Saturday, November 13, 2010

Christian Arabs In The Time Of Al-Qaida

By Mohammed Almezel
This comment was published in Gulf News on 14/11/2010

One of the most vivid songs of the legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz is about ‘Makkah'. Yes, Islam's holiest city, and the busiest place on earth today with millions of people performing the Haj. The song was written by another legendary Lebanese, the poet Saeed Aql.

It describes a spiritual journey in and around the city. Critics agree that what Aql wrote could be, by far, the finest words written about Makkah ever. And, of course, it was only fitting to have those glowing lyrics sung in the angelic voice of Fairouz. The song is a classic.

Meanwhile, on the big screen, the biggest Arab production to date remains Saladin, by the late Egyptian director Yousuf Chahine. It is obviously about the 12th century Muslim leader who fought off the Crusaders. So what is the point? Actually there is none. But few outside the Arab world know that these three artists are not Muslims. They are Christians, like millions of Arabs who have been living in this region for thousands of years. Nevertheless, they are remembered, among other things, for works on subjects that carry significant symbolism in Islam.

That is not an unusual thing in any way in the Middle East. Christian Arabs, especially the intellectual elites, have always spearheaded efforts to preserve the Arabic tradition and stood up to the various cultural onslaughts to which this region was subjected in different periods of its history.

They have always been at the forefront in defending Arab nationalism and the Arabs' core issue, the Palestinian question.

It was the Christian Arabs, particularly two Lebanese educationists — Boutrous Boustani and Nassif Yazeji — who led the campaign to defend the Arabic language at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Ottoman state's Committee of Union and Progress sought to impose Turkish language and culture on Arab societies.

Four decades later, when the Arab Nationalist Movement was formed in reaction to the defeat of Arab regimes in Palestine in the 1948 War, it was Christian Arabs, such as George Habash and Wadi'e Haddad, who led the movement.

All this is actually basic information, known to high school students in most Arab cities. But obviously unknown to the new breed of Islamist militants who last week threatened to turn churches in the Middle East into "mass graves" and called on the Christian "invaders" to leave the Arab region.

Part of the scenery

They basically don't know that Christian Arabs are an integral part of this part of the world. The presence of Christian Arabs in fact precedes Islam in the Arabian Peninsula.

Therefore, Christian Arabs have every reason to be worried, even scared, especially in Iraq. In one week, dozens of faithful were massacred in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church and a number of houses, belonging to Christians, were set ablaze, killing more than 10 people.

Coincidently, two weeks before the church massacre, the Vatican said it was worried violence was forcing Christian Arabs to flee their countries. Many would like to see that, including some Christian leaders, like the London-based Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, who called for all Christians in Iraq to leave the country. He asked the British government, and those in other European countries, "to grant asylum to Christians." This is exactly what Al Qaida wants, isn't it?

What about the others? Muslims who also are being attacked by terror groups? Should they leave too?

Christian Arabs are not temporary residents in this region. They are the sons and daughters of this land. Their safety is the responsibility of the governments and security agencies. But there is a greater responsibility on Muslim religious leaders. It was sad that some leading Muslim clerics waited for long, some for three days, to condemn the Baghdad massacre. In any case, statements of condemnation are not enough.

Clerics and opinion makers in the Arab world need to raise their voices in support of the Christian Arabs who have come under attack since the beginning of the rise of Islamism in the Middle East three decades ago — and not only in Iraq.

Addressing the current insecurity among the Christians is a pan-Arab responsibility, critical to our society's future health. It is not just a cultural or a social issue; it is an existential predicament, which has to be looked at from all aspects. It must be a comprehensive process that involves things like revisiting school curricula, reforming religious teachings, introducing personal status laws that are secular in pluralistic societies, and empowering Christian Arabs in politics and business.

Islam and Christianity have lived together in peace for centuries in many parts of the Arab world. They survived even the most turbulent times, even when the region was backward and underdeveloped. It would be a shame if we let down our Christian brothers and sisters now.

Fairouz is not just an Arab singer. She is a unifying force. Few know that almost all Arab radio stations, in the 22 states that make up the Arab League, start their morning broadcast with a Fairouz song. The coffee in the morning would not be the same without a Fairouz song in the background, a friend once said.

The Arab world will not be the same without its Christians, I say. It would be a bird with only one wing. It would never be able to fly.

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