Most people around the world assume the Middle East is Muslim. They see the Middle East conflict in terms of Arab against Jew. Until Pope John Paul paid a historic visit to Syria last month, most ignored the role Christianity has played there. Christians of the Middle East is the subject of a recent book by a leading French journalist who has covered the Middle East for two decades.
Christians dominated the Middle East for more than six centuries, far outnumbering the Muslims and Jews who inhabited the region with them. Today, Christians are in the minority.
There are few Christians in the Middle East today, fewer than 14 million compared to the Muslim population of more than 340 million. They keep a low profile for their own survival.
Many people outside the region consider the Arab Middle East exclusively Muslim. Middle East expert Claude Lorieux dispels that notion in his new book called, "Christians in the Land of Islam."
"I start my book with a story," said Mr. Lorieux, "which was given to me by an American diplomat in Cairo, which is the story of an American woman, a do-gooder, who went to Palestine. And after a few days she called the consul in Jerusalem and said where am I? I was told I was going to go to a Christian village and I find myself in an Arab village. And, of course, the consul had to explain to her that one can be Arab and Christian."
Author Claude Lorieux is Middle East editor of the French daily, Le Figaro, and has monitored the Christian communities of the Middle East for more than two decades.
Coexistence between Christians and Muslims, he said, has not been easy.
Lebanon was nearly destroyed by a civil war between Muslims and Christians. Similar conflicts divided Sudan. Christian Copt communities in Egypt have suffered brutal attacks by Islamic radicals.
Churches are banned in the more fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, but not in Iran. Claude Lorieux said Christians can live peacefully in more secular societies like Iraq and Syria. "It depends on the country," he said. "In a country like Jordan, the late King Hussein was very keen on showing he was open and a very tolerant man, even though he was a descendent of Prophet Mohamed."
The political influence of Christians remained strong in the Middle East for decades, said Mr. Lorieux, even as their numbers decreased. "The big time for the Christians in the politics in the Middle East was the time of nationalism when the Arabs started to revolt against the powers," Mr. Lorieux pointed out. "The first was against the Turks, the Ottomans; and the second came against the Christian powers, such as the Britons and the French. And at that time many Christian intellectuals were very active in building up Arab nationalism and consciousness to react against these powers. So from that time onward and for quite many years, they had quite an influence in politics."
Author Claude Lorieux points to Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Christian, and to Egypt's Economy Minister, a Christian Copt who is the nephew of Boutros Boutros Ghali, a former Egyptian foreign minister who later served as Secretary General of the United Nations.
But Christian political influence has diminished as Muslim societies grow more conservative. "With fundamentalism and the fact that democracy is not the rule of the game in most of those countries, many Christians are less and less interested in politics and more interested in business," Mr. Lorieux said. "But when it comes to making laws and passing laws, they are not there to vote."
Today there is an exodus of frustrated Christians who see their future soured by social and political discrimination and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has often caught them in the crossfire.
Christian leaders, said Mr. Lorieux are doing whatever they can to curb the brain drain: "All the Christian leaders there, whether they are Roman Catholic, whether they are Orthodox, the oldest Christian community there, this is the foremost preoccupation. They are asking people to stay but it's not enough. They are working to help people to stay by getting the young better educated and better educated for the jobs, which can be done in the country."
Author Claude Lorieux said the survival of Christian communities in the Middle East will also depend on how governments of the region respect and protect the rights of minorities trying to coexist there.
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