Christian Minorities in the Arab World:

      Author:Hilal Khashan
      Date:May 2001

(As appeared in the Middle East Forum)

An Introduction

Arabic-speaking Christians have been one of the main casualties of the
destabilizing events of the twentieth century, and especially of the
Western-created system of modern Arab states. This religious community found
itself deeply immersed in a series of global changes that it could not
influence, let alone shape.
We shall identify the major Christian groups in the Arab world, touch on their
plight, and propose an agenda for their full integration into their own

A Long-standing Problem

The Christian problem in the Arab world did not begin recently but has deep and
antique historical roots.
The original Muslim conquests of the seventh century caused a dominant
population to be rendered first powerless and then turned into a minority. On
the eve of those Muslim conquests, there were more than 15 million Christians in
the Near East: 9.1 million in Iraq, 4 million in Syria, and 2.5 million in
Egypt. In percentage terms, Christians represented more than 95 percent of the
population in West Asia and Egypt.

Christians dropped dramatically around the period of the Ottoman conquest in 1516,
but credible population estimates are
not available. Famine, plague, and population migrations have sharply reduced
the population of Egypt and Syria toward the end of Mamluk rule. In Egypt,
Coptic percentages remained constant at nearly 8 percent, but the percentage of
Christians in Syria and Iraq grew to 20 percent before the breakout of the First
World War. Today, the less than 12 million Christians in Arabic-speaking
countries, including the nearly two million recent converts in southern Sudan,
constitute less than 6 percent of their population.

Christians became a minority in the Arab East for a variety of reasons: the
forceful advent of Islam, and the Arabization of West Asia, North Africa, and
much of the Nile Basin. It also resulted from the rise and fall of indigenous
and conquering empires, massive population migrations, and arbitrary state
formations by European powers. The European Crusaders in the twelfth century put
Arab Christians in the unenviable situation of having to choose between their
coreligionists and their compatriots. Ironically, the Crusades ushered in
Christianity’s decline in the region of its birth. The diversion of
international trade from the Near East and the inception of Western colonialism
accelerated the retreat of Christianity from the region.

Numerically significant Christian minority groups include the Copts of Egypt,
the Maronites of Lebanon, the Assyrians of Iraq, the Greek Orthodox and diaspora
Armenians of Syria and the tribal members (Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk) of the southern
Sudan. But numbers tell only part of the story. Copts and Assyrians gradually
declined over the past millennium from the predominant population groups into
minorities with little or no political power. The Maronites of Lebanon, long
aloof and dominant in the rugged Lebanese mountains, have since the beginning of
the nineteenth century come into direct political contact with other
confessional groups having different historical and spiritual experiences. In
fact, it is the Maronites, the spirit and soul of Lebanese nationalism, who give
shape and meaning to modern Lebanon. There is nothing more illustrative than the
recent call, in September 2000, of the Council of Maronite Patriarchs, upon
Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon. The African tribes of the southern Sudan
have since independence in 1956 resented their political marginalization and the
efforts of the dominant Muslim north to assimilate the Christian and animist
South religiously and culturally.

Christianity’s decline has accelerated to the point that in recent years many
Christian communities fear for their demise: some have responded to this
perceived danger by taking up arms (as in Lebanon and Sudan), while others
languish under increasing persecution (as in Iran and Egypt). Should the current
rate of attrition continue, Christians could decline to less than 6 million by
the year 2025, or just half of their numbers today.

Civil Wars and Low Intensity Conflicts

Considering the magnitude and intensity of the problem surrounding the
persecution and decline of Christian minorities in Arabic-speaking countries, it
is surprising that the world community and statesmen in Arab countries have paid
scant attention. It is ironic to note that the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has
received infinitely more media coverage, has taken a far smaller human and
material toll than the civil wars in just three Arab countries (Iraq, Sudan,
Lebanon). The combined Arab-Israeli wars since 1948 have resulted in the death
of 150,000 Arabs; those civil wars have lead to the deaths of at least one
million. In terms of material losses, the toll is even greater. Take just the
Sudan, which is potentially the breadbasket for the entire Arab world; it finds
itself stricken by a severe food shortage that has decimated much of the
population of its embattled south.

