Conference on “Christian Arabs in the Middle East” at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw

On 19 April 2007, “Collegium Civitas” invited the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia H.E. Dr. Nasser Al-Braik and the Ambassador of Lebanon H.E. Mr. Massoud Maalouf to participate in a panel within the framework of lectures on the Islamic Civilization. Professor Boguslaw Zagorski, the organizer of the panel, asked the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to speak about Islam as a religion and as a culture and about the contribution of Islam to the world civilization. The Lebanese Ambassador was asked to make a presentation about “Christian Arabs in the Middle East”.
Attached is the complete text of the conference that Ambassador Maalouf presented on this occasion. Professors and students from the “Collegium Civitas” as well as scholars attended the event. Former Ambassador of Poland to Lebanon H.E. Mr. Tadeusz Strulac was also present.

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19 APRIL 2007

Mr. President of Collegium Civitas,
Excellency, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia,
Professor Boguslaw Zagorski,
Distinguished Professors and Students of the Collegium,

When Professor Zagorski invited me to participate in this panel together with the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia, in the framework of lectures about Islamic Civilization, and to make a presentation about the Christian Arabs, I felt very honored to have the chance to speak about the Christians in our region, not because I personally am an Arab Catholic from Lebanon, but more importantly to clarify some misconceptions and misunderstandings about the very existence of Christian Arabs.

However, when I started to focus on the topic, I came to realize the challenges as some important questions came to mind:
– Does it not sound awkward to speak about the Christians in the Arab World when we are conducting a series of lectures on the Islamic Civilization?
– Is the topic of Christian Arabs subject to misinterpretation when the purpose of this panel is to showcase the great contributions of Islam to the world?
– Would the audience even be interested in listening to a presentation about Christian Arabs when the main focus of this event is about Islam?

With strong encouragement from Professor Zagorski, the host of this panel, and despite these reservations, I will accept the challenge in an effort to give you an objective picture of the Christian Arabs in the Middle East. The essence of this presentation is not to try to counterbalance the important and the extensive contributions of the Islamic civilization to the world by speaking about the Christian Arabs, but to focus on the existence of ethnic Arab Christians throughout the Middle East.

First of all, let me clarify some definitions and set some parameters for this presentation:
– This conference is about Christian Arabs, meaning the ethnic Arabs who follow the Christian faith; it is not about the Christians from different nationalities and countries who happen to live in the Arab world such as the Italians or the French who reside in Tunisia or Egypt, for example.
– Although there is a slight nuance between Christian Arabs and Arab Christians, I will use these two terms interchangeably.
– This is not a presentation in religious terms where I discuss the difference between the Christian and Moslem faiths, or between the different Christian Arab denominations such as the Orthodox, Catholic or Melkite etc. I only intend to provide background on the existence and cultural traditions of Christian Arabs in the various Arab countries.
– Finally, I want to make clear from the outset that the Christian Arabs do not constitute a united community or a society dispersed in different Arab countries. There is not a specific entity called Christian Arabs, but there are the Egyptian Christians, the Lebanese Christians, the Syrian Christians, etc…and taken altogether, they constitute what I refer to as the Christian Arabs.

Having set these parameters let me begin with a brief historic overview.

Many people in the West are not aware that there are Christians who are ethnically Arabs. To them, the words Arab and Moslem are synonymous. In fact, not all Arabs are Moslems and not all Moslems are Arabs. Although the great majority of Arabs follow the Islamic faith, there are some Arab countries the populations of which are comprised of a sizeable proportion of Arab Christians.

By the same token, there are many non-Arab countries, where the majority of the population practice the Islamic faith such as Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Malaysia.

As we know, the Holy Koran descended on the Prophet Mohammed in the year 622 A.D., and the conversion of the Arab tribes to the new Islamic faith began then. At that time, the Arabs were either Christian, pagan or Jew. We should remember here that Jesus Christ was born and lived in Palestine and that Christianity began in what came to be known as the Arab world. Many Arab tribes had adhered to Christianity since the first century including the Nabateans and the Ghassanids. A significant number of the Arabs on the eve of the arrival of the Islamic faith were Christian. With the Islamic conquests and the establishment of Islam in the Arab lands, a sizeable proportion of the Christians converted over time to Islam while others decided to maintain their pre-existing beliefs. So the Arab Christians are first and foremost Arabs who did not convert to Islam, but who continued to practice their Christian religion with relatively few conditions alongside their Moslem Arab brothers. They were known as the “people of the book”.

