027 - The forgotten Martyrs

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Ambrosian Church 12-20 To know each other to co-exist and build peace.  The text on the systematic persecution and progressive marginalization of Christians in areas of Muslim domination was sent by Joseph Samir Eid. It is an impressive statistic of a “hidden tragedy” with data in progressive development in the various geographical areas.

The forgotten martyrs

Christians in the Middle East, Copts in Egypt, Maronites in Lebanon, Chaldeans in Iraq, Armenians in Turkey, Melkites or Orthodox in Syria, or Palestinians in Bethlehem, have been in a silent exodus for more than half a century. They are hunted from their native lands because of the war and the flow of Islam. Return to a hidden tragedy.

The main refugee population in the Middle East is not the Muslim Palestinians, victims of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, nor the Jews of the Arab countries and Iran, forced to a symmetrical exodus between 1945 and 1979, but the Christians of Arab, Aramaic, Armenian or Greek culture.

Almost ten million of the latter were induced to abandon their homes or emigrate, since World War I: the ratio, with the Muslim refugees from Palestine (half a million people at the origin) is therefore approximately 20 to 1; with the Jews from Islamic countries (almost a million expelled), the ratio would be approximately 10 to 1.

Even more surprisingly, the exodus of Christians takes place before our eyes at the dawn of the 21st century, without raising much compassion or even media curiosity. The most striking case is that of the West Bank Christian Palestinians: twenty years ago they made up 15% of the local population; since the construction of an autonomous Palestinian power in 1994, they are no more than 2 or 3%. A similar situation emerges in Egypt, where the Coptic Christian minority, which was flourishing yesterday, has gradually reduced itself to emigration.

The American journalist Joseph Farah, of Arab-Christian origin, estimates that at this rate, in the Middle East, we can go from a current Christian population of 15 million to just 6 million in 2020.

This would be the last act of the erasing of Christianity in the very region where it was originated, where it has established its doctrine, and where it has equipped itself with structures that still today regulate its community life in the rest of the world: episcopate, ecumenical councils, clergy, and monasticism.

Why this situation? In an article published last October, in a newspaper close to the Holy See, Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian analyst Giuseppe de Rosa, recalls that Islam is above all “the religion of Jihad”, “an interminable enterprise of war with the aim of conquering territories” that does not yet belong to it. Therefore, he does not think that in binary terms: members of the group against foreigners, friends against enemies, useful auxiliaries or useless populations, faithful or infidels. Immense difference with most other religions, starting with Judaism and Christianity, which even when they resort to war, give priority to non-warlike considerations, such as natural law or civil society.

Christians have been able to be tolerated by Muslim powers in certain times and places. When circumstances change, this tolerance disappears.

Until the seventh century the Middle East was almost exclusively Christian; Islam has supplanted it by force.

Two great stages: the Arab conquest that Islamized Egypt and the Levant in just six years, from 636 to 642: the Turkish conquest that took possession of Asia Minor between the 10th and 15th centuries.

Only one strategy: some decisive military operation allows Muslims to take political control of a province or a state: the new power causes divisions among Christians (Jacobites against Melchites, Copts against Orthodox, Greeks against Latins); finally, the “dhimma” regime (“protection”), a mixture of discriminatory measures and financial oppression, incites Christians to convert, in general entire families or relatives. After a few generations, a country that was 90% Christian at the time of the conquest has only a few Christian minorities, both in the cities where they exercise professions judged useful by Islamic power, and in some regions that are difficult to access, particularly the mountains. In two moments, a change in the global relationship of strength between Islam and Christianity allowed the churches of the East to catch their breath and to experience a brief rebirth: the Crusades from the 11th to the 13th centuries, and above all modern European expansion from the 18th to two thirds of the 20th century. During this second period (“the happiest in their history”), according to the Christian Hierosolymitan university professor George Hintlian, Christian communities were adopted by the Western powers: Russia watched over the Orthodox, France watched over the Churches connected to Rome, and Great Britain watched over all the other communities. Austria, Germany, Italy and the United States and even Greece intervened in equal measure. The Muslim powers are therefore forced to grant full religious freedom to minorities and almost complete social or political equality. Eastern Christians also have wider access than Muslims to Western-style education, itself a factor of economic success: they formed the backbone of the middle class in the Ottoman Empire until World War I, before playing a similar role until about 1970 in most Arab countries. But the end of Western domination (or decolonization) nullifies in an instant these acquired rights. Westerners allow in the name of their principles, Jewish Christians or laity: natural law, human rights. Muslims see only a return of the geopolitical balance in their favour, even if it is less due to a military victory than to simple demography (on average, the birth rate of Muslims is twice as high as that of Christians in the Middle East).

