Tag Archives: Christian

Louis Sako on Middle Eastern Christians

A few days ago the Telegraph ran an opinion piece by Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon.  Patriarch Sako is an Iraqi with a long history of calling for peace and dialogue in his country.  In this piece, he argues that just as Christianity contributed to Islam in the first centuries of the new religion, so it must learn how to do so again, that Middle Eastern Christians should refuse to emigrate from the Middle East, and that other countries should apply pressure to Middle Eastern countries to ensure that Middle Eastern Christians are not merely a tolerated minority, but citizens with full equality under the law.  It is an interesting piece and well worth reading.

Unfortunately many western readers may not be aware of the degree of the crisis that Middle Eastern Christianity is experiencing, and therefore Patriarch Sako’s points may sound like special pleading.  In part this is due to the human tendency to simplify for the sake of memory, and therefore the Middle East is (mis-)remembered as entirely Muslim for at least a millennium, if not since Muhammad himself.  An article I currently have under review reveals something of how mistaken this is for the case of Syria and Palestine, where even a millennium ago the rural population seems to have been almost entirely non-Muslim, and since in pre-industrial agrarian societies rural populations necessarily dwarfed urban populations, this means that the Muslims were a small portion of the population in the area we now know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.  When did Islam become not only the religion of the rulers but also the religion of most of the subjects in the Middle East?  The answer must vary for different areas, but scholars presently have no plausible answer.  In the case of Syria and Palestine, I would guess it was after the Crusader period, into the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  In the case of Lebanon, it was in the early twentieth century.  There were still Christian bishops in Arabia in the tenth century (despite the rumor that Muhammad expelled all Christians from the peninsula).  Certain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan are still majority or exclusively Christian, although those areas are smaller and more remote with each passing decade.

One interesting statistic which Patriarch Sako cites is that 850,000 Iraqi Christians have left the country since the US invasion in 2003, which is over half of the Christian population in Iraq before the war.  When Patriarch Sako was born Christians were 10% of the Iraqi population, while today it must be around 2% (=(1,500,000-850,000)/31,234,000).  A similar trend happened slightly earlier in Palestine over the course of the last 90 years, and is ongoing with the Christian populations of Syria and Egypt.  When I was in Aleppo three years ago (before the current violence), I met an Iraqi Christian who was trying to get to Toronto.  The Middle Eastern Christian population is being erased culturally, historically, and demographically.

And yet, it is easy to understand why Christians leave the Middle East.  Extremist groups kill Christians because they view Middle Eastern Christians as foreign agents and illegitimate members of Islamic society, a view which is alien to historical Islam.  On the other hand, the dominant view of traditional Muslim legal authorities, that Jews and Christians should be tolerated as long as they pay an extra tax and never do anything to imply that their religion is better than Islam (such as riding a horse or ringing a church bell), has always left non-Muslim populations vulnerable to violence by extremists.  After Muslim Brotherhood supporters torched dozens of Coptic churches last August, the Coptic authorities again pointed out that they do not have equal or adequate protection from the Egyptian police.  That is why Patriarch Sako is calling not merely for Christians to be viewed as a “tolerated minority,” but as full citizens with equality before the law.  But when the law is not doing its job, finding a less dangerous place to live is fully understandable, even as it makes matters that much more difficult for those left behind.

What distresses me is the degree to which non-Middle-Easterners often unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, adopt the new xenophobic viewpoint of the extremists and consider Middle Eastern Christians as some kind of outsiders in Middle Eastern society.  They were part of that society long before Islam, and have never ceased to be a part of that society.  Indeed, Middle Eastern society is more dominantly Islamic now than at any point in the past.  And yet most educated people in the West are completely unaware of this past, and even historians with their over-developed desire to distinguish between terms still regard “Middle Eastern history” and “Islamic history” as fully synonymous.  (Neither is a subset of the other, for not only have non-Muslims always been a large portion of Middle Eastern society, but there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than in it, since Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country.)  I think progress toward a more inclusive and peaceful Middle Eastern society will be made when people recognize that that society has always been more diverse than today’s propagandists of whatever stripe would have us believe.