Religion has been a decisive factor in most civil wars in Arabic-speaking
countries. In Algeria, fundamentalist Islam has pitted itself against a
secularizing, albeit inept, state. In Iraq, the religious underpinnings of the
1933 massacre, in which hundreds of Assyrians lost their lives, seem to have
redefined the status of Iraqi Christians as victims of persecution. The three
main civil wars touching on Christians have been in Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt.
Lebanon. The source of the problem lies in the Christian, essentially Maronite,
sense of particularism and distinction. Since 1840, Lebanon has succumbed to
four religiously-inspired civil wars, the latest (1975-90) being the most
ferocious and destabilizing. Independence in 1943 did not bring even a modicum
of political stability to this inherently tormented country. Most Christians
feel that they had already made a significant compromise when-according to the
1943 National Covenant that regulated confessional relations in the country-they
accepted that Lebanon had an Arab face. Persistent pressures from the Muslims
for greater identification with Arab nationalism and a more aggressive
involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict threatened the majority of Lebanese
Christians. They saw in the demands by their Muslim counterparts, including new
ones for a revised formula for sharing the system’s meager political and
economic resources, an abrogation of the terms of the 1943 National Covenant,
and a recipe for renewed sectarian conflict. In 1975, Lebanese Maronites took up
arms against the Palestinian-supported leftist-Muslim alliance in a spectacular,
yet perplexing, demonstration of anger and frustration that is only now being
sorted out. The Lebanese conflict today centers on the bitter legacy among
Christians concerning societal disenfranchisement and Muslim domination.
Sudan. Christian fears in the Arab world are best epitomized by the behavior of
the Sudanese central government since independence in 1956. At the heart of the
problem is that missionary-minded, Arabized, and Islamized northerners shattered
the fragile unity of the country as they sought forcibly to convert southerners
to Islam. The tribal peoples of the south, Christian and animist, are convinced
that the Muslim North is intent on dominating them politically. There is indeed
evidence to suggest that northern politicians have not been entirely sincere in
recognizing an autonomous role for the South or in treating its inhabitants on
an equal basis. The Muslim North has consistently approached the non-Muslims of
the South with an assumption of superiority; the problem of the South’s
political differences and wishes for autonomy would be solved through its
Islamization and Arabization. The entrenched notion among the ruling elite in
Khartoum perceives southerners as their “lost brothers” who must find redemption
in Islam at the hands of the northern Muslims. This attitude reflects the fact
that Muslims, devout or otherwise, tend to believe that Islam, the ultimate
divine truth, is destined to prevail at the expense of other religions. As a
result, Sudan has been engulfed in a civil war between its northern and southern
regions since 1964, just eight years after the country’s independence from
Britain (although the country did enjoy a period of relative tranquility in the
years 1972-83).

Great Britain and Egypt, the condominium ruling countries, had already agreed to
Sudan’s right to self-determination and called for a national plebiscite to
determine the country’s future. Prime Minister Isma`il al-Azhari maneuvered
“whereby the Sudanese parliament bypassed the projected popular plebiscite and
confronted the condominium powers with a proclamation of independence.” The
military government of General Ibrahim ‘Abud in the early 1960s strikingly
displayed such a mentality when, simultaneous with pursuing outright secularist
policies in the North, it insisted on a comprehensive Islamization of the South.
Furthermore, the Sudanese government displayed ill-will in the implementation of
the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972 that called for southern autonomy. The central
government in Khartoum manipulated the southern vice-president and eviscerated
his power. In addition, its exploitation of the South’s oil reserve alarmed
politicians there; the decision to build an oil refinery in an area under full
northern control only confirmed these worries, for the refinery would have made
much more sense located near the oil-fields. To add insult to injury, the
government of Ja‘far an-Numayri, beset by intense opposition from northern
parties and the intelligentsia, chose in 1983 to implement Islamic law (Shari`a)
in the South, a measure that re-ignited the civil war which has not yet subsided
and that has taken a huge number of lives. The continued practice of slavery, in
which northern merchants are actively involved, has aggravated tensions and
spurred southerners actively to seek an alternative cultural, political, and
religious course separate from the Arabized North. This is the Christian
nightmare made real.


