The Middle Eastern Unit
 The Faculty of Humanities
 Chair: Dr. David Satran
 (Department of Comparative Religion)
 LECTURE: November 11, 1996
 (5:00 pm, Room 104 of the Truman Institute)
The Decline of Eastern Christian Communities
in the Modern Middle East

Ladies and gentlemen:

   I have been asked to address you today on the decline of Eastern Christian communities in the modern Middle East. This process of Christian demographical declined has, however, been a permanent trend in Islamized lands, sometimes accelerated by specific events, sometimes stabilized. But the process of withering away has always been there from the beginning and, with the passing centuries, Christian populations that formerly constituted majorities dwindled to minorities - even disappearing from certain regions. 

  Here I wish to stress a point: When, in 1983, I coined a new term, "dhimmitude," all those processes by which a society - an ethnic collective group - either managed to survive, defending itself, or was ultimately destroyed. The study of dhimmitude is not the same as the study of the dhimmi condition itself, because dhimmitude concerns the inner politics and inter-relations of a collectivity, which coexists encapsulated within its Islamic environment.

   A delicate equilibrium evolved during the centuries of resignation to spoliations and humiliations. But, in the Ottoman Empire, during the 19th century Tanzimat period, that equilibrium was suddenly broken by the immense challenges represented by the total modification of the relationship between the umma (the Muslim community) and the dhimmi populations. Because the Islamic state had granted Jews and Christians a protection in the context of jihad, a holy war, their whole legal status was thereby integrated into a warlike ideology linked with religion. We thus find three inter-related and inseparable elements: a legal status; a war; and a theology. 

   In the document section of my latest book in English, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude, I have published a text from al-Qayrawani, a Tunisian jurist, who died in 966. A brief passage from him will allow us to understand the traditional position on this question: 

   "Jihad is a precept of Divine institution. Its performance by  certain individuals may dispense others from it. We Malikis (one of the four schools of Muslim jurisprudence) maintain that it is preferable not to begin hostilities with the enemy  before having invited the latter to embrace the religion of  Allah except where the enemy attacks first. They have the  alternative of either converting to Islam or paying the poll tax (jizya), short of which, war will be declared against them. "

   In the 19th century, when the emancipation of the dhimmis was envisaged in the Ottoman Empire, these three elements proved to be unsurmountable obstacles. By the end of the 18th century, the modernization of the empire had became a matter of urgency in order to maintain its territorial integrity against the annexionist ambitions of both Austria and Russia. Already in 1774, by the treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarjdi, Russia had managed to obtain the right to intercede on behalf of all the Orthodox subjects of the Porte. Russia thereby became the champion of the Slavs and of Eastern Orthodoxy in general, while France defended the interests and privileges of Catholicism. This territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, first pledged by France, became the pivotal policy of Europe. It is within this context of territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire that the emancipation of the Christian rayas - or dhimmis -was envisaged by Europe. This policy was based on the hope that equal rights for all Ottoman subjects and the abolition of the oppression of the rayas would check the revolutionary national movements of the Greeks, the Serbs and other Slavic peoples.

   The principle of equal rights was one of those liberal ideas bequeathed by the American and French revolutions. But in Europe the political context was totally different from that in Islamic lands. First, in Christendom the principle of the separation of powers - political and religious - had allowed the development of secularist and anti-clerical trends. The religious minorities: Protestants in a Catholic majority; Catholics in a Protestant majority; and the Jewish communities, were minorities persecuted on a theological basis. Here, the principle of equal rights was only possible through the elimination of theological pressures on European political and juridical systems.

    In the Islamic system, however, the situation was exactly the reverse since politics and religion are united. The definition given by the great 14th century historian, Ibn Khaldun, is worth quoting briefly:  "In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the (Muslim) mission and   (the obligation) to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united (in Islam), so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them  (religion and politics) at the same time".

