The ACRPS held a two days conference on "Christian Arabs in the Greater Mashreq: Determinants of Continuity, Emigration and Forced Migration" during 21-22 October 2017. The meeting brought together 20 scholars to discuss how the large-scale changes affecting Arab societies are impacting Christian communities in particular. Beginning the first day's sessions, ACRPS Researcher Marwan Kabalan shared a statistic that provided the framework for the rest of the conference: that today's 14 million-strong Christian population in the Arab Levant is likely to fall to just 6 million in less than a decade.
The proceedings began with two keynote speakers. The first, Kamel Abu Jaber, a member of the Jordanian Senate and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, focused on how the relationship between Eastern and Western churches impacted the relationship between the Arab region and Europe. Abu Jaber, whose talk began with an explanation of how the modern Middle East was shaped by Napolean's landing in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1798, offered the view that the Christian communities of the Arab East had always been fully integrated members of a wider Arab, and decidedly Islamic, civilization. According to Abu Jaber, Muslim Arabs were not begrudging accomplices to an arranged coexistence with their Christian compatriots, but rather willing co-citizens of pluralistic Arab societies.
Abu Jaber offered the view that increased Christian outward migration from the Arab East posed a challenge to Arab nationalism, and served to further Israeli interests. According to the speaker, the exodus of Christian Arabs undid the religious pluralism which had been the bedrock of Arab civilization. According to the Jordanian Senator, the mass emigration of Christian Arabs from their homelands was a problem not only for the Christian communities in question, but for the wider Arab-Islamic civilization.
Abu Jaber was followed by historian Wajih Kawtharani, whose keynote address was titled "On the Crisis of Citizenship: the Myth of Tolerance and the Failure to Transform into a State of Full Citizenship". Kawtharani gave a description of the development of the modern-day nation-state in the Arab countries which once formed a part of the Ottoman realm. According to Kawtharani, the study of the post-Ottoman Arab states and their treatment of religious minorities revealed a few prominent factors. The first of these was part of the natural disintegration of an ethnically and religiously plural Sultanic Empire into smaller nation-states. Kawtharani also stressed that the Ottomans' conception of pluralism, based on the
Millet system was simply incompatible with modern states and their emphasis on the equality of rights for all of their citizens.
Yousef Courbagge gave the first of three presentations during the panel that immediately followed the keynote speakers. Courbagge's paper, titled "Christian Arabs in the Ottoman Empire: from Marj Dabiq to Ain Dara" was an attempt to study nearly four centuries of Christian Arab history in Greater Syria. Courbagge, referring to a motif with growing currency around the globe, explained how the Ottoman Empire had at the beginning been seen as more tolerant to Christian communities under its control than the Mamelukes, who had ruthlessly suppressed non-Muslims and Muslim "heretics" alike. In fact, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the privileged social status of Christians in the Arab East meant that the Christian populations in the Arab Mashreq grew approximately six times as fast as the Muslim communities which surrounded them, in contrast to today where higher fertility rates amongst Muslims contributed to the dwarfing of Christian populations in the same countries of the Arab East.
Courbagge was followed by Hala Naufal, whose paper continued the same theme, and took in Ottoman history "From Ain Dara to the First World War". Naufal described how rebellion by the Druze chieftains of Mount Lebanon ended up having long-lasting consequences for the Christian communities of the Arab East and across the wider world. Viewing the Druze as heretical Muslim groups which could not be trusted, the Ottomans encouraged the emigration of Druze and Shia Muslim peasants away from Mount Lebanon (towards the Houran Plain in the case of the former and towards the Bekaa and South Lebanon in the case of the latter) and making way for the rising power of Maronite Christians in Lebanon. With growing autonomy from the Sublime Porte, Maronites living in Mount Lebanon became increasingly dominant in the region—eventually, the Druze aristocrats who had the title to the lands in Mount Lebanon began converting to Maronite Christianity, a unique event in the history of the Arab East. After Mohammed Ali Pasha's conquest of Palestine and Syria sounded the death knell for the Ottoman Empire, increased migration of Christians from present-day Syria to Mount Lebanon and Beirut entrenched Christian political influence in Lebanon further still.
