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The Political Dilemmas of Arab Christianity

Middle Eastern Christians are under much pressure today.

The Middle East’s Christian minorities have a painful political history. Not only have they suffered persecution and restrictions at the hands of Muslim majorities, but they have also sometimes made poor choices themselves.

One can find Arab Christian leaders who have championed democratic freedoms. For example, the Lebanese statesman Charles Malik (1906-1987) was a major force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He also strove valiantly to keep interreligious peace in his own troubled nation.

Yet many other Middle Eastern Christians aligned themselves with non-democratic Arab nationalist movements. These movements brought neither peace nor freedom nor prosperity to their countries. And in the end they failed to protect the Christian minorities that had placed so much hope in them.

Scholar Kenneth Cragg remarks, “We find Christians in fact in the vanguard of Arab ideology” in the early twentieth century.1 The attraction was understandable. The main ideological alternatives to nationalism were Islamic movements. If the new states emerging after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire chose shari‘a as their basis of social order and cohesion, then Christians had a dim future. At best they would remain in second-class dhimmi status, tolerated but marginalized from all power. At worst they would be treated as a foreign presence to be expelled from the body politic. Arab Christians have learned from long historical experience, going back to the Crusades, that they cannot rely on western Christian allies to protect them against the Muslim majority.

Therefore, those Christians naturally searched for the best accommodation that they could make with the majority. By comparison to Islamic systems, the nationalist alternative looked more promising. If the new states based their identities on Arab culture and language, then there could be a place for Christians who shared that culture and language. They, like their Muslim neighbors, had experienced the indignities of Ottoman rule and then western colonialism. Now the Christians hoped that they could be full citizens contributing equally to rebuilding the glory and honor of the Arab people. Christian institutions like the American University of Beirut, founded by Protestant missionaries in 1866, became seedbeds of Arab nationalism. Cragg describes that university as “the intellectual nursery through more than a century of much of the political and professional leadership of the Arab world from Aleppo [Syria] to Khartoum [Sudan].”2

Christians at the Fore of Nationalist Movements

The Greek Orthodox Michel ‘Aflaq was the co-founder of the Ba’ath Party that dominated Syria and Iraq for many decades. The Ba’ath constitution declared, “The national tie is the only tie that may exist in the Arab state.” ‘Aflaq advised fellow believers to subordinate their Christian faith to their identity as Arabs. Then they would be able to accept Islam—not as an authority structure but as an element of cultural heritage. “Christian Arabs will become aware, when nationalism fully awakes in them, that Islam is a national culture which they must assimilate until they love it,” ‘Aflaq wrote. The Ba’ath held forth the prospect of Christians and Muslims working together for “Unity, Liberty, Socialism.”

Christians remained attached to the Ba’ath even as it devolved into brutal military dictatorships in Syria and Iraq. The Chaldean Catholic Tariq Aziz was the international voice of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein during the 1980s and 1990s. Even as the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was embroiled in a civil war in 2011-2012, Syrian Christians remained largely loyal. They feared that if Assad’s Alawite minority government fell, they would become victims of Sunni Islamist mobs shouting, “Christians to Beirut [Lebanon], Alawites to the coffin!”3 They were conscious of the unfortunate example of neighboring Iraq, where the Christian population shrank by half as Shiʻite militants came to the fore in the years after Saddam’s ouster.

Similarly, Egyptian Christians tended to cooperate with the nationalist dictatorships of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar El Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. The Coptic Boutros Boutros Ghali rose through positions under Sadat and Mubarak to become Secretary General of the United Nations from 1992 to 1996. After Mubarak fell in 2011, the Christians experienced increased insecurity as Islamist groups prevailed in elections and on the street.

Arab Christians have played significant roles in movements to establish a Palestinian state on all or part of the territory now occupied by Israel. Overwhelmingly, they have identified with the more secular nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—which now controls the West Bank—as opposed to the Islamist Hamas movement, which rules Gaza. One of the most violent of the PLO’s components, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was the brainchild of the Greek Orthodox George Habash.