  Secondly, the so-called "religious minorities" were still, in some regions, large majorities like the Greeks, the Slavic populations of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria - and the Armenians in several provinces. But most important, these "religious minorities" in the Ottoman Empire were in fact the remnants of native ethnic majorities. Two firmans were proclaimed by Sultan Abd al-Majid in 1839 and 1856, promising new laws that would abolish religious inequalities. In the Islamic context, the policy of equal rights for all subjects raised many questions. I will mention a few which are still relevant today:

1. The right for Christians to hold freehold property. According to Muslim jurists, the land conquered by jihad should be considered as fay land, a land that in its totality belongs to the umma - the Islamic community - as a wakf, which the imam  administers for the benefit of the umma. The scholar Qudama b. Ja'far (d. circa 932) wrote: "If the Imam distributes the lands amongst those who captured them, they become 'ushr lands, and their previous owners become slaves. If he does not distribute the lands but leaves them in whole, as a trust to the Muslims, then the poll-tax lies on the necks of their owners, who are free, while their lands are charged with kharaj tax." 

  This point is stressed in the 1988 Constitution of Hamas (art. 11), where it applies to any land conquered by Islam.  In spite of reforms granting non-Muslims the right to buy land in the Ottoman Empire, they could rarely acquire it. In 1860, the British Consul in Sarajevo reported to the British ambassador at Constantinople:  "Christians [dhimmis] are now permitted to possess real property, but the obstacles which they meet with, when they attempt to acquire it, are so many and vexatious that very few have as yet dared to brave them" . This situation continued till 1875, although in Egypt and Palestine special privileges were granted to Europeans.

2. The second point was the abolition of the Koranic tax, the jizya, which was paid in exchange for "protection" under the dhimma. Thus, the suppression of the jizya was considered as tantamount to the suppression of the protection itself, which left the dhimmis defenceless.

   According to the Shafi'i jurist al-Mawardi (d. 1058):
"The refusal of tributaries to pay the poll tax constitutes a violation of the treaty that was conceded to them.

  According to the 8th century jurist Abu Yusuf:  "(...) their lives and possessions are spared only on account of the poll tax.

  At a time of great changes when foreign laws and customs imported from the West were contradicting the shari'a, questions were raised about the source of the law's legitimacy. Today, this question is still a burning issue for islamists: the choice between the Law of Allah - the shari'a - and the principle of secular, man-made, laws. Of course, for Muslim judges the shari'a law always prevails over any other law and therefore the system of dhimmitude was perfect and had to be maintained. Here, we should take a closer look at the principle of "rights" in general. From whom does a person's "rights" emanate? The rules of jihad state that the infidel who does not submit has no rights at all. The rights of Jews and Christians are only granted, and protected, if they have submitted to Islamic law. 

   According to an-Nawawi, a 13th century jurist:  "One is not responsible for having mortally wounded an infidel who is not subjected to a Muslim authority, or of an apostate, even when either one of them recants of his errors before dying. "

   In other words, it is the Islamic ruler who guarantees, and is the source of legitimacy regarding the rights of Jews and Christians. This is clearly in contradiction with Western conceptions of Human Rights, which declare that everyone is born free and equal in dignity and in rights. In this respect, too, article 31 of the Hamas Charter stresses the Islamic source of "rights" for Jews and Christians. President Sadat also confirmed this Muslim point in Washington in 1980. Shocked by the wide publicity given by American Copts to the persecutions of Copts in Egypt, he declared: "Islam is the best guaranty of security for the Copts in Egypt". Thus, it is Islam which is the source of rights - not the person's inherent rights.

   Equality of rights for all would challenge the Islamic order that stressed the superiority of Muslims over infidels. Should a non-Muslim give orders to a Muslim? A 1993 fatwa, published in Saudi Arabia, dealt precisely with this problem.  In a recent booklet, The Road to Victory, published by members of the London-based Hizb ut-Tahrir, one reads: "In its doctrine, Islam forbids the submission to unbelievers and to their rule." The question remains open: Should "ideas" be borrowed from Infidels? Should Muslims become friends with the People of the Book?

3. Testimony in court. According to Islamic law, when there is a conflict between a Muslim and a non-Muslim it has to be judged by a shari'a court, which automatically refuses the testimony of a non-Muslim. In 1875, civil courts were specially created in the Ottoman Empire where such cases might receive the testimony of Christians or Jews. But from the reports of British consuls in the Balkans, and in Syria and Palestine, we find even those courts refusing such testimony.

4. The problem of building new churches and synagogues, or repairing any part of them still applies today in certain Muslim countries. 

