political life and deepened suspicions between them and the Muslim population. Their loyalty was often in doubt, given Arab Christians' connection with Western missionary activities. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and in reaction to the Arab predicament, Christians were at the forefront of Arab nationalist and secular movement. Some, such as Michel Aflaq, founded secular parties such as the Baath.

In Iraq one of the countries where the Baath ruled, or misruled, the Baath is no longer in power, and hence the Christians of Iraq may now face dimmer prospects as the Bush administration advances leaders such as Ahmed Chalabi in a manner evidencing utter disregard for the true interests, visions, and history of the people, be they Christians or Muslims, Arabs or Kurds. In the 1980s, Christians in Iraq (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians) numbered 2 million. Today, their number has dwindled to around 800,000.

Saddam's regime used the Christians as an ally in its policy of divide-and-rule in Iraq. Chaldean Patriarch Bidawid astutely built solid relationships with the Baath regime in order to protect his community. Today, Iraqi Christians find themselves hemmed in between Sunni and Shia competition for power. Their allegiance to the state is put in doubt, and the presence of a new "crusading" Western force is placing Iraq's Christians in a quandary. Their prospects are to stay and suffer their plight with the rest of the population, or to opt for exile and emigration.

In an effort to maintain their sense of identity and solidarity, Iraqi Christians have kept alive the centuries-old languages such as Assyrian or Aramaic, the latter being the language spoken by Jesus and still used today by Christian communities in some parts of Syria. It is doubtful that the evangelical Christian Zionists in the US administration, of whom Bush himself is one, are aware of the complex and rich history of Arab Christians.

Dramatizing the plight of his community, the Assyrian Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, Monsignor Ignace VIII Abdel Ahad, recently stated that the "Christians of Iraq are foremostly in solidarity with their Muslim compatriots. Like all Iraqis who are proud and attached to their land, they will defend their country." Referring to the US-UK invading troops, Abdel Ahad stated: "Iraqis do not consider foreign armies as liberators but colonizers. Those who are now invading the country are not here to defend human rights."

This attitude is very similar to that adopted by the Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian religious hierarchies: Arab Christians and Muslims are united in their struggle against Israeli occupation, Western-based schemes for regime change, and attempts at creating "Christian" islands in the Middle East. Arab Christians are bound to suffer and pay a heavy price if the Bush administration onslaught in the region does not result in a fair and just resolution to the fundamental Arab cause: the question of Palestine.

To avoid any backlash against the Christian communities in the Middle East, who may be associated by some demagogues with the fundamentalist Christian Zionists now guiding US foreign policy, Western church leaders headed by Pope John Paul II have, throughout the period leading to the invasion of Iraq, expressed their strong opposition to any military aggression and called for a UN-based resolution. In the current transitional and unsettled context, Christian communities in the Middle East could play a very important role by going back to the roots of their various faith traditions and by grooming new leaders, women as well as men. These are not impossible tasks.

For now, though, Arab Christians have to lie low and wait for the storm to pass by. Their task is to limit the damage that the war in Iraq has wrought and prepare for the future while forging common bonds of solidarity with their Muslim brothers and sisters and creating more humane and participatory democratic systems. A democratic governance system tailored to the region's culture and history is the ideal solution to stop the hemorrhage of Christian Arabs from their countries. Their presence in the region is a must and a powerful proof that coexistence between Christians and Muslims can be an exemplary model in a democratic Middle East.

George Emile Irani teaches conflict resolution at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of The Papacy and The Middle East. This commentary was written for The Daily Star.

-- Sadie
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