As I said earlier, the majority of the Christian Arabs are concentrated in the countries of the Middle East. The thousands of Christian Arabs who live in the Gulf countries and those who reside in North Africa are not nationals of these countries, but, rather are immigrants or temporary residents coming from Middle Eastern countries. So when we talk about Arab Christians, we are referring to those who are an integral part of the populations of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

It is difficult to have an exact number of those Christian Arabs because of the lack of statistics and because the estimates are not always objective. However, according to most specialists, it has been estimated that Christian Arabs make up around 10% of the total population of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq.

Egypt contains the largest number of Arab Christians. According to the official estimates, over 4 million Egyptians follow the Christian faith. Their church is called the Coptic church and they are known as Copts. The great majority of the Copts are Orthodox Christians, while a smaller number of them are Catholic and Protestant. Although we hear about occasional conflicts in remote Egyptian villages between Christians and Moslems, the Copts do coexist with their Moslem brethren without any kind of segregation or separation. Many have attained very high political levels, the most prominent of them being Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was the Minister of State in charge of Foreign Affairs in Egypt, and later became the Secretary General of the United Nations, and subsequently the Secretary General of the Francophone Organization.

In Syria, the last census was conducted in 1960 and it revealed that the Christians represented fewer than 15% of the total Syrian population. There have been no other censuses after that date, and the current estimates put the proportion of Christians at around 10% which is about 2 million citizens. In Syria, the Christians enjoy the same legal and social status as their Moslem brethren and many of them occupy ministerial posts. It is worth noting that the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic Patriarchates of the whole Middle East have their official headquarters in Damascus.

In Jordan, it is estimated that Christians number around 400,000, which is about 7% of the population, most of them being Orthodox with a small minority of Catholics and Protestants. They are well represented in the Parliament, in the government, and in the military. They also enjoy a high level of freedom and a respected economic and social level.

In Palestine, it is said that Christians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank now make up less than 2% of the total population although this proportion in the past was much higher. There are four times more Christian Palestinians in the Diaspora (outside Palestine) than in Palestine as a result of the long-standing conflict with Israel. Many Christian Palestinians have played a prominent role in the Palestinian national movement, including George Habash, Nayef Hawatmeh and the eloquent and famous scholar and political activist Mrs. Hanan Ashrawi.

In Iraq the number of Christians has decreased over the last decades with many of them having immigrated to North American and Scandinavian countries. The prevailing situation in Iraq in the last few years has significantly increased that exodus. The current numbers are estimated at around a few thousand. Most of them are Assyrians and Chaldeans of the Orthodox and Catholic affiliation.

Having given you a general overview of the Arab Christian population in the Middle East countries, I will speak now in more detail about the Christian Arabs in my country, Lebanon. Of course it is impossible to relate the two thousand year history of Christian presence in Lebanon in just a few minutes. I will focus on the most important aspects of this topic.

In Lebanon, the last actual census was conducted in 1932, which means that today, there are no accurate statistics relating to the Lebanese population. The current estimates are that Christians represent between 30% and 40% of the total Lebanese population which puts the number of Lebanese Christians at between 1,100,000 and 1,300,000. The 1989 Taef Accords which put an end to the civil war insured an equal power-sharing between Christians and Moslems. The seats in the Cabinet and in the Parliament as well as the high posts of the civil service are divided fifty-fifty between Moslems and Christians. According to an unwritten pact adopted on the eve of our independence in 1943, the President of the Republic must be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shiite Moslem and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Moslem.

The majority of the Christians in Lebanon belong to the Maronite Church. There also exists a significant proportion of Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic and a minority of Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Protestant Lebanese.

The Armenians who live in Lebanon and who constitute 6% of the total population of Lebanon cannot be considered ethnic Arabs. They migrated from Armenia to Lebanon in the wake of the tragedy they suffered at the hands of the Turks in 1915 and although they are well integrated in the Lebanese society and well represented in the Parliament and the Cabinet they are not Arabs from a pure ethnic point of view. However, they are considered as an important Christian component of the Lebanese society. Those of you who would like additional information about the Armenians in Lebanon can read about the conference I presented on this subject in 2006 by visiting our embassy’s website at .