In certain Islamic countries Christians or certain Christian groups are expelled. Elsewhere, they are taken either de jure or de facto to a secondary status that forces them to emigrate. The phenomenon accelerates with the rise of fundamentalist or Islamist movements within the Muslim society, which preach a permanent “jihad” and the total exclusion of non-Muslims from the formerly Islamicized areas, such as the Arab world.


In 1915 the Ottoman Turkey started the eradication of the Armenian Christian minority of Eastern Anatolia (one and a half million people).

In 1992 Mustafa Kemal expelled the Greek Orthodox community of Asia Minor (1.5 million people), a measure followed by a change of population: the transfer to Anatolia of the Turks who still lived in Greece (500 thousand people).

Approximately 300,000 Greeks were still living in the region of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara, reassured by the Republican and secular regime, instituted by Kemal since 1923: discrimination at the beginning of the 40’s and then a series of pogroms at the beginning of the 50’s led to mass departures. No less the Turkish Republic punished the instigators of pogroms: going so far as to condemn the Prime Minister of the time, Adnan Menderes, to the gallows. Nowadays there are only 100,000 Christians left in Turkey.


At the beginning of the 20th century Christian communities (Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Armenian, and Aramaic) formed a quarter of the Syrian population. They still represent 7% of the current population: 1.5 million out of 20 million. This relative survival is explained by the particularities of the local politics: the Assad regime, placed since 1970, relies on the Alauite Moslem minority which, in order to counterbalance the Sunnite majority (a little more than 50% of the population) has made alliances with the other minorities of the country, Christians but also Druze or Kurdish-speaking Sunnis. Therefore, Christians have not ceased to question the future and to emigrate, when they had the opportunity.  In order to benefit from charitable aid or political sympathy, when abroad, they pass themselves off as Palestinians. An “honest lie”: some Palestinians are of Syrian-Lebanese origin.


In 1932, 800,000 Christians formed 55% of an estimated 1.5 million Lebanese population.  Today, after various turbulences and above all the long civil war at the end of the 20th century (1975-1990), there are 1.5 million Christians, 27% out of 4.5 million. More than half of them are refugees “from the inside”, driven out of their city or village of origin and forced to re-enter the last strongholds with a Christian majority, such as the eastern suburbs of Beirut.  A Christian Lebanese diaspora has formed in Europe, the United States, South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. In total it would number 6 million people, of which 2 million in the United States.  If the President of the Republic is still a Christian (a tradition since 1943) the real power is now in the hands of Sunni or Shiite Muslims.  Certain Christian clans have allied themselves with the Syrian Alautians “protectors” and occupiers of Lebanon since 1990.  Others, in particular the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, serve for the restoration of national independence.


At the beginning of the 20th century Christians formed almost ¼ of the Palestinian Arab population, a little more than 100,000 people out of a total of half a million.  In 1948 they probably made up 20%: 300,000 out of 1.2 million.  After the first Arab-Israeli war there were about 70,000 Christians displaced, in addition to 500,000 Muslim refugees.  Between 1949 and 1967, the Jordanian regime, the power occupying the West Bank, multiplied the harassment of Christians and encouraged their emigration: the Christian population of East Jerusalem increased from 28,000 to 11,000 people in that period, which means that 17,000 people (61% of the population) were driven out.  On the contrary, the Israeli regime, from 1967 to 1993, favoured the maintenance of Christians on the spot, but without ever uniting the Christian localities on the outskirts of Jerusalem, as the Christian mayor of Bethlehem Elias Freij had hoped.  The creation in 1994 of the Palestinian Authority, the Muslim quasi-State directed by Yasser Arafat, is a catastrophe: continuous persecution leads to the departure of ¾ of the community.  Some of them find refuge in Israel, others in Europe or the United States. In Bethlehem there is no more than 10% of Christians compared to 62% in 1990: the expelled Christian inhabitants were replaced by Islamist Bedouins from the Hebron region.


The only non-Arab and non-Muslim state in the Middle East, Israel today has 350,000 Christian inhabitants out of 6.5 million, when in 1951 30,000 out of 1.5 million were counted: in absolute figures, this population has multiplied more than eleven times; in relative figures, in relation to a strongly growing population, it has increased approximately from 3 to 6%.

During the first 20 years that followed independence (1948-1968), many Israeli Christians of Arab culture emigrated.