The Anglican Hanan Ashrawi has been a prominent spokesperson for PLO peace negotiating teams and a member of the Palestinian legislature. As a Christian with extensive education and contacts in the West, Ashrawi is especially effective at communicating with western audiences. She presents a more attractive face of Palestinian nationalism than that of her late boss, the wily PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian church leaders have also come forward as advocates for their people’s cause. Figures such as the Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour, the Anglican canon Naim Ateek, and the Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb are regulars at western church meetings and on the international lecture circuit, moving audiences with vivid stories of Israeli oppression. U.S. oldline churches adopting a pro-Palestinian stance often cite such figures as their inspiration.

A Radical Manifesto

There are some Palestinian Christians who are less vocal politically and who have a respectful relationship with the Israeli government. But the most recognized voices are those of a PLO-aligned Palestinian nationalism. A widely circulated expression of that view is the 2009 manifesto entitled “Kairos Palestine,” signed by a number of leading Palestinian churchmen.4

“The injustice against the Palestinian people which is the Israeli occupation is an evil that must be resisted,” the manifesto declares. It rages against how “Israeli settlements ravage our land in the name of God” and the Israeli separation barrier “has turned our towns and villages into prisons.” Israel is charged with “contempt” and “disregard of international law and international resolutions.” The manifesto offers no criticisms of the Palestinian Authority or any other Arab state or movement.

“Kairos Palestine” rejects Israel as a Jewish state, as it also opposes Hamas’s project of an Islamic state. “Trying to make the state a religious state, Jewish or Islamic, suffocates the state, confines it within narrow limits, and transforms it into a state that practices discrimination, preferring one citizen over another,” it warns. The author seems to prefer a single state encompassing both Jews and Arabs.

The means of anti-Israel “resistance” favored by “Kairos Palestine” are nonviolent. It calls for an international “system of economic sanctions and boycott to be applied against Israel.” But the manifesto also seems to justify violent “resistance” by blaming it on Israel: “Yes, there is Palestinian resistance to the occupation. However, if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity.”

“Kairos Palestine” encloses the word “terrorism” in sneer quotes, as if to doubt the existence of the phenomenon. “The roots of ‘terrorism’ are in the human injustice committed and in the evil of the [Israeli] occupation,” it claims. “These must be removed if there be a sincere intention to remove ‘terrorism.’” Regarding violent Islamist movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, the manifesto maintains that “Muslims are neither to be stereotyped as the enemy nor caricatured as terrorists but rather to be lived with in peace and engaged with in dialogue.”

Yet this approach—blaming Israel alone, escalating nonviolent and violent confrontation with the Jewish state, giving uncritical support to a non-democratic nationalist movement (the PLO) that has repeatedly backed out of possible peace accords, minimizing the Islamist threat—has not brought good results for Palestinian Christians.

A Separate Moral Accountability

U.S. Christians have a duty to listen to the voices of Arab Christians. They are brothers and sisters in Christ who have kept the faith through many trials. Middle Eastern Christians are under much pressure today, and their existence as a community is endangered in many places. They have legitimate grievances, which they share with many of their Muslim Arab neighbors.

American Christians should be slow to condemn their Arab brethren for the political choices the latter have made. We should understand why, in difficult situations, non-democratic nationalist movements often seemed the best available option. But our retrospective understanding does not change our current awareness that nationalist dictators failed to deliver what they promised their peoples. There must be a better option.

In seeking that better option, U.S. Christians are not obligated to replicate the political choices made by their Arab brethren. We have our own separate moral accountability. We need to examine the larger Middle East picture, consider the various policy options, and pursue that which seems wisest. One important measure of a policy’s success will be the degree to which it protects and benefits the Christians and other minorities in the region. ____________________

Alan F.H. Wisdom is a writer and an elder in the PC(USA). He is also a member of the Theology Matters Board of Directors.


1 Kenneth Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 143.

2 Ibid, 220.

3 Stephen Starr and S. Akminas, “Christians in Syria live in uneasy alliance with Assad, Alawites,” USA Today, May 9, 2012, 2012-0509/syria-christians crisis/54888144/1?

4 “Kairos Palestine 2009: A moment of truth: A word of faith, hope, and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering,” pdf.

Alan F. H. Wisdom
Alan F. H. Wisdom
Alan Wisdom, M.A., is a Director on the Board of Theology Matters and an Adjunct Fellow, Institute on Religion & Democracy, Fall Church, Virginia


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