Presentation at Al-Hewar Center
"…And What About Arab Christians?"

by Mr. Gabriel Habib
former Secretary General of the Middle East Council of Churches

I. Unknown Entity


A.  Many Americans ignore that Arab Christians exit. This is due to the following reasons:


      1. Their education made them believe that the 7th Century Islamic expansion has put 

          an end to Christian presence in the Middle East. Therefore, for them the Arabs and

          the Palestinians, in particular, are only Muslims and not also Christians


      2. The curriculum of many American Theological Seminaries seems to make a jump

          from the Apostolic period to the division of the 12th century, between the Eastern

          and Western Christians or to the Reformation of the 16th Century.

      3. The “Evangelicals” continue to try to keep the Middle East Christians unknown

          because they are not like them or “born again”. For example, a director of the 700

          Club TV program refused once to show a 15 minutes video on the Middle East

          Christians, afraid that if the Americans realize that the Arab Christians exist they

          will discontinue to give money for mission in the region.

      4. The American Media. Because of a lot of misleading in the Media about the Arabs,

          many Americans do not know the truth about the tradition and history of the Arab

          Christians and the possible constructive common living between them and the Arab



B.  Many ignore the meaning of the term “Arab”. Because I speak Arabic, I was often asked, in some American Christian circles, when I was converted from Islam? My answer always was that I became Christian at “Pentecost”, which happened 700 years before the coming of Islam   


Therefore, most Americans seem to ignore the fact that the term “Arab” does not refer to a race and even less to a religion, but rather to a language and a culture. An “Arab” is a person who partakes in the history of the Arab world. The same notion was in fact proposed by the Prophet Mohammad who, according to a hadith, stated: “To be Arab is not a question of race or genealogy but of language. Whoever speaks Arabic is Arab.” Therefore, when one speaks of Arab Christians, one means Christians of Arab culture and language. Also “Arab” does not mean Islam, even though Islam used the Arabic language since its origin. Today, the majority of Muslims in the world do not use Arabic.


Therefore, the Christians who originated in Palestine, came to the Arab peninsula, centuries before Islam. Some were Copts, Arameac or Syriac. Their present number, in the Middle East, is close to 13 millions or about 7 per cent of the total Arab population. They are found in the Eastern Mediterranean and the North African countries.


II. Old Challenges

The Arab Christians encountered in their history private problems and common challenges the Arab Muslims. 
A. The private problems were the following:


1. Their Persecution by the Romans until 330 AD.


    2. The Early heresies, which included “Gnosticism”, “Marcionism” and “Montanism”     


    3. The Christian divisions that were exacerbated by the “powers and principalities” of

        this word, like the Byzantine Empire, which started in 330 AD and by the prevailing

        Hellenic culture, particularly the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato.


    4. The Islamic expansion, made some Muslim leaders exercise economic, political,

        sociological, familial and cultural pressers that led to the convergence of about 80

        percent of the Christians to Islam. The Arabic language was then spread in the M.E

        and those who were speaking Coptic, Arameac or syriac started to speak Arabic.

        However, they continued to use their old languages in their worships. The concept

        of religious minority (thummi), which was applied to the “People of the Book” has

        later become, in some countries, equivalent to the notion of “second class citizens”


    5. The Western Christian Missions, which included the Catholic missions, as from

     1552 and the Protestant missions, as from 1806. These missions divided further the

     Arab and other Middle East Christians.  


B. The Common Challenges with the Arab Muslims were the following:


    1. The Crusades. These were addressed by the western Christians, not only against the

         Muslims in Jerusalem but have also massacred Jews and thousands of Orthodox

         Arab Christians in various parts of the Middle East. During the Gulf war, Rev. Jerry

         Falwell said once on CNN: Now that our army is in the Gulf, We can distribute

         freely the Bible. That was considered, by many, as a sort of new Crusade.


     2. The Ottoman domination from 1517 to 1917. It introduced the “Millet” system,

         which made the religious communities become socio-political entities . In that way,

         it legalized divisions between the branches of the same religion and between the

         monotheistic communities. It also increased inter-religious problematic sensitivities

         and tensions, as well as the possibility of loosing the pluralist nature of society. 


    3.  Western Colonialism. In addition to their negative effects on the Arab countries,

         they coincidentally happened with western Christian missions to the Middle East in

         the Middle Age and the 19th century. Unfortunately, this made Muslims in some

         countries regard some local Christian communities, as political and cultural “fifth

         columns” of the western political and cultural powers. 


