Under Islamic Law (Shariah), Christians and Jews are considered "people of the Book" (Ahl al-kitab). This means Muslims view Jews and Christians as theologically linked to Islam (even if in a misguided way). When Muslims say "the Book" they mean the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospel. Due to this, both groups have been "protected peoples"(dhimmis). As any minority experiences, being a minority often results in marginalization, discrimination and outright oppression. Although, this is not always the case.
In the eighth-century the Christian Theophilus of Edessa was astrologer of the Muslim Abbasid court located in Baghdad . In the ninth-century Ḥunayn ibn Isḥaq, a Nestorian/Church of the East Christian, became one of the greatest translators of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic. He was even appointed head of Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun's famous "House of Wisdom". This was an institution that focused on translating Greek texts to be made accessible to scholars.
In more recent centuries Middle Eastern Christians have taken on new positions of power as the Ottoman Empire fell and European governments reshaped the political landscape. In 1989 the New York Times published an article by Youssef M. Ibrahim. He wrote about the role of France in relation to Christians in Lebanon and Syria. His history follows:
France first went into Lebanon to protect Maronite Catholics from attacks by the Druse in the latter half of the 19th century. After the First World War, France occupied the Levant, split it into Syria and Lebanon and created a republic in Lebanon with a power-sharing arrangement in which the Maronites had an edge.Lebanese Christians hold much of the political and economic power in Lebanon. Syrian Christians (unlike the Sunni Muslims) have fared much better in Syria as well. Why?
Alexandra Zavis from the Los Angeles Times recently published an interesting article in the Ottawa Citizen entitled "Syrian Christians worry about life after Bashar Assad." She explains how, despite the horrors the international community sees taking place in Syria enacted by the Syrian government, Syrian Christians fear Sunni Muslim reprisals. She states:
Assad has portrayed himself as the defender of the nation's religious minorities, including Christians and his Alawite Muslim sect, against foreign-backed Islamic extremists. Opposition activists scoff at that notion, saying he has deliberately exploited sectarian fear to stay in power.The Syrian regime is dominated by the Ba'ath Party. The Ba'ath Party was also the party of Saddam Hussein's Iraq prior to the US invasion and occupation. Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), founder the Ba'ath Party, was not only a Syrian philosopher but he was also a Greek Antiochian Orthodox Christian. Ba'ath Party ideology is secular and has focused on "Arabism" as opposed to religious centered policies. Tariq Aziz, Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq from 1979 to 2003 (currently imprisoned) is Chaldean Catholic. His birth name is Mikhail Yuhanna. He was also a close adviser to Saddam Hussein. At the same time many Assyrian Christians suffered under Saddam's rule and consider Tariq Aziz a traitor not to his religion but his ethnicity. Despite this, in US media Bush's build up to war against Iraq and now Obama's threatening Syria appears as a US government response to the Islamic World. As pointed out in this blog, Iraq and Syria have long been an Islamic-Christian World.
But warnings of a bloodbath if Assad leaves office resonate with Christians, who have seen their brethren driven away by sectarian violence since the overthrow of longtime strongmen in Iraq and in Egypt, and before that by a 15-year civil war in neighboring Lebanon.
It is true that Christians in the Middle East live precariously. There are western groups that point out the plight of Christians in the Middle East as justification for western intervention. Some Muslim groups point out characters such as Tariq Aziz and Christan friendly Bashar Assad to show Christians as enemies of Islam. Sometimes Muslims also consider Christians as a "fifth column" in the face of US-European intervention. In other cases Muslims and Christians have tremendous solidarity. Many Palestinians actually see their plight as a Palestinian cause not a religious one (The West Bank has a significant Palestinian Christan population). In regards to my agenda, I simply want to show that the Middle East is more complex and nuanced than an oversimplification of Islam vs. "Us over here in the Christian West."
Here is a youtube video of the famous Lebanese Christian Fairuz singing her celebrated Arab nationalist song about Jerusalem (al-Quds). In this song she unifies the interests of Muslims and Christians in the battle for Arab sovereignty.
Very significant is the recent death of the Egyptian Coptic Pope Shenouda