Under siege: the uncertain fate of Arab Christians

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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Rarely do I write about my personal feelings and passions. The situation is different this time. I write with pain, nay, I write with anger. While watching with horror the savage assaults against the Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first and oldest Christian communities in the world, I am shocked. From the beginning of the season of Arab uprisings I kept reminding myself, and others, that when we analyze and assess the rapidly unfolding events we should not lose sight of the fundamentals: the civil and human rights of all the peoples living in theses societies regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds or their gender. By that I meant that we should denounce and resist repression and injustice inherent in transitional times when the old entrenched powers, along with absolutist radical groups, continue to undermine peaceful inclusive change. Both state and “revolutionary” repression and intimidation should be confronted, although state repression is more dangerous because it is systemic and institutional.

I was shocked by, and denounced, the destruction of the great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, a jewel of a structure with its elegant 11th century minaret. This was a beastly act perpetrated by a cruel regime and primitive gangs of fanatic Islamists. Also shocking was the shelling and looting of the historic Jobar synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the world. Now, I am seized with deep anger because the terror of both the Syrian government forces and elements of the radical Islamists Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front have visited the iconic town of Maaloula, a truly unique and special Christian sanctuary nestled in the rugged

Even when I parted ways with religion and became a secularist, I remained attached to the rituals and aestheticism of Christianity and Islam

Hisham Melhem

mountains not far from Damascus where many inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ . Maaloula’s Christian inhabitants, with their family tree going back to the first Christian communities in ancient Syria, fled the town when it was taken and retaken by the marauding gangs of Assad and al-Nusra.

I was born, and grew up, in Beirut in a decidedly conservative Christian (Maronite/Catholic) environment. I still remember the pride we felt as youngsters when we used to pray and chant Syriac/Aramaic hymns written in Arabic script. In my teens I read Nahj al-Balaghah by Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib (usually translated in English as “Peak of eloquence”) the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, who is considered by his Shiite followers as the most important figure in Islam after the Prophet. The book is truly a magnificent collection of speeches, invocations and aphorisms written by a man of wisdom, courage and compassion. This was the beginning of my love affair with the Arabic language. Another great Muslim Caliph I admired was Omar Ibn Al Khattab, the second of the four wise Caliphs that succeeded Prophet Muhammad. Omar, one of the most powerful and consequential figures in the history of Islam, was known for his strong sense of social justice. I named my son after him.

Even when I parted ways with religion and became a secularist, I remained attached to the rituals and aestheticism of Christianity and Islam and their civilizational legacies. When I find myself in a European capital I do my own version of (Gothic) church hopping. On my first visit to Cairo and Istanbul I was intoxicated with their charming mosques and ancient churches. All this is to say that what I am writing here is not emanating from my religious background but from my moral and political convictions.

Affront on humanity

The terrifying recent attacks against the Christians of Egypt, Copts and other denominations by extremists Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups ( at least 52 churches, convents, schools and other institutions have been attacked, ransacked and burned) and the assaults on the Christians of Syria at the hands of the Nusra Front demands that the blunt truth be told to the Islamists, and to states complicit in their crimes, that all men and women who are struggling to create free societies where citizens, not subjects, live as equals regardless of their backgrounds, are going to fight back this gathering darkness. The fate of the Christians will not be like the fate of the Jews and other minorities who lived among us since time immemorial. Let’s not forget that the Christians of Egypt are not only hounded by wild eyed radical Islamists, but that the Egyptian state itself with its suffocating bureaucracy is complicit in these crimes that are not punished or at times not even seriously investigated. This is what the Egyptian state did under Mubarak, under the military after him and under the Muslim Brotherhood, it is still happening. In Syria, a cynical regime that claims to be “secular,” and providing “protection” to the Christians, has been diabolically effective in using sectarianism to manipulate the concerns of minorities, Christians and others, to perpetuate its despotism.


Let’s remember the plight of the Christians of Iraq, whose trials and tribulations since the American invasion in 2003 led half of them to flee the country when they were subjected to a campaign of terror at the hands of extremist Islamists who assassinated their bishops and burned their churches because they saw them as the extension of the “crusading’ Americans.” At the beginning of the 20th century the thriving Jewish community in Baghdad reached 20 percent of the population of the city. A century ago, the percentage of the Christian populations in the area called the Near East was close to 20 percent. Today, its barely four percent. In fact, the Christian presence in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine is in danger, now more than at any time in the last century.

Historically the Eastern Mediterranean was unique because it boasted tremendous human and cultural diversity. There lived in that area a fabulously rich mosaic of Arabs, Muslims and Christian, Jews, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Circasians, Armenians and Greeks. Some of my childhood friends were Armenians, Kurds and Greek-Cypriots. All Muslim and Christian sects have deep roots in the cities, mountains and deserts of this region whose long, complex and diverse history cannot be understood without the tremendous contributions of its minorities, particularly that of the Christians. Egypt has yet to recover from the devastating loss of its minorities, who played a great role in making Cairo and Alexandria the cosmopolitan cities they were from the late 19th century to mid-20th century. The emigration of the Christians, or their forced departure, from these societies will be a great loss not only for the Christians themselves, but it will inflict a catastrophic blow of historic proportion upon Arab societies and make them even more arid than they are now.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on Sept. 19, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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