The Arab Christians responses to the old common challenges included the following political, social and educational contributions to the Arab and Middle East societies.          


1. The promotion of Modern nationalism. The concept of “Arabism” or “Arabity”

    was promoted in the 19th century by the “Monotheist Intelligencia”, mainly the

    Arab Christians, who used then the secular humanist concept of “Nation State”

    (watan). That concept separated the State from Religion and established equality

    between citizens, regardless of the religion, ethnicity and culture.


2. The struggle for National Independence. Through Arab nationalism, the Christians

    participated actively in various movements of independence from the Ottoman Empire,

    the British and the French mandates as well as the imperialism of other foreign powers.


3. The promotion of Education: This was done through the Christian schools and

    universities including those established by the western Christian Missions. The

    hope was to enable the younger generation to develop the national culture, to improve

    the national socio-political procedures and to secure national economic development.


4. The initiation of Ecumenical Movement:  The aim was to witness to the Oneness of

    God, which is not only transcendental but also historical, through the unity of the

    Church. This movement became a sign of hope for inter-religious understanding and

    for the unity of the socio-politically fragmented Arab region.


III. New Challenges


A. The Ethnic and/or Religious Revivalism. Some religious revivalist movements decided to oppose their religious and cultural particularities to the secular humanist theories and criteria of their political, religious and cultural experience. Unfortunately, some of these movements have been using or misusing politics to fulfill their ideals or have been permitting political powers to use and misuse their religion for the pursuit of their particular interest.


1. This is the case of ethno-religious nationalism or Zionism in Israel, which is an

    ideological version of Judaism. For this reason, Israel has revived the concepts of

    Divine Right and Chosen People. The Israeli Prime minister Begin said once that

    nobody can tell me to leave “Judea and Samaria”, not even the UN, because the right

    to be here is given to me by God, the father of Isaac and Jacob. Such a policy led to the

    problematic ethical behavior, which was seen in Sabra and Shatela Palestinian refugee

    camp in Lebanon in 1982 and continue in today’s Israel/Palestine. It includes Might makes Right, 

    the  fait accompli and the elimination of the “other”, instead of dialogue with that “other”.


2. This has also led to the so-called “fundamentalists” of some Islamic revivalist

    movements, to try to reestablish a “religious state” instead of the western secular

    humanist “nation state” that has been adopted by some Arab countries. Therefore,

    these movements are now trying to revive the old concepts of “Umma” or Islamic

    nation and “Dhummi” or second class citizenship


B. The Conflict of Cultures. For many centuries, the Middle East has been a crossroad of cultures that made its people suffer a schizophrenic way of life. Nowadays, because of the attempts to return to the ethnic or religious nature of the Middle East societies, people of that region are facing the challenge of two apparently conflicting cultures.


1. The first is the so-called western culture, which is regarded by many Middle Eastern

    “monotheists” as being the result of western secular humanism. According to them,

    that ideology has invested power in the human being to the extend of marginalizing

    and even eliminating God through the materialist, nihilist and atheist ideologies.

    Moreover, many of them consider also that this culture and its values were propagated

    internationally through western colonialism, Christian missions and the UN.


2. The second cultural trend is the monotheistic reaction to the “western culture”.  

    Accordingly, the Israeli Jews and the “fundamentalist” Muslims consider that “power”

    should be re-centered in God and that the State and Religion should be reunited.

    Unfortunately, the Zionist and “fundamentalist” expressions of this trend, go often to

    the extend of asserting God’s power at the expense of the human being who could even

    be eliminated in the name of God or of “His people”.

In fact this phenomenon of reviving the ethnic, religious and cultural particularities is no more exclusively Middle Eastern. It has become a serious challenge to the concept of Plurality in the whole world. 


C. More Economic Deterioration. Some Arab Gulf States are rich because of their oil resources. However, the Arab people in general are poor because the income from these oil resources is unjustly distributed or mainly invested in the military armament required by the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and promoted by some western powers. Also, a major part of this income is spent to feed the Arab market with the products of the western countries, which are pursuing in the region, their self-centered economic interest.


D. The Shortage of Democracy. Many regimes in the Middle East do not permit their people to practice “democracy” or “Shawra”, with the pretext that their national security is threatened by foreign intervention. This anomaly has been supported by some western powers, whose national and international securities are at stake. Consequently, some of these Middle Eastern states have not been able to solve, in their societies, the issues of minority rights, equality in citizenship and freedom, including the freedom of religion.

