Popoli – 05/1994
Treated as foreigners at home, discriminated against in their rights, Christian minorities in Muslim countries are regaining awareness of their rich contribution to the construction of Arab civilization, which cannot be identified with Islam at all.
According to the Koran, men are divided into three categories: Muslims, people of the book ( both Jews and Christians), and others.
In the Middle East, Christian Arabs have often been wrongly assimilated to the West by their Muslim fellow citizens. The harmful consequences to which this erroneous identification between Christianity and the West in the Arab countries are obvious.
One of the causes of this phenomenon can be found in the fact that in these areas, in the last 150 years, a large part of the economy has been in the hands of local Christian and Jewish minorities, and during this period foreigners emigrated to the Middle East from the West.
“With the advent of independence, the indigenous middle class moved to neighborhoods that were previously inhabited mainly by Europeans, and immigrants from the countryside headed for those neighborhoods that they left free, or in new neighborhoods. In both cases There was a change in habits and ways of life: the middle class began to live in a way that was formerly typical of foreign residents, and rural immigrants adopted the way of life of the urban poorer classes. they lived mostly as Europeans did, in houses of the same type and dressed in clothes of the same type … “(Albert Hourani, History of the Arab peoples, Arnoldo Mondadori, 1991, p. 383).
Likewise, it is interesting to note that the struggles between European states seeking to increase their influence in the Middle East has had serious repercussions on the lives of Christians in that part of the world.. Thus it was easy for Muslims to identify minorities with the colonial powers and in their view within a few years the Christian minorities would have increase their influence to the point of eclipsing the dominance of the Ottoman Empire, that was then on its way to a rapid decline.
Discrimination in history
The discriminations put in place against Christians are of different types, depending on the countries in which it takes place and the policies of their respective rulers at the time.
And this despite the fact that in principle all citizens are equal under the law. The first cause of this discriminatory attitude must certainly be sought in the way of teaching the Koran and the Sharia, the Islamic law it deals with. This problem is compounded by the fact that the theme of Friday sermons in mosques and appeals for prayer that are broadcast five times every 24 hours during the day and night, are discriminatory against non-Muslims. This is stemmed from the fact that over the centuries from an early age Muslims religious education is aime at inculcating the idea that Islam is the best and most pleasing religion to God.
Urbanization, with the rise of large cities, has caused many discriminatory customs to fall. Even today, however, some of these customs have remained in a predominantly Muslim country.
Christians are forbidden, with certain exceptions, the construction of new churches and convents, as well as the communities are not allowed to celebrate their religious practice in public with the sound of bells. The marriage of a Christian with a Muslim is practically impossible if the man does not first convert to the slam.
Even today, in many Arab countries, non-Muslims are forbidden from exercising certain trades, opening certain commercial activities, teaching the Arabic language and accessing many levels of the public function. Finally, even those who do not profess Islam must in any case submit to the Koranic law for all that concerns interpersonal relations with a Muslim.
Tolerated but not equal
In the Muslim legal-religious system, Jews and Christians have the right to live in freedom and, except in some cases, to practice their religious worship; however, they cannot hold socially or politically relevant positions. The Muslim denies this legal reality, or considers it normal. Everyday life with this situation stops.
It must be admitted that when the Muslim political-religious system was formed in the seventh century, the Christian West was institutionally backward. This situation will last until the Middle Ages. Non-Christians, who were mostly Jews, could only enjoy the recognition the authorities wanted to grant them; in the East, however, non-Muslims, even if discriminated against and sometimes persecuted, enjoyed a form of official recognition.
Over the centuries, the western system has progressed to become today that of the welfare state; the Islamic system, on the other hand, has remained rigid, and has not evolved.
In Arab countries, there are growing numbers of Christian women married to Muslims who live in a context dominated by the Islamic religion. But even in Italy, with the immigration of Muslim bachelors, with no family afterwards, soon mixed marriages may be a source of unexpected problems for the Western spouse, even if they do not practice the Christian faith. For this reason it is strongly advised to inquire about the laws in force, both in Italy and in the country where the Muslim immigrant comes from, since the law of his country is always on the side of the Muslim citizen, compared to the non-Muslim, in his relations with the state, with his marriage and towards his children.
Naturally the legal position of the spouse improves after her conversion version to Islam and the abandonment of her religion at birth… When a Christian woman decides to contract a marriage with a Muslim in a Muslim country she puts herself in a position where it becomes extremely difficult to continue to profess her faith in the particular area in which she is called to live.
As stated by P. Samir Khalil, a Jesuit, in a study published in French by the magazine Solidarité-Orient February 1984. n. 149. the prejudice that the Arab is synonymous with the Muslim is widespread. There would therefore be no Arab Christians. This prejudice is becoming increasingly false.
Out of about 150 million Arabs, Christians are no less than 12 million, just as “Arabs” as their Muslim fellow citizens. Arabity is not a race or a religion, but constitutes a “nation” with all the elements that this word includes: geographical, linguistic, cultural, political, historical, economic, etc. In this context, Christians declare themselves an integral part of the Arab world. Muslims are not “more Arabs” than Christians, and Christians are not “less Arabs” than Muslims.
