This presentation was delivered during the conference “Reviving the Christian Role in the Arab Levant”, which was organized by the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon and held a few weeks ahead of the much-awaited 2010 Synod dedicated to the Middle East, from October 10-24 at the Vatican.
It is my honor, to be an Arab belonging to the Christian faith, at a conference patronized by a Lebanese establishment protégé by Christians, to be the person chosen to expound upon a subject that was agreed to be called The decline of the Christian role in Lebanon, or the Arab Levant, or in the Arab world at large, or whatever is the case. As if Christian Arabs in our homeland are just a remnant of an extinct people: or a remnant awaiting its turn to fall into a labyrinth of extinction. Just to raise this subject by Christian Arabs is in my opinion an out of place presumption, because it neglects historical, cultural and existential facts, and because it inclusively means that an Arab Christian does not consider himself an Arab simply because of where he is, regardless of the stance of other Arabs surrounding him.
The subject that should be raised for discussion is not this, but another that is most dangerous; it is a question that should be raised for discussion not only in Arab countries where there is a Christian Arab presence, but also where there is no permanent presence for them, whether in Eastern or Western wings of the Arab homeland. This very important question could be put briefly as follows: What is the fate of Arabs as a historic people in case of the extinction of Christian Arabs among them, taking into consideration that for Christians, such an extinction is a matter that is possible to imagine? What will happen in this case is that Arabs shall not be Arabs, in their historical homeland. On the contrary, the matter will go far beyond that and overcome it. With such a hypothetical extinction of Arab Christianity, there will no longer be something called an Arab in its absolute meaning without reservation, as an historical existential presence. In other words, nowhere in the world will there be an Arab identity standing alone that is characterized solely by its Arabism and not mixed with Islam.
Christianity in the Arab homeland preceded Islam by six centuries, which makes it the origin and not a branch for historical Arab identity. This is contrary to the prevailing point of view among Christian and Muslim masses, which says that Arabism is originally connected with Islam, when actually, throughout Arab history, Christianity had a clear and apparent role. Centuries of wars between Muslims and Byzantines, then between Muslims and Crusaders and others, did not affect its role nor eliminate or curtail it.
Among pre-Islamic Christians there were some most prominent Arab poets who polished and cultivated the Arab’s language and versified the most glorious poems, as thus they created the classical or the pure Arabic language, establishing the first basis for its heritage that is still up ‘til today’s date the pride upon which all Arabs agree.
All pre-Islamic kingdoms and emirates were Christian, if not Jewish, then came Islam, which replaced Christianity by appropriating Arab pioneering and its symbols of generosity, virility, chivalry and magnanimity, by which it crowned its historical dazzling success. This success was a historical phenomenon that Christian and other Arabs are still perplexed about up ‘til today. Islam historically monopolizes Arabism and possessed it, and is still today tightly linked and reciprocal with this genuine heritage. Is it not time, for us Arab Christians who still take pride in our Arabism, to say, with veracity to ourselves: what is gone is gone?
Is it necessary to make bunk of historical matters, as one of the world’s modern pioneers, George Ford described it, disturbing the lovely clarity of our beautifully diversified lives among our Arab people?
This is a matter that remains for Christian Arabs themselves to decide, inserting their conviction and certitude: Do they want to remain in their historical homeland, living with their Arab folk where they have been living in brotherly harmony and conformity, or do they prefer to emigrate to foreign lands to live with a people that are nearer to them in behavior and spirituality, as they fantasize? If they decide to emigrate, this is their own decision and we have nothing to do with them except to wish them success. But if they decide to make their presence for themselves and their society one that confronts a solution, then it is another matter that they should be accounted for in front of history. Finally nothing shall affect Christian Arabs where they are in the Levant except what they want or do not want for themselves.
I shall give my imagination the freedom to say: Lebanon, for Arabs, is Christianity’s last stronghold; it is the last stronghold in their homeland. Since about twenty years ago, when it appeared to them, from the Gulf to the Atlantic ocean, that Christianity in Lebanon was about to fall, they all became frightened and jumped to put an end to the downfall, reaching the Taif agreement*. This document is seen by a part of Lebanese Christians as a disparagement of Christian interests, harming the rights that they consider to be Christian rights. Among those who were most enthusiastic in stopping the collapse of the special status of Christians in Lebanon were those Muslims who were involved in controversy with them ever since the establishment of the Lebanese state in 1920, and up until the beginning of the civil war.
