For years, the biggest challenge facing Christian Arabs was the ignorance of Western countries and “fellow” Christians regarding their existence.
Media and popular culture overwhelmingly equated Arabs with Islam, leaving little chance for the average person in most Western countries to realize that in addition to Muslims, many Arabs belong to the Christian faith.
Christian Arabs have existed and lived in the Middle East since the birth of Christianity. In a recent conference held in Amman, Prince Ghazi bin Mohammad spoke about 1,300 years of an indivisible society between Muslims and Christians. He stressed that Christian Arabs’ roots in the region precede Islam.
“Christians were in this region before Muslims. They are not strangers, nor colonialists, nor foreigners. They are the natives of these lands and Arabs just as Muslims are.”
But the challenge of educating the world on the existence of Christian Arabs and their contributions to society is huge, and the last few years added yet a more daunting challenge.
The Arab Spring and its various repercussions have caused a new and existential problem for the region’s dwindling Christian Arab population. Various numbers are thrown around when trying to give an exact number for the Christian Arab population. Statistics list as little as 12 million to as many as 40 million, often not taking into account many who are dual citizens in the Arab world and other countries.
Revolutions and counter revolutions resulted in internal strife and sectarian conflicts often pitting members of a country’s population against each otherDaoud Kuttab
Revolutions and counterrevolutions resulted in internal strife and sectarian conflicts often pitting members of a country’s population against each other.
While this sectarian violence is very acute in traditional religious divides within the Islamic faith, in many areas the violence also spread to other religious groups.
In the past few years alone, Christian priests were kidnapped, churches were burnt and bombed, and communities have been targeted in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
The conference on Christian Arabs in Amman brought to the forefront many of these challenges and attempted to tackle them both directly and indirectly through focusing attention to this growing problem that is threatening centuries old relationships.
In praising the role of Christian Arabs, King Abdullah said they are the closest to understanding Islam and its true values.
He called for serious efforts to “preserve the historical Arab Christian identity, and safeguard the right to worship freely, based on a rule in both the Christian and Islamic faiths that underlines love of God and love of neighbor, as embodied in the ‘A Common Word’ initiative.’”
While the recent conference held in Amman is a welcomed event, it was not without some criticism regarding its attendees and exclusive focus on religious leadership.
For example, the attendance was limited to leaders of traditional churches, most of whom have religious hierarchy in non-Arab countries, ignoring some newer Christian denominations with Jordanian leadership.
Local Arab Evangelical churches whose contribution to Jordan’s education, health and humanitarian needs dates back to the birth of the emirate were strangely not invited even though their religious hierarchy is totally Arab and Jordanian.
The presence and role of Christian Arabs is not limited to the religious leadership. The delicacy of the situation and the dangers of losing the Christian element in the Arab world were not lost on a number of Jordanian intellectuals.
Economist and former Minister Jawad Anani dedicated a column in the independent daily al-Ghad, talking about the economic contribution of Christian Arabs and the danger of what is happening to them. He related that Arab Christians were 25 per cent of the Middle East population at the turn of the 20th century and now they are down to around five per cent. Calling them the “salt of the earth,” Anani recalled the contributions of Christian Arabs in the field of development, nationalism, education, business, medicine, media, literature and the arts.
“If they continue to emigrate, our losses in developing ourselves technologically, security and culture will be negatively affected.”
The emphasis and focus by Jordan on Christian Arabs is of extreme importance in confronting worldwide ignorance of the presence and contributions of Christian Arabs, and the unhealthy growth of the forces of religious darkness and intolerance in this region.
To be effective, such focus must continue in an inclusive and comprehensive way that attracts all and benefits from the great wealth of experience that has made this region so important to humanity and civilizations.
This article was first published in the Jordan Times on September 26, 2013.
Daoud Kuttab, an award winning Palestinian journalist who resides in Jerusalem and Amman. Mr. Kuttab is the director general of Community Media Network a media NGO that runs a radio station in Amman (al balad radio 92.4fm) a newsweb site ammannet.net and a TV production operation in Palestine Penmedia (penmedia.ps) which is producing the Palestinian version of Sesame street. You can read his blogs on DaoudKuttab.com and find him on Twitter @DaoudKuttab.
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