Bonds of brotherhood and a strong sense of ethnic homogeneity and
national identity brought Muslims and Copts together at the inception of modern
Egyptian nationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, under
British occupation, these bonds slowly eroded. In 1911, for example, the
organizers of a Coptic conference demanded equality with their Muslim
compatriots (such as the recognition of Sunday as a holiday, government spending
on Coptic schools, and including Coptic deputies in the national parliament).
Unfortunately, these basic Coptic demands fell on deaf Muslim ears. While
participation in national politics and preoccupation with getting rid of the
British occupying power overshadowed religious differences and inequality, the
rise of Islamism in Egypt and the writings of prominent Islamist thinkers who
spoke negatively about Christianity (such as Sayyid Qutb) antagonized the Copts,
who saw in this the roots of political vegetation and second class citizenship.
The arrival of Anwar as-Sadat to the presidency following the death of Gamal
Abdel Nasser in 1970 coincided with the ordination of the dynamic and
charismatic Pope Shenouda III as the 117th successor to St. Mark a year later.
The Islamist policies of Anwar as-Sadat antagonized the Copts and exacerbated
religious tensions that continue to the present. In Egypt, a low intensity
assault against Copts has been advancing for the past thirty years. Islamists
equipped with medieval religious zeal (such as jihad) and coming from
marginalized and poverty-stricken societal strata, have been involved in
frequent bloody attacks against their Christian compatriots. The most recent
major attack occurred in January 2000 in the village of Al-Kosheh in southern
Egypt, in which twenty Copts lost their lives.
A clash with a defensive Islam, be it the official or the militant variety, lies
at the heart of the plight of Christian minorities in Arabic-speaking countries.
At least in part, this is attributable to the universalistic and exclusivist
nature of the Islamic faith which, among other things, emphasizes conformity
through uniformity. During the intifada that began in 1987, for example, most
Palestinian Muslims refused to consider fellow Christians shot dead by Israeli
troops as martyrs. This points to a fundamental divide between Muslims and
Christians in the Middle East, one that nurtures suspicion and fosters

Mutual Fears

The legacy of discrimination against Christians-one that is hardly moderated by
the Muslims’ religious tolerance of the “peoples of the book”-has culminated in
a series of bloody confrontations over the past few decades that served to pull
Muslims and Christians further apart. Segregation at virtually every avenue of
human interaction engendered an atmosphere of mutual fears.
Christian. In the absence of the rule of law as established in Western
democracies, Christian minorities in the Arab Middle East tend to fear the
preponderance of Sunni Arabs. Their fears are rooted in history. They worry that
Christian well-being depends on the good will of the ruling elites as well as
the ability to maintain friendly relations with the Muslim majority. This puts
severe strains on their behavior, forcing Christians to be continuously
conscious about the possible implications of their actions. Thomas Michel dwells
on this matter and notes that Christians feel that Muslims associate them with
the West, a perceived identification that makes Christians vulnerable in times
of international crises. He succinctly remarks that “when Muslim public opinion
is indignant at the actions of one or another Western power, their anger is
frequently directed, not at those distant Christian nations of the West who are
safely beyond their reach, but towards local Christians.” Drawing on
consequential historical events, Christians have apparently not forgotten the
fall of Constantinople and the destruction of invaluable Christian art, nor the
practice of Ottomans capturing Christian boys and forcing them to adopt Islam
and serve the sultan as Janissaries.