Fadwa Nusair, from Jordan, was the third and final speaker on the same panel. Nusair's paper attempted to give a general overview of the social and political conditions of Christians living in Greater Syria under the Ottomans, particularly before and after the rise of Mohammed Ali in Egypt had shifted social relations permanently by ending legal discrimination against Christian subjects of the former Ottoman realms. Nusair, like the previous speakers, also addressed the massive impact which the relatively more rapid uptake of modern, Western-style education amongst Christian Arabs had on their social status.
This first panel was followed by another two on the same day. The first concentrating on the political and social conditions of Christian Arabs in the Arab Mashreq, and second concentrating on the status of Christian Arabs in the discourse of present-day Islamist movements in the Arab East.
The "Christian Question" in Iraq since the Fall of Mosul
Panels on the second and final day covered some of the political and economic factors which drove Christians within the Arab East to leave.
Speaking on the first panel of the closing day, Iraqi scholar Yehia Al Kubaisi presented some of the facts surrounding the demographic reality of Iraqi Christians. According to Al Kubaisi, the numbers of religious and ethnic minorities within Iraq, and especially Christians, became the object of political disputes involving international actors and major Iraqi political parties.
According to Al Kubaisi, Iraqi Christians, from a number of various churches, accounted for 206,000 persons in 1957, rising to 256,000 in 1977. Al Kubaisi, who claims that later censuses in Iraq were unreliable due to the inaccessibility of Iraqi Kurdistan to census officials, projected that the number of Christian Iraqis would not have normally been greater than around 600,000 by 2003, the year of the US-led invasion. Nonetheless, he points out, a number of sources, including by governments around the world and global aid agencies have cited a mass exodus of "hundreds of thousands" of Christian Iraqis. Al Kubaisi pointed out the implausibility of such claims, suggesting that the political reality of quotas for various ethnic and religious groups means that a number of actors had a vested interest in exaggerating the number of Christian Iraqis.
Following Al Kubaisi, Saad Salloum offered a history of the calls for the creation of a "safe enclave" for Christian Iraqis in the Nineveh Plain. While initially controversial even among formal Christian political organizations within Iraq, the plan is now gaining increasing traction according to Salloum. This is due in part to the heightened threat of physical violence against the Christian communities of the Nineveh Plains since the rise of ISIL. With previously religiously plural cities in Iraq, like Baghdad and Basra, losing their entire Christian populations, the centuries-old Christian community of Iraq was instead witnessing a "reverse migration", and returning to the Nineveh Plains to the North and East of Mosul. Previously the site of established of Christian villages, it now sits on the fault lines between Kurdish Iraqis and the rest of the country and thus made the need for protection more pressing. Finally, another reason Salloum gave for the creation of a "safe zone" in Nineveh was economic: a secure and homogenous zone would act as a magnet for economic investment from within Iraq as well as from the prosperous diaspora community of Assyrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic Iraqis living in North America and elsewhere. These combined realities served to make the prospect of a Christian enclave in the Nineveh Plain more compelling for the religious and political leadership of Iraq's Christians.
Habib Ephrem, President of the Lebanon-based Syraic League, was the first speaker to address the second panel. Ephrem began with an assertion that Christian was "essentially Oriental," deeply embedded in the fabric of the Arab East. "[Emigration to] neither Chicago nor Detroit will be able to replace my homeland," said Ephrem, who opined that emigration to the West was a "myth" which could never be a solution to the existential challenges facing the Christian communities of the East.