In general, Christians have been present in Lebanon since the beginning of Christianity. Many of them are descendants of the Ghassanid tribe who migrated over the centuries from Yemen to Syria and then to Lebanon. Beautiful convents are found throughout Lebanon, especially on strategic hills where Christians took refuge to escape persecution during the Middle Ages and when Lebanon was occupied by the Ottoman Empire from the 16th until the 20th century.

Speaking of convents, I would like to mention here that the famous Polish poet, Juliusz Slowacki, visited Lebanon in 1837 and lived in a convent in a village called Ghazir. From there he wrote many letters to his mother in Poland telling her that he was residing in “this convent above the clouds” and also describing the beauty of Lebanon. In 2002, a Juliusz Slowacki museum was inaugurated inside this convent. Other connections between Poland and the Christians of Lebanon also exist. On three occasions in the 19th century a Polish Jesuit Father named Maksymillan Ryllo was sent by the Vatican to Lebanon. He established the “Collegium Asiaticum”in 1841. This collegium was to become in later years the French University Saint Joseph of which I am proud to be a graduate. Also, the Polish Cardinal Rubin, a close friend of Pope John Paul II, spent the last two years of his life in Lebanon.

Religious affiliation in Lebanon is the basis for many civil procedures including birth, marriage, divorce and death, and as such, the church plays an important role for the Christians. Indeed, all acts of civil status, like birth, marriage, divorce or death have to be registered first and foremost in the records of the religious authority to which the citizen belongs. More and above, Lebanon does not have a system of civil marriage. When Lebanese citizens get married, they must do so either in their church or through an Islamic religious authority if they are Moslem. It is worth noting that each religious denomination has its own rules and conditions for celebrating a marriage. Once the marriage has been celebrated religiously, the married couple will process the official registration in the civil status department of the government. The same procedure applies for other matters of civil status.

Public schools in Lebanon are open to all citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliation. However, the different religious denominations also have their own private schools to which their followers can send their children if they chose to do so. This includes Catholic, Orthodox, Sunni, Shiite and Druze private schools that follow their respective religious doctrine in addition to the official curriculum.

In spite of the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990 and which was often incorrectly portrayed as a religious war, Christians and Moslems in Lebanon live in harmony. The vast majority of neighborhoods in Beirut reflect a mix of religious affiliations. There are of course some exceptions where people of the same religious affiliation are preponderant in one area while others are the majority in another area.

The dialogue between Christians and Moslems in the world which was so strongly promoted and encouraged by Pope John Paul II has a completely different implication in Lebanon. In fact, we do not need institutions and structures for a multi-religious dialogue in Lebanon because we live together and we interact with each other very well. It is worthy of note that some of the best scholars on Islam in Lebanon are Christian, including priests and monks who devote their time to studying the Islamic religion in addition to Christian theology. When a Surat of the Holy Koran is mentioned, all Lebanese Christians know immediately what it is about. Christians and Moslems in Lebanon are well versed in the religious obligations and traditions of each other’s religion. The holy month of Ramadan and the Christian Lent are key examples. In many Lebanese villages where Christians and Moslems live together, it is not exceptional to see Moslems helping their Christian brethren ring the church bells on special occasions.

On a different level, although there are some political parties whose members in their great majority belong to one single confession because the goals and aims of that party are to promote the followers of that specific confession, a great number of the political parties in Lebanon are multi-confessional and they include members of all religions. Even the political alliances in Lebanon are not formed according to religious affiliation, but rather on the basis of political interest. In the current political standoff in Lebanon, we can see a number of Christians allied with some Moslems while other Christians are allied with Moslems from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

I have spoken in detail about this tolerance and conviviality between Christians and Moslems in Lebanon in an effort to dissipate any preconceived notion that the Lebanese civil war was a religious war and also in order to not leave you with the impression that the Christian Lebanese constitute a separate entity that lives in our society separate from another Moslem entity. Christians and Moslems in Lebanon do not live on the side of each other but they rather live with each other. They do not coexist, but they live together.

Before concluding this overview of Christian Arabs in the Middle East, I will say a few words about Christian Arabs in the Diaspora. As I mentioned earlier, the Ottoman Empire occupied and ruled Lebanon and the whole Middle East from the 16th century until the end of World War I in the 20th century. This occupation was marked by the oppression of the Christian populations of the area, and in the late 1800s, Arab Christians began their emigration from the Middle East.

