Why has so much praise been given to the “Islamic Golden Age”? Sure, the age produced many great achievements and innovations. But why then, do most seem to overlook one of the Middle East’s most successful creations, Christianity? Although today branded “Muslim land,” the Middle East (including North Africa) was a Christian domain for quite a long period of time. Today, the region’s Christian identity is all but lost. Its few remaining Christians are “graciously” permitted to live on “Muslim land” as little more than inconvenient minorities or second-class citizens. Whether through some twisted projection of white guilt, or perhaps just wilful blindness, the plight of the Middle East’s Christians has gone largely unnoticed in the West.
With over two billion adherents, Christianity remains the most populous faith in the world and potentially the most popular ideology in the history of humanity. Yet, in the very region of its origin, its flame is flickering. Even just a century ago 20% of the Middle East’s population was Christian, down to a paltry 4% or 5% today. After thousands of years, it would be truly regretful if this flame were permanently extinguished. Forecasting such a future requires contemplating the past. In this, Lebanon and Egypt make excellent bellwethers. Combined, they contain almost half (46%) of the region’s Christians, and both have an extensive Christian presence dating back to the beginning of the religion.
Not surprisingly, Islamic governing systems, especially the piously religious ones, tend to marginalize their Christian populations. It was the original Islamic expansion itself that began the precipitous decline of Christianity from majority to subjugated minority. Under Muslim domination, Christians were subjected to dhimmitude, the Islamic system developed to control non-Muslim subjects. They were forced to pay jizya (a non-Muslim tax), banned from constructing new churches, and generally treated as second-class citizens. Many who were not converted by the sword would ultimately give in to Islamic dominance from the extreme political, economic, and social disadvantages of being a dhimmi.
In contrast, more liberal or power-sharing governments would usually improve the plight of the Christians. In Egypt, the 1920s and ‘30s was an era of liberal politics after receiving its faux independence from Britain. The nationalist Wafd party commonly won over 80% of the vote, and was fully inclusive of Egypt’s Christians. Their logo even bore a cross and a crescent together. In Lebanon, power sharing in recent years has allowed Christians to play kingmaker, due to the unique situation of roughly equal Sunni and Shi’a populations. No other Christian minorities can make use of such a strategy. Similarly, Lebanon’s 1926 constitution (its first power-sharing arrangement) actually maintained Christian dominance in the country for long after they lost their majority. This constitution was developed largely by the French with an eye for ensuring continuing Maronite supremacy.
Western hopes for the Arab spring have been filled with unsubstantiated optimism and naivety towards the creation of liberal democracies in the region. As the Islamist shift becomes even more apparent, it’s curious that most still see it as a spring rather than a fall. The notion of “moderate” Islamism is more wishful thinking than reality, something discussed by other Front Page writers. True democracy is more than just elections. Even if one were to consider what happened in Egypt as democracy, the victory of an Islamist party has empowered religious extremists and resulted in repeated attacks. Tacit state nonchalance towards protecting Christians, and calls for what can only be described as modern dhimmitude only serve to intensify their fear. Egypt President Mohamed Morsi’s latest power grab illustrates his impatience, but he has remained firm on implementing a constitution where civil rights will be subordinated to Sharia, something the Christian community rightly fears. Even in Tunisia, where the Islamist leaders have been portrayed as even more “moderate,” it’s not hard to find pleas for the creation of a global Caliphate. The more Islamists in power, the more fearful Christian populations become and the more likely they are to pick up and move. Something I can’t blame them for, but something that inevitably aids in the withering of Christianity in the Middle East.
Western engagement has usually given a boost to Christian presence and influence in the Middle East. The Lebanese constitution has not been the only example. For all the bad that came with the Crusades, Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community benefitted enormously, both economically and politically. The same pattern formed during the age of Imperialism. The Middle East’s Christians provided Westerners with familiarity, and therefore trust, in an otherwise exotic region, making them excellent trading partners. Political pressure on the Ottoman Empire by Western countries helped ban the jizya and provided protection and greater judicial equality in the mid-19th century; the best example being the 1856 Hatt-i Humayun decree. Foreign missionary-established schools educated the region’s Christians, and helped to develop a flourishing intellectual and cultural life. The Christian Arabs trained at these institutions were some of the first major proponents of Arab Nationalism itself, though it lacked potency until Muslim thinkers got behind it.
Unfortunately it’s doubtful that Western engagement will continue to aid the Christians of the Middle East. Western powers do not have the aura of invincibility that they once enjoyed; seriously limiting whatever soft power they have left in the region. There is also little appetite for forceful intervention after more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even limited engagements have become extremely undesirable as the Libya operation can attest to, especially after the September 11, 2012 U.S. Embassy attack. Regardless, protecting Christians has been noticeably absent from the list of Western priorities. In contrast to the historical pattern, the U.S. intervention in Iraq has actually resulted in a steep decline in the Iraqi Christian population, from 750,000 to roughly half that in just over a decade.
The negative spiral always begins and ends with demographics. Declining population and declining political influence go hand in hand. Analysing demographics can be tricky, especially in a region where many countries have rarely, if ever, done a census of their populations. When these censuses do occur, political motivations often get in the way of precise and unbiased figures. In Egypt for example, controversy over the Christian population has resulted in claims as low as 5% and as high as 14% of total population. There really seems to be only one area of agreement, Christian populations are shrinking. Besides having seen the Christian population drop from 20% to 4% in the entire region, this century has also bared witness to the only remaining Christian country losing that title. The 1932 Lebanese census put the Christian population at over 50%, which is actually small considering just 22 years earlier 70% of newborn Lebanese were Christian. Now, barely more than a third of Lebanon’s population are Christian. How can such a major shift happen in one century? 84.7% of emigrants from Lebanon since 1924 have been Christian. For over 40 years, the Christian birth rate has been under 30% of newborn Lebanese. These figures unmistakably foreshadow a fading Christian future in Lebanon.
The Middle East was not just the birthplace of Christianity. The region produced some of Christianity’s greatest monuments and enduring figures. St. Augustine himself was from modern day Algeria. Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, was the capital of Christianity and the bastion of the Christian world for over 1,000 years. But today, the plight of the Middle East’s Christians is harrowing. If these trends continue, the Middle East’s 12 million Christians are expected to halve by 2020. Aside from the discrimination and attacks they are forced to endure, they also bear the responsibility of protecting their faith from losing all connection with its birthplace. The importance of sustaining and protecting the mere 1% of worldwide Christians who remain there, cannot be understated. Why this plight is so rarely discussed while so much energy is spent scrutinizing the Middle East is a serious stain on our consciences. Why so much attention is directed towards the burning of a Qur’an, yet so little for the burning of a church is something our generation will eventually have to answer for.
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