Ephrem insisted that a purely demographic, statistical understanding of the Christian role in the Arab East would be insufficient: instead, said Ephrem, the world needed to accept the reality of the equal citizenship and partnership of Christians in the Arab East. The speaker also placed the responsibility for combatting the rise of growing Islamist extremism and exclusionist policies on the wider Arab-Islamic civilization. Ephrem additionally placed some of the blame for the present threats facing the Christian communities of the Arab East on the West, which, it said, had worked to destabilize the states of the region and to disingenuously exploit the sufferings of Christians in the Arab region: since their presence had no strategic benefit for Western countries, Christian Arabs should not expect any special help from Western governments.
Ephrem was followed by Robin Shamuel, who gave a historical overview of the Assyrian Christians of Iraq. Shamuel explained that the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities in Iraq were some of the first people to embrace Christianity, making them one of the oldest continuously extant populations in the world. Shamuel also gave a brief overview of the massive contributions made by Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Iraq to Islamic Civilization.
Completing the geographical balance of the panel, Shady Lewis gave a description of the status of Coptic Christian Egyptians, who have faced a wave of increasing sectarian violence since the 1970s. In contrast to previous analyses which focused on the political and legal structures that allowed for violence against the Copts, Lewis took in the social attitudes which made violence against Copts acceptable throughout Egypt's 2011 revolution and since. Lewis suggested that the violence in Egypt since the 2011 revolution gave rise to a "New Martyrdom" of Egyptian Copts, a sect which had a long history of veneration of martyrs. Lewis suggested that one means to remedy the problems faced by Coptic Christian Egyptians could be the promotion of Coptic individuals in positions of authority in the Egyptian state.
The final speaker on this second panel was Majed Hassan Ali, whose paper covered the approach of Eastern Churches to the emigration of Christians from Iraq and Syria. Ali distinguished between two phases of Christian migration in the Arab East. The first, which took place between the decline of the Ottoman Empire and through the Second World War, was characterized largely by internal migration within the region itself. Beginning with the second part of the twentieth century however, increasingly vigorous nationalist sentiment drove a new wave of Christian exodus from the Arab East.
In the final session, Abdullah Hanna explored the reasons behind Christian Syrian external and internal displacement and migration, and offered an economic reading of these motivations. Ongoing intellectual and socio-economic developments in Syria following independence contributed to the process of integrating the population. The features of the modern state, which had been established by the French mandate, took shape, contributing to the emergence of a central national state with Damascus as its capital.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Christians lived under a national state of peace and security. Nonetheless, the last two decades of the twentieth century saw a decline in national advancement. This led to the resurgence of tribal and sectarian sentiments, which became dominant at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Consequently, the position of Christians became unstable, and their role in society became threatened. Hanna noted that the rate of rural Christian population migration to the city was higher than Muslim migration rates. The reason Hanna suggests for this is that when a Christian migrates to a city, and resides in the Christian neighborhoods his "minority complex" disappears. That is to say, he leaves behind the minority status he suffered in his village, where fears of Islam and compulsion to pay the Jizya are still stored in collective memory.
Samir Seifan's presentation dealt with the climate of conflict in Syria since March 2011 and its impact on the emigration of Syrian Christians. The regime's strategies against the Intifada, which includes intimidating minorities, among them Christians, contributed to pushing them away from the opposition. The regime deliberately instilled fear and suspicion in Christian circles about the opposition and Jihadist groups, and especially ISIL. With the continuation of the conflict, Christian convictions that Syria would not return as it was widened every day. Programs to resettle Syrian refugees in European countries, as well as Canada and Australia played an important role in encouraging Christians to emigrate. Seifan focused on a case study of Christian emigration from the city of Al-Suqaylabiyah, an Orthodox Christian city in the al-Ghab plain, located on the lines between Sunni and Alawite areas.
Concluding the final session of the conference, Mitri Raheb dealt with the major waves of Palestinian Christian emigration in the first half of the 20th century, namely migration to Latin America in the early 20th century. Today, the fourth generation represents about half a million Latin American Palestinian Christians. The professor also saw in his research that the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 was also a Christian Nakba by any measure. He finished his presentation by discussing the reality of Christian emigration from Palestine in the last 10 years by analyzing the results of research and studies carried out by Deyaar Group.
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