I read the draft of this document, the Taif document –- or at least a summary of it – during a visit to Bahrain a week before the Taif conference was held. As I recall, the Bahraini official who showed it to me in confidence, that I didn’t expect of him, asked me: “Would this be good?” I believe that this same question was being asked then, with all responsibility and seriousness , in most Arab capitals.
Had Arab officials not been fully aware, in their hearts if not openly, of the importance of Arab Christians, and Lebanese Christians in particular, for the Arab historical entity as a whole, would such a conference as the Taif conference have been held? Not to mention being kept in session until a conclusion was reached to keep Christian Arabs in their land at the peak of the pyramid, with minimal responsibilities that would not provoke other Lebanese as was the case in the past? Does such an exceptional historical incident – which is the holding of the Taifconference for Arab determination concerning Lebanon – mean that the Christians of Lebanon are the remnants of an extinct group of people, that their continuity is not much desired in the Arab World?
Does it mean that the Christians of Lebanon, and to a certain extent their Arab World against which storms are blowing against from all sides, didn’t seriously move forward until now except for Lebanon’s advocacy and the special status of Christianity within it? And that there is no importance for Lebanon except for being – finally – and because of its special demographic composition – a “Kaaba” like no other “Kaaba” for the Arab World?
Gospel in Arabic printed in Rome, 1590
We return to the subject I was asked to tackle: The Assumed decline of the Christian role in Lebanon, the Arab Levant and the Arab world. I respond to this assumption by another question: What is this Christian role that we are talking about? Are there for Christian Arabs at the moment special mental or technological characteristics or otherwise that make them an indispensible active element in the Arab homeland? This might have been true in the past during certain periods of time and some domains. But we are talking about the present day and firstly, the elimination of borders in the transmission of information between the east and the west in the world through electronic communications. Secondly - after the elimination of the difference in cultural progress between Christians and non Christians in the Arab World, and the openness of Arabs in general on the challenges and requirements of the modern world, there remains for the Christians of Lebanon and the Arab Orient a particularity that is represented more than anything else by their existence and the continuity of their presence in their historical homeland if this is what they actually want. And as the Arab proverb says: “a stone on its land is a quintal”, but if we remove this stone to the outside, the saying from the old pre-Islamic Arab poet, who some believe to have been a Christian, would fit us:
“He who is favored and becomes miserly with his people shall be neglected and dispersed.”
Christian Arabs taking pride in their emigrants, are in my opinion a phenomenon, the ill results of which outweigh its benefits, if only for inclusively encouraging Christians in our homeland, as well as others, to emigrate, because emigration is one of the biggest reasons for the decline in numbers of Christians proportionally and absolutely in our homeland. This decline is the major reason for the public fear (not only Christian) of the decline of the Christian role in all the Arab Orient, and the negative echoes for such a decline.
The remaining Christians in their Arab homeland, living beside their people, are among the protectors of this land, if they effectively so desire. What is required of them is – simply –the continuity of their presence; so that this phenomena that is called Christian Arabs shall continue to remain, without which there shall no longer be anything called Arab. Are we aware of the depth of our historic cultural responsibility, and its dangers?
If we the Christians are to remain on the level of this historic worthiness through which our presence and future shall be decided, to start with, it is our duty towards ourselves to understand our status in its true state of affairs. We are a part of a whole, and must stop living in illusion, retrieving our trust in ourselves, in Arab identity from which we derive all that distinguishes us.
* Taif Agreement: The Taif Agreement (also "National Reconciliation Accord," or "Document of National Accord") was an agreement reached to provide "the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to political normalcy in Lebanon." Negotiated in Taif, Saudi Arabia, it was designed to end the 15 years long Lebanese civil war, politically accommodate the demographic shift to a Muslim majority, reassert Lebanese authority in South Lebanon (then occupied by Israel), and legitimize the Syrian presence in Lebanon, though the agreement set a time frame for Syrian withdrawal and stipulated that the Syrians would withdraw in two years. It was signed on October 22, 1989 and ratified on November 4, 1989. [Tlaxcala’s Note]