Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Who Are the Christians of the Arab World? [*]

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

Who Are the Christians of the Arab World? [*]

Article excerpt

TAREK MITRI [**]

"Arabs and Christians?" some Westerners might ask naively, or out of curiosity. Perhaps the question is rhetorical -- or does it express the extent of their astonishment and doubt?

This double reference, in the singular and followed by a question mark, is the title of a recent book, written by an interested and well-informed European. [1] His primary objective is to reintroduce the Christians of the Arab world to Westerners. Thus he reaffirms a reality that is seldom referred to, heard about, or read with regard to the religious plurality of a region too often seen as a Muslim monolith. In addition, albeit incidentally, he reminds those who insist on repeating, in new ways, the old adage, "the Arab language has refused to be christianized" [2], of that very plurality. In so doing, he remains aware that there could be a certain ambivalence in his title, the ambivalence of the Christians' identity in the Arab world, the majority of whom define themselves -- in the context of a polarization which, although less marked than before, is liable to be revived -- as belonging to a country and a faith. People identify themselves, for the most part, as Maronite and Lebanese, Copt and Egyptian.

Another Christian European Islamologist, interested in the history and future of the Christians "with Islam" gives his book, less recent than the above, the title The Arab Christian. [3] From the outset, he acknowledges the inconvenience of using a noun as an adjective and of its effect on those who would have preferred the conjunction of two nouns, referring to two different expressions of identity. In spite of this inconvenience, through his choice of title he intends to show that there exists a single, distinct identity and that, even though the two components are often regarded as separate, it would, in fact, be difficult to separate them.

The designation "Arab Christians" may be the least problematic, if we do not underestimate its ambiguity in that it has an ethnic resonance, nor the other reservations that arise from it. There are also other expressions used such as "Christian Arabs" or a mosaic of individual communities whose only generic name would be "Oriental Christians" or Christians of the East. [4]

Talking about "Christian Arabs" would emphasize an identity shared today with the Muslims but which precedes Islam. If it is true that the term proposes to transcend religious differences through a return to one's roots, there is a risk of falling into narrow and exclusive nationalism. Not all Christians can be descended from the Arab tribes converted to Christianity before Islam, even though this is claimed by a large number of Christians in Syria. (5) The significance of the arabization of Christian populations of varied origins, which continued until the 13th century, cannot be ignored. Consequently, making the Arab reference a subsequent attribute would conform more with history and the way in which a large number of Christians see their origins.

The term "Oriental" or the phrase "Christians from the East" would perhaps be appropriate if their use was strictly confined to the religious or ecclesiastic domain. The claim of belonging to Oriental Christianity is becoming more and more prevalent as a sign of authenticity and specificity in the face of Western Christianity. However, that specificity is sometimes more like a group's diacritical mark than a religious content that is part of a self-image. We must also point out that, with reference to Oriental identity, frontiers present a problem because communities which belong to the Roman Catholic or Western Protestant traditions, may think of themselves, and like to be designated, as "Oriental"!

But in Western publications the use of the term Oriental often goes beyond a strictly religious connotation. Its geographic reference is elastic and allows the inclusion of some communities and the exclusion of others according to propensities or circumstances. …

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