Levantine Christians feel small and isolated among the huge populations of
Muslims among whom they live; and in the eastern countries, they are also
swamped by great numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians. They are wary of
secular Europe, concerned that its historical predisposition of concern with
Arab Christians exists no more. Copts in Egypt feel especially isolated: first,
they are overwhelmed by their Muslim compatriots; second, they never sought or
enjoyed European patronage. To the contrary, their experience with the British
during the colonial period was often caustic. And yet, commitment to Egyptian
nationalism and involvement in the national struggle against the British did not
put the Copts on a par with the Muslim majority. Restrictions on church
building, limitations on political participation and allocation of public posts
injured the Copts’ collective pride, causing them to lose faith in the integrity
of Egypt’s political system.

Levantine Christians, pioneers in fostering Arab nationalist tendencies in the
nineteenth century and disproportionately over-represented in its various
twentieth-century manifestations (such as the Ba‘th Party and the Arab
nationalist movement), eventually grew wary about its radical and
assimilationist tendencies, for many Arab Muslims perceive Arab nationalism and
Islam as the same thing. The ease with which Islamism has supplanted Arab
nationalism simply attests to Christian frustrations and identity


Muslims have their own apprehensions which must not be viewed as
irrelevant, even if they may be exaggerated, or even if more imagined than real.
To begin with, Muslims are highly aware of the educational, professional,
business, and cultural edge enjoyed by Arabic-speaking Christians. This gap
results from the Christians’ historically greater exposure to Europe and their
greater readiness to accept Western values and norms, as well as the solicitous
attention of Western missionaries.
Ironically, their minority status as dhimmis (Jews and Christians, the two
“peoples of the book” given a protected but secondary status in Muslim-ruled
countries) had the effect of excluding many Christians from political
participation - and may have channeled their energies to more educational and
mercantile goals, which served them well in the long term. Although this gap has
been significantly narrowed during recent decades, Christians still have a
proportional qualitative edge in education and greater across-the-board wealth.
In addition, Arab Muslims, who for centuries fought Western domination and
eventually succumbed to it, tend to find it convenient to identify Arab
Christians with European colonialism. Although many Arab Christians-with the
exception of the Maronites of Mount Lebanon- disassociated themselves from the
Crusaders, they nevertheless began increasingly to identify with militarily and
economically triumphant Europe, as Levantine Orthodox identified with tsarist
Russia. Also, there are other historic memories: Damascene Christians developed
relations with the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and Catholic, Maronite,
and Protestant Christians’ acceptance of Western secular education and cultural
values, as well as economic collaboration with France and Britain; these were
probably sufficient to aggravate the apprehensions of defensive and
historically-conscious Muslims.

Conspiracy theorists among the Muslim majority go further and see Arab
Christians as Western agents, while condemning Christian missionaries from the
West as spies for their governments’ intelligence agencies. Abu Nidal, leader of
an extremist underground Palestinian organization, even accused the Vatican of
conspiring against the Palestinian people “possibly in league with Middle
Eastern Christians.” Most Middle Eastern Muslims, arguably with the exception of
Turks, find themselves devastated by a decline in their economic and political
standing that has lasted for centuries. This is one reason why they have fallen
victim to conspiratorial fantasies; and local Christians provide convenient
scapegoats premised on largely baseless fears.