E. The Foreign Interventions. Because of its geographic position, between continents and its natural resources, the Middle East region has always been important to foreign states in the fields of economics and national security. One could recall the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottoman Empire and the European colonialism, particularly the British and the French Mandates. In this regard, we could also mention the Super Powers of the cold war and recently, the American policy of globalization, of war or Crusades against Terrorism or against Evil. The American foreign policy is deeply criticized by the Arab Muslims and Christians for the following reasons:

a) It is a double standard policy, since the US attacks Iraq but does not criticize Israel.

b) “Globalization” seems to be a policy of trying to make the world become like the

    USA in the areas of “Democracy” and culture or “Civilization”

c) It is a policy of self-interest aiming at controlling oil.

d) It is ethically problematic, as it seems to be replacing monotheism by “money theism”,

    in relation to the market economy

e) It is permitting the American “fundamentalist Evangelicals” to show that the US power 

    is Christian. Some of those “Evangelicals” seem now to be distributing the Bible in

    Iraq saying that the USA has open the way to Christ. Accordingly, they seem to be

    forgetting that the real Christians believe that God’s Kingdom is not from this world

    and that His power is the Holy Spirit

IV. Future Options for the Arab Christians

The options considered by the Christians of the Arab world, regarding their future are: 


A. To leave the Region.  Afraid of the unknown future, many are already leaving. About 80% of the American Arabs are Christians  


B. To Continue their Presence and witness in the Middle East. The Arabic speaking Christians believe that Christ was born, in their region, where various conflicts were prevailing, to start an era of love, reconciliation and peace between all people and nations. Accordingly, many are now convinced that they should witness to Peace with justice within monotheism. This means finding with the Jews and the Muslims a State that is neither secular nor ethnocentric or theocratic but that guarantees freedom and equality.

In their collective memory, they also have the fact that mainly between the 8th and 14th Century, they have made important contributions to the Arab and Islamic cultural heritage. In this respect, what has been encouraging, for the Arab Christians is the fact that many Muslims are quite concerned with the possible retreat, marginalization or self-marginalization of Arab Christians. Many Muslims have recently expressed anxiety about the growing feeling of the Christians to be aliens in their nations. Consequently, as secularism is not seen, by many Christians and Muslims alike, as an alternative, they emphasize the principle of “co-citizenship” whereby Muslims and Christians could live as equals in a society, which would embody their respective spiritual values. In this connection, the hope of the Arab Christians, as well as that of many Muslims is that the Islamic law must be recognized as an important source of modern legislation but not as the unique source of that legislation or as a divine law that cannot be touched. The hope therefore, is that the Muslims would accept to reinterpret their “Sharia”.  


In fact, the common conviction is growing among Arab Muslims and Christians that the challenges of the effects of the ongoing policy of “Globalism” is making creative inter-Church and inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, increasingly needed to put an end to violence and to help people fulfill just peace between nations, states and ethno-religious communities. In the Middle East, I have been involved in the two following encounters: 


A. The Lebanese National Committee for Muslim-Christian Dialogue. The Christian and Muslim leaders in Lebanon formed that committee with the following mandate:

1. To help liberate the monotheistic religions from old misconceptions and traumas of

    the past such as Anti-Semitism, the Crusades and Islam as a religion of violence.

2. To help the religious people concerned, prove that in their renewal movements, they

    should emphasize mutual respect instead of discrimination, freedom instead of

    oppression as well as unity and peace instead of division and war. Ultimately, this will

    help them prove that religion cannot be a cause of violence and war but a factor of

    reconciliation justice and peace.

3. To discover in the heritage of all religions involved, common values conductive to

   common living in societies and states, which do not have to be neither secular, nor

   theocratic or ethnocentric and, at the same time, they should respect religion as well as

   religious, ethnic and cultural differences. Accordingly, they should secure religious

   freedom and the freedom of conscience, which are rooted in the shared convection

   that God has created the human being at “His image and likeness” as believed by

   Jews and Christians and “equal like the teeth of the comb” as said by the Muslims.


B. The Arab Working Group on Muslim-Christian Dialogue. When I was still Gen. Secretary of the MECC, I had initiated meetings of prominent Arab Muslims and Christians intellectuals, religious scholars and people engaged in public life. In its meeting in Beirut in May 1995, that group, included members from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, the Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

In general, they are sharing the belief in common living between Muslims and Christians were freedom, justice, equality and the right of citizenship prevail. They are also emphasizing the need to work together in addressing internal national concerns and in facing external dangers that are presently threatening the Muslims and Christians of the one Arab homeland. Moreover, they agreed that their dialogue is a dialogue of life and will not be a way to proselytism or evangelism. Therefore, it is an opportunity for believers to unite their hearts and minds in a sense of shared national and cultural belonging, as well as in a sense of common destiny.

