Abū Shaqrā reflects on the situation of Eastern Christians in the Levant. He presents a historical background of the Christian presence in the area and the main challenges that have threatened this existence.
“The battle is over because there are no more fighters.” It is with Pierre Corneille’s words that Abū Shaqrā introduces his article. Abū Shaqrā reports on a lecture he attended in London that discussed the “Levant”. The Levantine region has developed over hundreds of centuries in Syria, Palestine, West Jordan and North Iraq. People from these areas have their own distinctive characteristics that have affected their way of perceiving religions. The lecturer [Reviewer: No name mentioned] argued that Christianity in those areas acquired distinctive characteristics that are different from those in other Christian communities in the world. The lecturer also asserted that the same thing applies to Islam; for Islam in the Levant, Greater Syria and North Iraq has a “different flavor” from Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, the Nile Valley and North Africa.
Abū Shaqrā argues that the lecture’s perspective was not new; for “national thinking” tackled this issue in its interpretation of common local elements that stand behind religion, and sometimes stand behind race and language. However, what Abū Shaqrā believes to be new in the lecturer’s views is his drawing of the “borders” of this East, the Levant, and the idea of an unwavering identity that unites the people of this region.
Indeed, Abū Shaqrā comments, the development of Islam in this area has enforced this assumption, especially as the first Islamic rule in the region was the Umayyad rule that was actually Arab rather than Islamic.
Moreover, this region has witnessed an exceptional continuous coexistence between Muslims and non Muslims in spite of some set backs at certain times.
Abū Shaqrā points out the massacre of Jerusalem in 1099 as the first and most dangerous one of those set setbacks. However, two main elements characterized this setback; the first is that Muslims and Arabs did not consider the Crusader wars to be Christian but foreign campaigns.
The second element is that the Crusader campaigns made many Christians embrace Islam either out of fear of them being accused of complying with the “firanjah” [the foreigners] or because the European Crusaders did not recognize Eastern Christianity so they persecuted them.
Abū Shaqrā quotes historian Nicola Ziyādah who wrote in this response that the first Crusader campaign committed atrocities in its goal to occupy Jerusalem. The Crusades abused Palestinian Christians, taking over their monasteries and kicking them out of their homes and churches. So Christians were dispersed throughout Palestine and East Jordan. The patriarch at that time resorted to the Fatimids in Cairo for help.
Copts were considered heretics and were prevented from going on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Their churches in Palestine were turned into Roman churches. Then, following the escalation of the conflict between the Byzantium church and the Crusades, the Byzantium emperor in 1110 contacted the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad to urge him to fight the “firanjah” before it was too late.
After this point in history, Abū Shaqrā argues, the Christian presence in the region shrank. Then there was a phase of stability that was guaranteed by the agreement between the Ottoman Empire Sulaymān al-Qānūnī and the King of France Francis I to take care of Christian affairs in the Ottoman Empire.
However, in the nineteenth century, the Egyptian campaign [1831- 1840] and the Ottoman organizations [1839- 1876] destabilized the bases of religions coexistence, which resulted in massacres against Christians in Damascus and Mount Lebanon. This gave France an excuse to establish the self-ruled protectorate of Mount Lebanon under the protection of the European forces.
Then, after the establishment of the Western occupation at the end of the First World War the Assyrian Uprising took place in North Iraq in 1933. The uprising was forcefully suppressed and led to the increase in power of the Iraqi army, especially the Kurdish leader Bakr Sidqī who soon led the first coup d’etat in modern Arab history in 1936.
In the same year, the confrontation over the identity of Palestine intensified, less than 20 years after the Balfour Declaration. With the “catastrophe” of 1948, Abū Shaqrā argues, the decreasing population levels reached a critical level that continued with the loss of the rest of the Palestinian territory in 1967.
With every setback the size of the Christian population and political influence of the Eastern Christians deteriorated. Only one tenth of Palestine’s Christians remained in Palestine. The rest became part of diasporas all over the world, not only because of the Israeli occupation, but also because of the difficult economic conditions and the lack of religious tolerance in the uncertain political atmosphere.
Abū Shaqrā further argues that the development of Hamas as a leader of the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation does not bode well for the rest of the Christian minority if Hamas takes over power.
Moreover, in Iraq, the deep rooted Christian existence is decreasing at a frightening rate because of the success of Israel and its American expansions that have led to the implosion of Iraq from within through the Sunnī-Shiite conflict and Arab-Kurd one.