Obstacles to Change

The predicament of Christians in Arabic-speaking countries will continue until
many obstacles have been overcome:
· Communal identities in most parts of the Arab world are characterized by the
prevalence of religious, tribal, or local leaders who exercise disproportionate
influence among their followers. The preeminence of communal leaders retards
inter-group interaction and intensifies the primordial differences (such as
sectarianism) that predominate in Arab societies.
· The novelty and complexity of the Western concept of the nation-state makes
popular identification with the state difficult, especially in Arabic-speaking
countries. Accordingly, communal commitments continue to demonstrate a far
greater vitality than national and crosscutting interests.
· Even in the more liberal Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Egypt, the
government makes it exceptionally difficult for truly independent
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to form or function. This weakness of NGOs
precludes the possibility of the populations identifying with broader interests,
such as human rights and political accountability.
· Expatriate workers in the Persian Gulf states have a difficult time because
most governments there do not appreciate the importance of ordained priests for
the performance of religious functions in the Christian faith. Since religious
hierarchy is absent in Islam, especially among Sunnis, Gulf Muslims appear to
believe that Christians can exercise their religious duties privately without
ecclesiastical intervention. This absence denies spiritual guidance to the large
expatriate Christian community working in the Persian Gulf and adversely affects
their faith.
· Governments prevent Christians from building churches. In Egypt, for example,
the authorities rely on a nineteenth-century Ottoman ordinance restricting the
number of churches that can be built by Copts.
· Middle Eastern Arab elites (and Western ones, too) have largely ignored the
debate among liberal and moderate Islamists on issues relating to improving the
status of Christians in a modern Arab-Islamic state, disproportionately focusing
instead on problems of Islamic radicalism. Preoccupation with the adverse impact
of Islamism on Middle Eastern regimes and Western societies has distracted
attention from physical attacks against Copts in Egypt, starvation and violence
that decimate the largely Christian population of the southern Sudan, and the
unabating Christian emigration from Lebanon. Furthermore, it has not enhanced
the integration in society of Christians in Syria and Jordan beyond business
activity and superficial social transactions.
· Some Muslims fear that close cooperation with Christians would result in
revitalizing Christianity at the expense of Islam. Thus, they advocate
introducing additional curbs on displaying Christian faith in Arab societies.
The list includes restrictions on church building and the severe restriction or
abolition of parochial schools.
· Reciprocally, some Christians worry that interaction with Muslims will
eventually cause the dissolution of the community. In Lebanon, for example,
Christian clerics are adamantly opposed to the introduction of civil marriage.
Apart from losing influence accrued to them by the political system’s
confessional arrangement, the clerics have reasons to worry about weakened bonds
of communal identifications as a result of interfaith marriages.

Solving the Problem

Despite these long and deep difficulties, change is nonetheless possible. The
agenda for improving communal relations involves two tracks, one immediate and
another long term.
Immediate. The development of dialogue between moderate Christian scholars,
intellectuals, and organizations and their Muslim counterparts, already under
way, is the key. In a remarkable gesture of goodwill signifying Christendom’s
attitudinal change towards Muslims, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council
(1962-65) sought to emphasize similarities between Christianity and Islam,
rather than dwell (as in the past) on contentious issues. The council generated
an atmosphere amenable to understanding and interfaith dialogue. This spirit
continues: on August 24, 1990, an assembly of Middle Eastern Catholic patriarchs
expressed intent to strengthen Christian-Muslim relations that recognized the
sameness of their cultural heritage. Since then a spate of Christian-Muslim
meetings, aimed at improving bilateral relations and inducing a favorable
atmosphere of discourse, has taken place in nearly every corner of the globe.
But dialogue is not in itself an automatic solution; it must transcend
formalities and tactful procedures to deal with difficult issues that will
ultimately involve a fundamental change of perception in the Muslim camp,
leading to an acceptance of Arab Christians as the political equals of the
Muslims. Muslim clerics in turn need to pay more than lip service to interfaith
dialog. Their real work lies in promoting a new value system among their
constituencies, one that sees religious differences as an individualistic
prerogative and as a source of cultural enrichment, not contention or
antagonism. They should accept and teach their followers to accept that divine
truth has different interpretations and to perceive them as mutually supportive,
rather than exclusive.
Unfortunately, the Muslim political and religious elites have not prepared the
masses for this eventuality, nor are they likely to any time soon. In states
where political legitimacy is wanting, it is highly unlikely that the rulers
will undertake consequential decisions that could erode their shaky control.
Nevertheless, room continues to exist for well-meaning and organized individuals
from all sides to work to build confidence and friendship, preferably without
reference to the state. Members of both religions need to engage in reciprocity
and cooperation, not exclusivity or confrontation.