In fact, many thousands of Christians emigrated to the Americas and to West Africa and Australia in order to escape the persecution and oppression. The hard economic conditions imposed on the region before and during World War I prompted even more Christians to emigrate, mostly from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Although most of the populations of the Middle East suffered under the Ottoman rule, the Christians were the subject of specific religious persecution and for this reason, the majority of emigrants from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in this period were Christian. The new conditions of life encountered by the emigrants encouraged more Lebanese to emigrate to the new world, and it is estimated that almost one third of the Christian population of Lebanon left in the first half of the 20th century. Christian Arabs from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine now constitute an integral component of the populations of Latin America, the United States, Canada and Australia. They were joined lately by more emigrants from all religions due to difficult economic conditions in the Middle East and also because of the wars with Israel and the political instability throughout the region. This explains the fact that the current Middle Eastern residents of the different countries receiving immigrants represent a variety of religious affiliations whereas the first generations are mostly Christian.

The civil war that occurred in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 caused a new flow of Lebanese emigration which included people from all religious affiliations. The Arab Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular were the favorite destination for tens of thousands of Lebanese emigrants. Thanks to their remittances, the Lebanese economy is able to overcome a lot of its hardships. I would like to express the deep gratitude of the Lebanese people to Saudi Arabia for treating all Lebanese residents, including the Christians, with great generosity and warm hospitality.

I will conclude this presentation by speaking briefly about the challenges that Christian Arabs in the Middle East are facing today.

Christian Arabs have lived in peace and harmony with their Moslem brethren over the centuries and the only periods where conflicts arose were during the times of foreign occupation or foreign intervention. Christian Arabs have always been and still are an integral part of the Arab society. When the Crusaders invaded the region in the 11th and 12th centuries, although some Christian Arabs allied themselves with the Crusaders, most of the Christian Arabs fought alongside the Moslem Arabs against the invaders because they were all Arabs fighting foreign forces. It is a reality, however, that the number of Christians in the Arab world and especially in Lebanon continues to decline. So what will be the future of the Christians in the Middle East and what are the main challenges that lie ahead?

The three kinds of challenges are economic, political and religious.
– Economic challenges: The difficult economic situation in the Middle East in general and particularly in Lebanon is encouraging many people, including Christians, to emigrate. High unemployment, inflation and the ongoing economic crisis make emigration a viable alternative particularly for the youth in search of a better future.
– Political challenges: Tied to the economic challenges are the political challenges. This includes the continuing Israeli-Arab conflict, political instability in Lebanon and Palestine for instance and the war in Iraq, to name a few. Threats of more conflicts in the region and in Lebanon prompt Christians to find a future for them and for their children in more stable countries.
– Religious challenges: The growing fundamentalism among Moslems as well as Jews and Christians is a source of grave concern for the Christians. The Christians are already a small minority in a mostly Islamic majority in the Middle East. The Islamic fundamentalists, for political reasons, consider the Arab Christians as allies of the West, and the Christian fundamentalists of the West consider them allies of the Arabs. And as Arabs themselves, the Christian Arabs consider Israel as their natural enemy. So we can see how the Christian Arabs are facing very difficult religious challenges.

Is emigration the only way out of this difficult situation? I definitely do not think so. I strongly believe that the Christian Arabs and particularly the Christian Lebanese, thanks to their traditional links with the western world, constitute a viable and useful bridge for the relations between East and West. At a time when the Ottoman Empire was trying to suppress the Arabic language completely, the monks of Lebanon preserved this language by introducing the first Arabic language printer in 1610. By the same token, Christian Arabs of today, particularly those of the Diaspora, can play a significant role in bridging the gap between the Moslem Arab world and the Christian West. For example, Mr. Nick Rahall, a prominent Christian Lebanese-American U.S. Congressman participated in Ms. Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional Delegation when it met with President Bashar Assad of Syria earlier this month. Subsequently, another Lebanese-American member of Congress Mr. Daryl Issa met with President Bashar Assad on a later visit. These are only very recent examples of what actions Arab Christians are taking in order to bring the Christian West closer to the Moslem East.

These challenges are not insurmountable and I am confident that the Christian Arabs will remain an integral part of the Arab society, working with their Arab Moslem brothers for world peace. Fundamentalism in any religion is only a temporary stage, and all religions if their teachings are not misused, preach peace and understanding. So let us hope for the best, in the Middle East and throughout the world.

I want to conclude this presentation by thanking the President of this prestigious “Collegium Civitas” Professor Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski and Professor Boguslaw Zagorski for giving me the opportunity to participate in this thought-provoking panel.

I also want to thank you all for your kind attention.