On the eve of January 7 – Christmas eve according to the Orthodox Christian calendar – six Coptic Christians and one Muslim guard were shot dead by gunmen as they left midnight mass in Nagaa Hammadi in southern Egypt.
It’s not entirely clear whether the crime was religiously-motivated. Often the motives are conflated with other issues, like land disputes or socially unacceptable romantic relations between Christian women and Muslim men, even though such events are unheard in most parts of Egypt. Still, the latest events beg the question: What is happening in the Arab world, long known for strong Muslim-Christian harmony?
I remember clearly as a child in Abu Dhabi, the local Anglican bishop being invited to Muslim households for lunch – often on Christmas Day. And this was not a rare occurrence. One Muslim Egyptian lady once mentioned how when she was growing up, she had a Jewish classmate at her Catholic school, where she was taught Islam by local teachers and other subjects by nuns. Schools in the Arab world often had a mix of Christian and Muslim students, all expressing deep loyalty to their countries while maintaining their specific religious affiliation.
Such was typical of the Arab world, even if press reports in the Western media do not note it. For centuries, religious co-existence was entirely the norm in places like Egypt, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – even while the region was predominantly Muslim and deeply religious.
Islam recognizes Christians as ‘People of the Book’, and the Quran speaks favorably of pious Christians, while Prophet Muhammad invited Christians to worship in his own mosque. Even with the Crusades into the Arab world, Christians were still an integral part of the region – many fighting on the same side as their Muslim brethren against Western Christian invaders. With the onset of modernity, the phenomenon of Arab nationalism certainly did not threaten this sentiment. On the contrary, it strengthened it – the founders of Arab nationalism were disproportionately Christian Arabs, and the religious establishments of both the Christians and the Muslims were united in both their nationalistic tendencies, and their opposition to Western colonialism.
The identity of ‘Arab’ has never been a solely Muslim one and Christians have historically been (and continue to be) disproportionately represented among the wealthy and influential in Arab societies, along with positive discrimination for Christians in most Arab parliaments. In particular, quotas are often imposed on governments, such as in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, to ensure that Christians have a voice, even beyond their numbers.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, does show some worrying developments for Christians, with the growth of Islamism. Islamism was not a specifically spiritualist revival, but was more of a political identity movement, born in contradistinction to the West – a West that was identified as a Christian civilization, often as the inheritor of the Crusades – and as such, opposition was often articulated with strong anti-Christian overtones.
This is not to say that Islamists in places like Egypt (the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ‘mother’ movement of Islamism) wanted to eradicate Christians from within the Arab world. Far from it – they might have wanted political sovereignty for themselves, with all the implications that had for Christian populations, but that did not translate into a desire for a ‘Christian-free Middle East’. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the increasingly anti-Western sentiment that found its way into mosque sermons had an effect on local Christian-Muslim dynamics.
There are other more mundane reasons to explain why Christians are diminishing in numbers across the Arab world. Palestinian Christians, like Palestinian Muslims, often take whatever opportunity they can get to escape the occupation they suffer in the Holy Land. This was despite the fact that Christian Palestinians were also at the forefront of the Palestinian movement, and influential both politically and economically, without resentment from the Palestinian Muslim population. Christian Iraqis were also keen to escape an Iraq under Saddam Hussain (although they were disproportionately represented in his regime, with the Deputy Prime Minister being a Chaldean Christian) and likewise during the harsh conditions emanating from the US-led invasion.
But one would be naïve to think that while Muslim Iraqis wanted to escape the vile sectarianism that took root in Iraq between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christian Iraqis were left unscathed. They certainly were not.
Identity politics, whether imbued with religious or national undertones, is often deadly to a pluralistic atmosphere. In Europe, this has led to suggestions of laws that propose fines for observing religious clothing (such as in France), in the context of growing public concern around the Muslim presence. Such things are not remotely respectable within Arab Muslim societies, where Christian holidays are often national ones – but this does not mean that there are not significant pressures upon the native Christian population.
And often, far more physically dangerous are the many bureaucratic restrictions that exist upon both Muslims and Christians, although disproportionately affecting Christians.
There are reasons to be optimistic, nevertheless. The political elite in most Arab countries is very keen to ensure that their Christians not only remain, but feel at home. Jordan’s monarchy, for example, goes to great lengths to publicly identify Jordan’s Christians as integral parts of Jordanian society, ranging from figures like King Abdullah, to Crown Prince Talal, to Prince Ghazi, who penned the now famous ‘Common Word’ document, which has become the most significant Muslim-Christian co-existence declaration in modern history.
The religious establishment in places like Egypt consistently engages in interfaith dialogue, particularly figures like the Mufti and the President of the Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most prominent educational establishment. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has likewise signed up to interfaith dialogue, and all over the Arab world, the Muslim Brotherhood has made no secret of their public acceptance of the Christian presence, with some going as far as to include a small number of Christians within the ranks of their political movement.
Within the UAE itself, the Abu Dhabi-based religious scholar, Al-Habib Ali Al-Jifri, and the Mufti of Dubai, Ahmad Al-Haddad, as well as many others within the Emirati cultural and religious elite have been vocal in expressing warm sentiments towards Christians.
That said, the religious elite of the Muslim world, as well as the Islamist leadership, need to intensify their public declarations confirming their acceptance of the Christian presence – not so much because it is in doubt, but to counter the radicals and extremists who say otherwise.
Speaking with a local Egyptian Muslim police officer, I mentioned the troubles in the south of Egypt. He did not know many more details than I did, but he did take the opportunity to mention where he had been that night: on duty at the local church, along with other police officers, to protect his Christian compatriots. He saw this as entirely justified on the one hand, as Christian Egyptians are entitled to the complete support of Egypt, but rather sad on the other. Why should there be any need for security at a Church?
The sectarian situation across the Arab world can be summed up as such: a strong, mainstream current of support for the local Christian population, coupled with an unfortunate reality demanding that this support be articulated with force to counter the extremists. But considering the history of Christians in this region, and the predominant sense of community, one can still realistically hope that harmonious relations will prevail, and that Christian Arabs will not become a museum piece.
Dr H. A. Hellyer,Fellow of the University of Warwick, is Director of the Visionary
Consultants Group. www.hahellyer.com