Today, on the contrary, there is an immigration of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank into Israel.  Catholic and Orthodox communities were also strengthened in the 1990s by the arrival of many Christians from the former USSR who were allowed to immigrate because of family ties with Jews.  The Vatican signed a concordat with Israel in 1998 and has just created a Jewish-speaking Catholic bishopric.


At the time of its creation in 1923, the Emirate of Transjordan counted only half a million inhabitants, including a few thousand Christian Bedouins, descendants of the Christianized tribes established in Arabia until the time of Mohammed. After 1948, this community grew for Palestinian Christian refugees from Jerusalem who had family and marriage ties since the 17th century.  Today it represents about 10% of the total population.  Since 1970, the Hashemite dynasty has been protecting these Christians in order to appeal to Western public opinion.  One of the confidants of the late King Hussein, the journalist Rami el-Khouri, was a Christian.


In 1920 there were almost 10% Christians in Iraq (300,000 out of 3 million inhabitants), while today 3% (one million out of 24 million).  One of the “founding acts” of Iraqi nationalism was the massacre, in 1932, of several thousand Assyrian Christians in the north of the country, of Aramaic language, and the expulsion of several tens of thousands of survivors.  It is true that this community demanded the creation of an autonomous state.  The first king, Faycal Ier, a romantic character from Hedjaz, died of sorrow and disgust a few months later after this genocide, while his son Ghazi organized a parade to celebrate the event. The other Iraqi Christians, in particular the Chaldean Catholics, have migrated 50%, or are holding an attitude of absolute submission to Muslim power.  Saddam Hussein had as Minister of Foreign Affairs a Catholic, Tarik Aziz, today a prisoner of the Americans.  Founder of the Baath, the Arab nationalist party of which Saddam was claimed to be a member, the Syrian Christian Michel Aflak was forced to convert to Islam when he took refuge in Iraq in the 1970s.


Christianity and Judaism are forbidden in the kingdom, on the pretext that the Arabian Peninsula, the holy land of Islam, is similar to a mosque.  Jews cannot obtain entry visas unless they have a diplomatic passport.  Foreign Christians as diplomats, businessmen cannot celebrate their worship except in private.  Proselytizing involves immediate expulsion if it is a foreigner and death if it is a Saudi or a resident of a Muslim country.


Citizens cannot practise any other religion other than Islam; minorities, previously numerous, have been progressively expelled. Foreigners (including permanent residents) are allowed to practise Christianity in private. Some indigenous Jewish families enjoy the same privilege in Bahrain and Yemen.


Officially, the Christian population does not reach 0.2%. Sometimes it is estimated at 0.5%.  Treated well under the Pahlavi dynasty, it benefits from certain indifference on the part of the Theocratic Republic established by Khomeini in 1979, and has a member of parliament.  Any proselytism is punished with death, including relations with Muslim women. Students in Christian schools must attend Islamic initiation courses, designed to “hasten their conversion to the authentic religion”.  The authorities in Tehran prefer “national” Christians such as the Armenians, installed in the country since the 16th century, to foreigners who arrived later.  Catholics are particularly badly seen after the conversion of Princess Ashraf, twin sister of the last Shah.  Half of Iranian Christians have fled since 1979.  The majority have taken refuge in California.


It is the Egyptian Copts who, by joining the Arab conquerors in 642 out of hatred towards the Orthodox Byzantines, have made the progression of Islam in the East irreversible. This community underwent a brilliant rebirth in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, under the monarchy of Turkish origin founded by Mehmet Ali.  At that time it represented 15-20% of the population and defended the idea of a “pharaonic” civilization that was specific to Egypt and different from the Arab culture. The Nasserian revolution, starting from 1952-1953, was fatal to it: the Copts were excluded from the political class, except for a few symbolic personalities (such as the Minister of State Boutros Ghali, who became Secretary General of the UN and then International Secretary to the Francophonie) then stripped of their economic power.  Under Hosni Moubarak, in power since 1981, violence of all kinds (from the bomb attack to rape) multiplied, inciting young people to emigrate to Britain, Canada and the United States.  The Copts will not be more than 5 million in Egypt today, 6-7% of a global Egyptian population estimated at 65 million inhabitants.

– Michel Gurfinkiel & The World Show, 2004.

Giuseppe Samir Eid

Free web translation from the original in Italian

The published articles intend to provide the tools for a social inclusion of the migratory flow, shed light on human rights and the condition of life of Christians in the Islamic world from which the author come from. Knowledge of the other, of cultural and religious differences are primary ingredients to create peace in the hearts of men everywhere, a prerequisite for a peaceful coexistence and convinced citizenship in the territory.

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