Long term.

Important as these measures may be, real progress will only come with
genuine political transformation. Participatory democracy, sorely lacking in the
Muslim Arab world, is the real answer to minority problems. Democracy allows for
pluralism, which enables minorities to fully immerse themselves in their own
cultural and/or religious preferences, without losing touch with the larger
political arena.

Regimes in Arabic-speaking countries have displayed, however, an astonishing
capacity for resisting meaningful political change. Unfortunately, the prognosis
for political transformation is not good. If anything, Arab political systems
appear to be rapidly decaying. Arab rulers seem more concerned about political
survival than exacting genuine societal reforms. For example, President Husni
Mubarak still refuses to admit that there is a Coptic problem in Egypt; instead,
he reduces attacks against them to a security issue rooted in social and
economic variables. The question of succession haunts many rulers and the
Islamist forces of opposition seem predisposed to cause further instability. To
avoid the specter of civil strife, Arab rulers must take measures to initiate
gradual political reforms that, if successful, would ensure transition to
representative democracy. If this happens, Christian minorities stand to gain as

Perhaps the best chance for Christians to stem the tide of their retreat and to
assert themselves as citizens, not subjects, may result from economic changes
now under way. The end of the cold war, the trend towards democratization in
Eastern Europe, and the information revolution have ushered in a period of
accelerating change in many places. The Arab world has not been entirely immune
to the liberalizing effects of these developments, and economic integration,
although still bumpy in virtually all Arab countries, is bound to establish at
least a foothold there. And booming economic activity in turn normally invites
social liberalization, eventually transferable into democratic concessions by
the ruling elite. This will make it more likely that competent Arab Christian
entrepreneurs, many of whom are currently functioning either in the West or in
the Gulf region, will return to their countries of origin. In this era of
globalization which places a premium on economic activity, Christian successes
in this field would probably translate themselves into political gains, crucial
for sociopolitical integration.

Arab political systems must open up, enfranchising the populations and
liberalizing the economies. It will be in such an atmosphere that the Arab
world’s Christians can reassert themselves, not from a narrow communal
perspective, but on the basis of an interactive national life.


The importance of improving majority-minority relations in the Arab world can
hardly be overstated. This is a region where religion largely defines not just
faith but also personal identity, so that how Muslims and Christians see each
other affects politics, economics, and much more. Religious identity, in its
divisive outlook, has had its toll on Arab societies. It set different
population groups apart, reinforced tensions, and inhibited economic
development. Still worse, it has produced distinct sociopolitical groups with
incompatible worldviews that doomed the rise of genuine national politics. This
is why a rapprochement between Muslims and Christians, one that puts the latter
on a par with the former at all societal levels, would go a long way in
modernizing Arab societies. These societies stand to benefit from Christian
business expertise, significant financial assets, widespread contacts with the
West, and profound desire to achieve.

Arab publics and ruling elites need to recognize the need for changing patterns
of inter-religious and inter-group interactions; they also need to accept the
challenge and risks that accompany change. Without daring leaderships willing to
take the necessary risks in dealing with simmering problems (such as minority
rights, political and economic liberalization, right to assemble and organize),
tensions will continue to buildup and threaten the fragile fiber of society.
Arab Muslims have to learn to become more religiously permissive and accept that
others’ religious differences do not necessarily clash with Islam’s
universalism. If Arab sheikhs and princes build mosques in Christian lands and
brag about it, they should, on grounds of reciprocity, allow Christians to build
churches to serve Christian migrant communities in the Gulf area.

Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of
Beirut, is author of Arabs at the Crossroads: Political Identity and Nationalism
(University Press of Florida, 2000).
A version of this paper was presented at a conference sponsored by Caritas Internationalis in the Vatican.