Dateline: Arab Uprisings May Doom Middle East Christians

By Khashan, Hilal | Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Dateline: Arab Uprisings May Doom Middle East Christians


Khashan, Hilal, Middle East Quarterly


In April 2011, Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian activist and "journalist" who had spearheaded the blockade-breaking Free Gaza flotilla was kidnapped from Hamas-held territory and shortly thereafter, killed. His captors and executioners were not a branch of the Israeli special services but members of a local Islamist group, Salafists going by the name Jahafil al-Tawhid wa-1-Jihad fi Filastin (Armies of Monotheism and Holy War in Palestine). The Salafists released a YouTube video in which they accused Arrigoni, a secularist, of "spreading corruption" stemming in part from his connection to his birthplace, an "infidel state."1

"He came from across the world, left his country and family and his entire life, and came here to break the siege, and we kill him? Why?" cried one of his Gazan friends.2 The answer is essentially twofold. For one thing, bias against Christians is embedded in a literal interpretation of Qur'anic verses, and apparently a sizable number of Muslims, and certainly Salafists, take the Qur'an literally. For another, a preponderance of Muslims views Middle Eastern Christians as an extension of Europe and thus a constant reminder of past colonial encroachments and supremacy over them. A survey of past examples and those of more recent vintage bears out this assessment unambiguously.

Coping with Centuries of Christianity's Decline

Contrary to the conventional Muslim wisdom that the Crusades (1095-1291) ended a mythic period of Muslim-Christian coexistence, the indigenous Christian population of the Middle East had been compelled by its Muslim conquerors, much before the Crusades, to either convert, be slaughtered, or accept a second-class existence (dhimmitude). Payback for the "humiliation" of Crusader incursion took many different shapes over an extensive period of time. One of the most horrific bloodbaths was the massive Egyptian Mamluk retribution against local Christians who had had no say in ordering European onslaughts on Muslim lands. The attacks took place in 1320 when churches throughout Egypt were destroyed on the heads of thousands of worshippers and asylum seekers.3 Christian participation in the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 was also deemed a provocation, and when the armies of the khan were defeated in the battle of Ain Jalut (1260), the Muslim victory ushered in a "devastating reversal of Christian hopes... [and] the ... decisive collapse of Christianity in the Middle East and much of Africa."4 Over the next few centuries, Christian (and Jewish) scapegoating became enshrined in the thought and mores of most Muslim communities, a debilitating tendency that only worsened as Islamic decline set in. Eventually, a once thriving and widespread Christian community was ground down but it "did not simply fade away through lack of zeal, or theological confusion; it was crushed, in a welter of warfare and persecution."5

Along with restrictions on freedom of worship, Islamic religious fanaticism and sectarian discrimination took numerous forms including the pervasive use of offensive religious slurs and exclusion from political and high-ranking military leadership. Over time, attacks on Christian property, the destruction of churches, and the cold-blooded murder of worshippers became the norm rather than the exception. Systematic and unabashed attacks on churches were seemingly aimed at eradicating Christianity from the region because these places of worship "preserve the traditions of the Apostolic era in ways no other Christian rites or denominations do."6

Despite the early promise of a better fixture that accompanied the collapse of the religiously-rooted Ottoman Empire and the subsequent establishment of a secular Middle Eastern state system, Christian fortunes as a whole did not improve. At first, Christians found themselves in a privileged economic and educational position because they eagerly embraced Western education and served in the local administration of colonial governments. …

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