Arab and Islamic civilization is indebted both to Christians and to other local minorities, such as Jews, as well as to Asian culture, since it has spiritual roots that refer to the Eastern experience.
Historically, in the cultural field, Arab Christians contributed greatly to the development of literature and sciences in the Arab world. Historians are well aware that, for some centuries before the birth of Islam, there were Arab Christian tribes, and that the Arabic script, in particular, derives largely from those Christian living in that part of the world preceding the advent of Islam.
After the advent of Islam, the Christian communities of the Middle East, and in part also of Spain, quickly became Arabized, thus introducing their ancient Christian traditions into Arabic culture: Greek, Syriac, Coptic and even Latin.
Far from being extraneous to Arab culture, the Christian authors of the different Eastern confessions have largely contributed to its formation. Some of these Christian authors are well known to the educated public in Europe or the Americas. Thus Hu-nayn Ibn Ishaq (the greatest translator from Greek and Syriac to Arabic, who died in 873), Bar Hebraeus (author of the Chronicon, who died in 1286), or Gibran Khalil Gibran (author of the Prophet, who died in 1931
Alongside these illustrious figures there is a large number of Christian authors who are recognized in the firmament of Arab culture (doctors, astronomers, philosophers, theologians, historians, jurists, poets, men of letters, etc.).
It was after the Arab-Islamic conquest that Christians of all denominations began to translate the literary and scientific works of their predecessors from the Greek and the Syriac into Arabic. They were the ones who introduced to the desert nomadic tribe invaders the Eastern disciplines (philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and geography, thus provoking a renaissance that lasted throughout the Middle Ages, when the Western world was still immersed in darkness. In this regard it is good to remember that Charlemagne stared with amazement at the gifts sent to him by Haroun el Rashid.
During the Middle Age a new wave of Christians, from the Near East seeking refuge in the West to escape invasions and incessant wars, has brought with them their cultural and scientific treasures, which were the seeds of the Renaissance in the West. It was the work of Arab and Jewish Christians that brought to the West the translated work of Greek Philosophers. And it was through these translations that St. Thomas discovered the philosophy of Aristotle.
There was then a third Renaissance, in the nineteen century in the Near East that of the so-called Arab cultural heritage which languished under Turkish rule and was about to become extinct. It has again come to life at the hands of the Christian minority, thanks in particular to the introduction of the printed press, which they first introduced in Lebanon.
During the same period of time in the early 19th century, the viceroy Mehemet Ali (the Kedive) opened the doors of Egypt to foreigners. Numerous Syro-Lebanese people rushed in, distinguishing themselves particularly in commerce and journalism and so until the 1950s when Nasser’s of Egypt rose to power. In this regard we wish to recall that the first Arabic-language newspaper, Al Ahram was founded in Egypt by two Christian brothers, Bichara and Selim Takla.
The Christian Arab Heritage Collection was created to make these authors known by the hundreds.
A committee of experts chaired by a Melkite archbishop, Neophytos Edelby of Aleppo and the Jesuit Father Samir Khalil, of St. Joseph University in Beyrut, Lebanon, is preparing the translation and publication of a large number of original texts and testimonies, written in the past by bi-Christian Arab.
From the research of these experts, up to the mid-nineteenth century, there were no less than 2000 Christian Arab authors, with about 20,000 works; only 10% of these were published: all the rest remained at the level of manuscripts. The objective here is to rediscover this treasure of infinite wealth. In short, we aim to collect the Arab heritage of Christians, regardless of the content and the community to which they belong.
The ultimate goal is threefold. In the first place, cultural and scientific: to make known to the Arabs themselves a streak of Arab culture dated from the ancient time which, generally, remained unknown until today.
Secondly, religious: helping Eastern Christians to find the source of their culture in the face of the tendency today, to ignore their Arab cultural tradition, and to start a dialogue between Christians and Arab Muslims rooted in their common Arab tradition.
Finally, sociological: highlighting the not inconsiderable role of Christians in the development of Arab civilization, and with the objective of helping Christians and Muslims to recognize that they share the same cultural root making themselves equal members of their society.
It is clear that the “dialogical” dimension is present at all levels: dialogue between Muslims and Christians, dialogue between Christians, dialogue between cultures.
It seems to us that the main purpose of this series, for the moment, is to make Christians belonging to the various communities of the Middle East aware of their full and total integration into the Arab cultural world, to inculcate the pride of their immense cultural heritage and to unite them, far from any confessionalism, in a common effort of a profoundly Christian character.
The ecumenical character of this necklace is evident. Today’s Arab Christians re discover the testimony of their ancestors. On the other hand, working together to publish Arab Christian Heritage is a very important effort by Arab Christians as such, without sectarian distinction, and a frank collaboration between all the Eastern Christian Churches.
The ultimate but no less important goal is for Christians to rediscover their Arab identity in spite of ongoing discrimination, to have faith and hope and so as not to swell the ranks of those who have abandoned their native land to emigrate to West.
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.