Who is George Sabra? (part 2)

The second installment of the Qatari al-Watan‘s series on George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council and acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, was published on November 14, 2012 (Arabic here).  I thought it would be useful, even seven months later, to make this available to an English-speaking audience, in order to hear George Sabra in his own words.  Here is my translation:

Tales of George Sabra (2)

by Ahmad Mansur

George Sabra finishes the story of his escape from Syria across the border with Jordan, saying, “The crossing of the raised earthen embankment at the border, which represents the final stage of the journey of escape, was the divider between life and death.  It is possible that someone will die by a sniper’s bullet while he is crossing the embankment where he is exposed, and it is possible that he will pass it to the other side, so that life is ordained for him and he comes out into freedom.  And this is what tens of thousands of Syrians have done, among them women, children, the elderly, and whole families.  I clutched the end of my son’s clothes and hurried behind him, and I was counting my breaths.  And I felt that we were running with super-human energy to escape from death, and our leap to the other side of the earthen embankment was a new life for us.  I felt my body and my son’s body and said to him, ‘Are we still alive?’  Yes, we were still alive.

“This was the first time I left Syria since 1979, and I am sorry that I left it in this manner, fleeing from the hell of the regime, when I had been arrested twice since the outbreak of the revolution.  The first was after I participated in the first demonstration which broke out in Qatana, on April 10, 2011, and I was arrested right after it with dozens of the people of Qatana.  Fourteen other Christians were arrested with me who had participated in the demonstrations.

“I wish here to allude to the historical bond between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  So for us Christians, our culture is the Arabic Islamic one.  John of Damascus was the keeper of the treasury in the time of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan and al-Walid bin ‘Abd al-Malik, and he was a Christian.  Similarly, the poet al-Akhtal al-Taghlibi was a Christian, and he was one of the companions of ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan also, and dozens of others.  And in the modern period Fares al-Khoury was the prime minister of Syria.  Just as there were Christian ministers here in Istanbul, and the Muslims appointed Fares al-Khoury the minister of endowments (wazir al-awqaf) in the process of independence. 

“I remember, when I was pursued by the regime in the period between 1984 and 1987 I was hidden in the houses of acquaintances and friends from among the Muslims.  And when I was sentenced to eight years in prison by the Supreme State Security Court in 1987 on the accusation of undermining the regime, I spent the time in Saydnaya Prison, including four years in solitary confinement when my relatives didn’t know anything about me.  And when they transferred me to the wards, I found in the prison some prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood whose relatives didn’t know anything about them for fifteen years, and their relatives believed them to be among the dead!  When my wife was permitted to come to visit me after four years, I sent messages to their houses to let their relatives know that they were still living and well.  Some of the families were afraid and worried, and families sought for signs to prove that their sons were among the living and in the prison.  So we were sending them to them. 

“Some of the opposition at that time had the view of the Muslim Brotherhood that they were beasts with fangs and claws, and the Brotherhood was looking at the opposition, both Communists and others, as if they were immoral beasts!  When some of the Brotherhood were transferred from other prisons to us in Saydnaya Prison, they came half naked.  We were dividing our clothes and food with him, and we drew closer together to each other as humans, and we discovered that we are sons of one nation.  We are one, even if each of us has his opinions in the search for how to get out of the nation’s crisis.  But it was our human drawing near to each other at this stage which had a role in the mutual understanding which happened in what came afterward.  The Brotherhood discovered that we have values and that we do not resemble the image which was circulating about us.  And from our viewpoint we discovered the human and national aspects in them.

“And here I will mention one of the oddities which I will not forget, that when I was arrested for the second time after the revolution, in July 2011 in Qatana, and I passed two months in prison before they released me after pressures both internal and external, when I was prosecuted before the judges there were two charges of the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana.  I said to them, ‘Have the Muslims died in Syria and not one of them is left, so that a Christian must lead them in the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Qatana?’  Indeed, this reflects the magnitude of the farce that this regime practices and the current corruption of the judiciary system that it arrests a Christian and prosecutes him on the charge of establishing an Islamic emirate in Qatana!”

He will finish tomorrow.

Again, “tomorrow” for the original may be next week before I get the translation done, but this account already reveals additional details of Sabra’s periods in prison.  He particularly credits the time in Saydnaya Military Prison with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, for enabling the cooperation between Islamists and secularists in the current revolution.  This is an important point and bears further examination.

The historical narrative is also interesting, especially the combination of ancient figures (John of Damascus, al-Akhtal) and the modern Fares al-Khoury.  As a minor detail, it was not the famous Christian theologian John of Damascus but his father who served the Umayyad caliphs as a civil servant in Damascus.  But this slip does not change the force of Sabra’s argument for historical cooperation between Muslims and Christians in Syria.  This is an argument he needs to make both to encourage Christian support for the Sunni rebels as opposed to the regime and to attempt to ensure a tolerable state for Christians in post-war Syria if the rebels win.