At the start of the twentieth century the Middle East was largely ruled by the Ottoman Turks, with Great Britain administering certain territories in their behalf, such as Egypt and Cyprus. Although Muslims outnumbered Christians, there were still sizable Christian minorities, including the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon, the Assyrian Christians of Mesopotamia and the Coptic Christians of Egypt.
Centuries ago followers of Jesus Christ were in the majority in the region, even after the Muslim Arab conquests and possibly as late as the fourteenth century when the tide turned in favor of Islam. The Ottoman authorities were tolerant of religious diversity, content to rule their non-Muslim subjects through their religious leaders, or ethnarchs. True, they persecuted Christian Armenians from the mid-1890s, but much of the prosperity of the Empire depended on the commercial activities of the non-Muslim communities. Such cities as Thessaloniki, Constantinople, Smyrna and Alexandria were polyglot, religiously-diverse urban centers in which Muslims, Greeks, Jews and Armenians rubbed shoulders constantly in pursuing their respective livelihoods.
This all changed with the coming of the Great War, when nationalist regimes replaced the old imperial orders in so much of Europe and the Middle East. Nationalists pursued a policy of ethnic homogeneity, reserving Turkey for the Turks and Arab countries for the Arabs. This forced Christians to embrace a different strategy for coexistence with Muslim majorities. Up until then they did not generally see themselves as Arabs, but as Copts, Assyrians and so forth, identifying with the pre-Arab populations that had once dominated the region. But Arab nationalism compelled them to embrace an Arab identity or risk being treated as outsiders.
This coincided with the departure of the European powers, especially Britain and France, which had protected the Christian minorities of the Middle East and North Africa. In 1933, after the end of British occupation in Iraq, more than a thousand Assyrian Christians were killed by their Arab neighbors in the Simele massacre. After unsuccessful efforts to secure autonomy before the League of Nations, Assyrians felt betrayed by Britain. Henceforth they would have either to emigrate elsewhere, which many did, or to find a new way to integrate into the newly independent states.
As a consequence many Christians threw themselves into the Arab nationalist movements, which were anti-imperial and anti-Western in flavor. This necessitated a shift from their previous status as pre-Arab indigenous peoples to that of Christian Arabs fighting alongside their fellow Arabs in the struggle for independent nationhood. In the decades after the Second World War, Christians were disproportionately prominent in the Arab nationalist movements. For example, Michel Aflaq, who was born into an Orthodox Christian family in Syria, eventually became a communist and led the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, a movement that would be dominated by the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Arab nationalism played down religious distinctness, focusing instead on a pan-Arab identity. As such it seemed an ideal vehicle for the aspirations of Christian minorities who were now part of an Arab majority.
By the 1980s, however, Arab nationalism had run out of steam, while Islamism was moving into the ascendancy. Because local Christians had tied their fortunes to such nationalist autocrats as Mubarak, Saddam Hussein and the Assads, they increasingly became targets of the Islamists, who associated them with the discredited old guard. This has made Christians increasingly vulnerable in countries affected by the Arab Spring. In recent months reports have reached us of the anti-Assad rebels in Syria targeting Christian villages. Despite such attacks, Western governments, including that of the United States, are supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, apparently judging that the tide of history is on their side.
It would be easy for us, as outsiders, to judge that Middle Eastern Christians severely miscalculated by throwing their lot with Arab nationalism. Yet because Islamism by definition makes no place for religious minorities, local Christians understandably prefer the least bad alternative, which might enable them to continue to live in their ancestral homelands with at least some hope of security.
The long-term prospects for Christians in the Middle East are not encouraging. Unless Western countries change their policies towards the region, we will continue to see increasing numbers leaving the very places that saw the birth of Christianity two millennia ago.
David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century. This appeared in the August 12 issue of Christian Courier as the latest installment of his “Principalities & Powers” column.