V. American Responsibilities

The Americans and particularly the Christians among them are called to do the following:

A. Understand the Middle Eastern Ethos. The main characteristics are the following:

1. Religion and politics are interrelated. This is due to the fact that the Middle

    East has never been radically affected by the Industrial or the French revolutions.   

    2. The identity of the human being is communal. In the Middle East every

        individual is recognized socially and legally as a member of a religious or an ethno-

        religious community. In Judaism there is the concept of the “Chosen People”, in

        Islam, the notion of “Umma” and in Christianity, the “Church”.

   3. The sense of history is ever present. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the "past"

        is relevant to the "present" and to the "future".  In particular, the Christians considers

        that their God is the same yesterday, today and forever, as said in (Heb 13:8). 

   4. The sense of holiness is quite alive. The monotheists have always view their

        Middle East land as holy, and the city of Jerusalem as symbol of the convergence in

        history of the “divine” with the “human”. In that sense, Jerusalem becomes the City 

        of Peace between all people.

This means that western secular humanist theories and criteria cannot be used to analyze societies in the Middle East. This also means that the Middle East region bears seeds of destruction, conflict and war; but, at the same time, it carries divine potential for dialogue, reconciliation and peace.

B. Review Christian missions to the region. This should lead them to promote partnership instead of proselytism with regard the Middle East Christians and other religious communities.

C. Support the Christians of the Middle East. This should aim at a) securing the continuation of their presence and particular witness to God’s love, unity, Justice and Peace, on behalf of the Universal Church. b) helping their work for God’s Peace and practically, support their contribution to solving the Arab/Israeli conflict by helping the Palestinian authorities recognize the right of Israel to exist and by pressing Israel to approve the Palestinian right of self-determination. c) Helping them promote inter-religious dialogue within Monotheism. This will help the people concerned liberate themselves from their old traumas and to prove that religion is not a cause of war but a factor of peace. Such a dialogue could help the Jews, Muslims and Christians discover in their respective spiritual heritage, values for common living in Justice and peace.

D. Encourage visits to the Middle East. These could have the form of practical visits to the region with the aim of helping themselves know more about the life and needs of the Middle East people. These visits could also be mental through reading some books or by adopting more comprehensive curriculum in some American Theological Seminaries.


E. Encourage a fair US foreign policy. This implies asking the U.S government with prophetic courage, to adopt an impartial foreign policy in the Middle East. Such a policy should not be based on a selfish economic interest and a self-centered concept of security but on an ethic of solidarity and dialogue, instead of elimination of the “other”. It should also aim at securing just development and peace in the region.

In this connection, and through the efforts of the MECC and the supporting solidarity of the World Council of Churches, the American mainline Churches and their National Council of Churches have already been very vocal and active.  


IV. Responsibility of Arab Christian and Muslims in the USA

Some Arabic speaking Christians and Muslims presently living in the United States and are enough sensitive to the spiritual values of their respective religions involved and to the political concerns of the Arab societies and states, should meet occasionally for the following purpose: 


A. To explore ways of explaining to the American public that the Arab Christians exist and that the word “Arab” does not refer only to the Muslims but to the common cultural expression of various religious and ethnic people in the Middle East. Accordingly, the Arabic speaking people are not only Muslims but also Christians.


B. To explore ways of promoting and assisting Muslim-Christian dialogue groups, working in the Arab World for common living Justice and Peace in that region.


C. To help limit the danger of fundamentalism everywhere. The Arab Christian Churches represented by the Middle East Council of Churches, consider that the American so-called Christian Zionism is trying to aggressively impose an aberrant expression of the Christian faith and an erroneous interpretation of the Bible, which is subservient to the political agenda of the modern State of Israel. They also recognize that the American Christian Zionists are lobbying the US government to continue to finance Israel’s expansionist agenda.


The NCCC/USA and the mainline American member Churches have already expressed strong opposition to the Evangelical Zionist Christian Movement


D. To determine how to contribute to the efforts of Arab-Americans aiming at reviewing the US policy towards just peace in the Middle East.       


Detailed outline of a presentation made at Al Hewar Center in Vienna, Virginia on Wednesday March 17, 2004.

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