   This concept of equal rights was like a thunder-bolt that would shake and destroy the whole social and legal structure of Islamic society based on the shari'a. And Christians were to suffer from many brutal reprisals because of this evolution. Moreover, the 19th century was a century of genocidal massacres caused by many national uprisings against Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Those Christian revolts led to continual wars and reprisals - with tremendous sufferings on all sides, vast refugee problems, and an upsurge of much religious hatred.

   During the Greek war of liberation in 1821, Sultan Mahmud II wrote to his vassal, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, that in the war against the Greeks he had to conform to the rules of jihad: "the slaying of the rebels and the plunder of their goods, and slavery for their wives and children." But three years later, a firman confirmed the aman, or protection, to the rebels who had submitted and forbade Muslims to attack them. 

   In Lebanon, Anglo-French rivalries in the context of the emancipation of the Christians provoked massacres of Christians in both Lebanon and Syria in 1841, 1842, 1845, and especially in 1860. More than 20.000 of them were killed, leaving 10,000 orphans, and 75,000 refugees, and 3.000 women were taken as slaves, not to mention forced conversions. This led to a European intervention and the creation of an autonomous Lebanese Ottoman province with a Christian Governor-General.

   Toward the close of the 19th century, the sultan's Christian subjects had the choice between two different paths if they wished to liberate themself from dhimmitude:

 1) Autonomy, leading to eventual independance when possible;

 2) Integration, within the concept of a secular Arab nation.

   The Armenians chose autonomy. They requested that where they were numerous in their ancient provinces, the reforms announced at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 should be applied: a wider representivity in the communal and provincial administration and the permission to build schools and use their own language. In 1892-1894 they suffered massacres that claimed 250.000 victimes; about 30,000 in 1909; and, then, the great genocide of 1915-1917 in the First World War. At that fateful period, many Jacobites, who were living alongside the Armenians in some regions, were also killed. 

   At the end of the war, the Armenians requested an autonomous region which was refused by the Allied Powers. The Assyrians, who asked for a small autonomous territory where they could feel safe, were also refused; they too suffered massacres in 1933, and again in 1937, in the Jazira region of Iraq. The Lebanese Christians obtained independance through an elarged French mandate. 

   Those Christians who chose integration were often from the refugee populations living in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. They thought that Arab nationalism or Syrian nationalism would help them to integrate into a secular Islamic society. 

   But there was also another aspect of Arab nationalism: this was the opposition to Zionism - the Jewish movement of national liberation - by a future Arab Empire comprising Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. As the American King-Crane Report argued in 1922: Arab nationalism would create a tremendous bond between Muslims and Christians by uniting them against Zionism. The same struggle, and the same hatred against Zionist Jews, would be the best means for the Christians to fully integrate into their Muslim environment. On 28 March 1921, the 3rd Palestinian Congress took place in Haifa. It was constituted mainly by Palestinian Christians. On meeting Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, they gave him a memorandum with arguments from The Protocoles of the Elders of Zion

   At the end of the 20th century, the instability in the Arab Muslim world; the catastrophic economic situation in so many regions; the general radicalisation of Islam; the failure of those Christian dreams for their autonomy, or for secularisation; and the fact that Europe abandoned them, has led to constant emigration. Moreover, the strong and proud Lebanese Christian community, after first being attacked by the PLO, disintegrated in the civil conflict that opposed those of them who were partisans of an independent Lebanon, to their coreligionists who had fought against a Christian political power.

   One of the reasons for the indifference concerning the Eastern Christians was that in Europe their tragedy was replaced by that of the "Palestinian cause" - thanks to Christian mobilization for it. For the past thirty years and more, the "Palestinian cause", strongly backed by the Vatican, by various Churches, and by influential politians in Europe became the daily preoccupation of the media, and of governments. This cause served as a screen to hide the permanent deterioration of the situation of the Christians themselves in the Middle East and elsewhere: that of the Copts in Egypt; the jihad against Christians and Animists in Sudan; the tragic clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, the Philippines, East Timor, and other regions. This strange silence was integrated into a deliberate obfuscation of Eastern Christianity's dhimmi history. This history was replaced by the myth of a marvellous Islamic-Christian symbiosis that had existed for centuries before the advent of Zionism. And - it was suggested - since Israel was the cause of such evils, its demise would revive that Middle East "Golden Age".

   This attitude was well expressed 20 years ago by Robert Brenton Betts in the conclusion to his book, Christians in the Arab East:  
   "For Israel itself, a successful Christian-Muslim experiment makes Lebanon the most dangerous of all enemies to Zionist survival, for it is a living example of the kind of society the Palestinians have lately advocated in place of the narrowly nationalistic and ethnically based state that is Israel today. (...) The success or failure of the Lebanese Christian communities in perpetuating and restructuring their national society in the coming decades will irrevocably be shared by all Arabic-speaking Christians throughout the Middle East, and will in large part determine the outcome of their centuries-old striving to achieve a truly integrated and egalitarian Arab nation." 

   Muslim and Christian writers, priests and politicians again and again repeated this point on the sybiosis. Hence, the importance of "concealing" history - what the late Jacques Ellul called "carefully concealing" ; and what a Syriac scholar, Prof. Ben Segal, called "a conspiracy of silence" by Western academics. Jean-Marie Fiey, a Jesuit scholar, did however write in one of his books on Syriac history that, "as it is not prohibited", he will neverless say that Assyria is like a big Christian cemetary; and Father Michel Hayek declared in 1967: "Why not admit clearly - so as to break a taboo and a political proscription - what is so resented in the flesh and in the Christian conscience: that Islam has been the most dreadful torment that ever befell the Church. Christian sensibility has remained traumatized to this day."

   And, thus, this "Palestinian cause", which was an euphemism for the eventual destruction of Israel, prevented a correct historical analysis of religious,  political and sociological realities. But the years, and the decades, went by and Israel did not disappear, whereas the Eastern Christian communities crumbled away through a "conspiracy of silence".

   Now, if we examine quickly the 19th and 20th century struggles of the dhimmi peoples against their condition of dhimmitude in the Balkans and the Middle East, we see that those populations who chose territorial autonomy or independence were always opposed by jihad. They include the Greeks and the Slav peoples in the European dar al-Islam, and the Armenians, the Assyrians, the Israelis and the Lebanese. The others who chose integration, and an egalitarian Arab nation through Arabism, are today faced with the re-Islamization of Muslim society. 

   During this century, those Christians Arab nationalists tried by every means to assimilate into their Islamic environment. They fought bravely to retain their political power in Lebanon, and they fought with determination for secularization. Actually, Arab Christian nationalists didn't defend their own rights as Christians, but as Arabs - and, of course, to be an Arab is synonymous with being a Muslim for traditionalist Muslims. The secularist Christians and Muslims now feel threatened by declarations such as that by the late Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Ghazali in 1992: "Anyone resisting the imposition of the shari'a was an apostate, who deserved death by the state, or by the hand of a devout Muslim." 

   I think that Israel has much to learn from the sad experience of Eastern Christianity, because for centuries Jews shared with Christians the dehumanizing condition of dhimmis. Secondly, Israelis should reflect on Europe's conscious abandonment of the Lebanese Christians, and of its cynical choice between moral principles, on the one hand, and oil and Arab markets on the other. Israelis might reflect on how easily foreign states can provoke internecine strife when wishing to destroy a country.  And moderate Muslims, who rarely bother to fight for the defence of the "rights" of their Jewish and Christian persecuted countrymen, are now being aggressed by the same forces of extremist obscurantism that previously targeted the dhimmis - as in Egypt, Algeria, and other Islamic lands. 

   One can only hope that the ongoing Middle East Peace Process  between Israel and the Palestinians, and with the neighbouring Arab states, will benefit all the peoples of the region, although that will depend on the final peace conditions. If the Palestinian Christians - about 2% of the population in all the autonomous territories, though playing internationally a political role disproportionate to their numbers - continue, as in the past, to seek Israel's demise, they will only encourage the most radical anti-Christian Islamists. And the same can be said about the basic anti-Zionist policy of some European states. But if, as a result of peace with Israel, the Muslims peoples will renounce the ideology of jihad; if they will acknowledge the long history of dhimmitude - and especially the fact that Jews and Christians are their equals in rights and dignity - then a future Middle East, built on peace and reconciliation, will indeed have been built on solid foundations. Real peace, to endure, must rest on a total change of mentalities on all sides, and a refusal of jihad ideologies that debase the human being. This is the challenge of the future, which should unite everyone today: Jews, Christians and Muslims. (END)

© Bat Ye'or 2001
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