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  A few weeks ago I received by email an article by a Dr. Walid Phares titled “Arab Christians who are they?” Initially I brushed it off as rather inconsequential, but it subsequently came to my attention that Dr. Phares is promoting some rather bizarre ideas about Arab Christians on the lecture and TV circuit in the U.S., contesting their Arab ethnicity and claiming their persecution by Moslems. Being an Arab Christian myself, I would like to use some of the views of Dr. Phares as an entry point to highlight the falsities being promulgated by him and a few others under the guise of scholarly studies. Sadly, many of these anti-Arab activists fit the characterization of ‘self-hating Arabs’.

  Arab Christians have always existed in the Middle East, and long before the advent of Islam. In Lebanon today they number about 1.3 million (about one-third of the population) mainly of Maronite denomination. In Syria they number approximately two million (or about 10% of the population) which include a significant community of Maronites. In Egypt, Christians, mostly Copts, are about 4.5 million, or about 6% of the population. There are one million in Iraq of various denominations, or about 4% the population. The Christians of Palestine and Jordan may number 600,000, but so many population shifts had taken place that it is difficult to venture a reliable estimate.

  The Christians of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine played a pioneering role in reviving Arab culture from the comatose state it was in under the Ottomans. The renaissance of Arab culture owes a great deal to the many Christian Arab scholars who were among the forerunners in shaping Arab national identity. The Maronites role, in particular, was of major cultural importance. In Lebanon they are the backbone of its cultural diversity. A Saudi friend once commented that if the Maronites did not exist we would have to invent them!

  There have been occasional claims that the Maronites can trace their ancestry to Phoenicians. This is a myth intended to distance the Maronites from their Arab roots. The Maronites were inhabitants of Orontes (Al-Assi) valley in Syria. They are most probably descendants of some Arab tribes who never converted to Islam. The eminent Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi (incidentally, a Christian) in his ‘A House of Many Mansions’ [1988] states (ch. 6): “It is very possible that the Maronites, as a community of Arabian origin, were among the last Arabian Christian tribes to arrive in Syria before Islam…. Certainly, since the 9th century, their language has been Arabic, which indicates that they must have originated as an Arab tribal community. The fact that Syriac remains the language of their liturgy is irrelevant. Syriac, which is the Christian literary form of Aramaic, was originally the liturgical language of all the Arab and Arameo-Arab Christian sects, in Arabia as well as in Syria and Iraq.” Salibi also notes (in ch. 4), that Patriarch Istifan Duwayhi, a Maronite historian of the 17th century, points out that the Maronites “had to move their seat out of the valley of the Orontes to Mount Lebanon as a result of Byzantine, not Muslim persecution.” Salibi further goes on to say: “Between 969 and 1071… the Byzantines were in actual control of the Orontes valley. They must have subjected the Maronites to enough persecution to force them to abandon the place and join their co-religionists in Mount Lebanon. In Muslim Aleppo, however, the community survived, as it does to this day.” El Hassan Bin Talal (former crown prince of Jordan and a prominent scholar) in his “Christianity in the Arab World” [1994] (ch. 7), emphasizes: “It is possible that the Maronite church would not have survived the Byzantine reconquests in Syria between the 10th and 11th centuries, had the Byzantines  succeeded in occupying the whole of Syria, leaving no parts under Muslim rule, where dissident Christian groups could find refuge from Byzantine persecution.”

  I hope we can put to rest the myth of the Maronites as descendants of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians lived mainly on the coasts of Lebanon and Syria. If one wants to belabor the subject their descendants are obviously the coast dwellers, mainly the Sunnis. In any case, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC, that the Phoenicians themselves were Arab tribes from the Arabian shores of the Red Sea.

  Dr. Phares in his article mentions “pogroms of the Copts in Egypt”. This a serious and misleading accusation. The term pogrom means organized and systematic killing of an ethnic group usually sanctioned by the government. There may have been occasional sectarian clashes, but I have yet to come across a historical record to the effect that the Copts, or any other Arab Christian group for that matter, having been the target of pogroms. (The only recorded massacre of Christians was in 1860 in Mount Lebanon, and the origin of that unfortunate event was a social rebellion by Maronite serfs against their Druze overlords). Pogroms were an invention of Christian rulers in Europe, mostly directed against Jews - for which Palestinian Arabs, both Christian and Moslem, have been paying dearly as the Christian West tries to atone for its sins at their expense. This western guilt complex, nurtured continuously by Zionist propaganda, has resulted in a tomblike silence over the atrocities perpetrated by Israel over the past 60 years.

  It is often mentioned that the Copts of Egypt are descendants of the Pharaohs. But so much history had elapsed between the disappearance of the Pharaohs and the arrival of Islam, that this claim appears questionable, and in any case the Moslems of Egypt have every bit as much right to it, if indeed that claim is anything more than intellectual hair-splitting.

  The Arabian desert and the area around it gave birth to a number of tribes and civilizations - Phoenicians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Hebrews, Canaanites, Nabateans, etc. These tribes continuously drifted out of the desert into the fertile areas of the Levant and the Nile valley. Their languages were very similar, one could even call them dialects of the same language. Even present-day Hebrew shares remarkable similarities with Arabic. These tribes had different religions. At one time most were pagan, some were Jewish. With the advent of Christianity some became Christian. Thus Christianity was not an ethnic denomination but a religion adopted by many of these tribes. Many of the great Arab poets of pre-Islamic times were Christian, (Imru’-al-Qays, Amr ibn-Kulthum, Tarafa ibn al-Abed, among others).

  The language prevalent in the Arab world today is called Arabic, but it is no more than the dialect of one major Arab tribe, Qureish, which became the language of the Quran. That language spread like wildfire in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and northern Egypt because the people in these areas were effectively already speaking dialects of the same language.

  What used to be known as Bilad Al Sham (Greater Syria, if you will) was Arabized long before Islam. To quote Salibi again (ch. 5): “Since pre-Islamic times, Mount Lebanon appears to have been densely populated by Arab tribes.…” In ch. 7: “To maintain that the Syrians came to be arabized after the conquest of their country by the Muslim Arabs was simply not correct, because Syria was already largely inhabited by Arabs – in fact, Christian Arabs – long before Islam.”

  Is there such a thing as an Arab ethnicity at present? I think not. There is no group of people in the world that can claim pure ethnicity, except perhaps in some remote islands. Let me take as an example France, which is proud of its cultural, historic, and moral heritage. Most of Southern France is Italian in its ethnic origins; farther west it is Basque; up north, it is Breton and Norman. Paris was a haven for refugees throughout its history. Even Napoleon, to whom the French pay homage, was from Italo-French Corsica. Can one claim that there is such a thing as, ethnically, a French race?

  There is, however, such a thing as an Arab culture. Apart from the obvious racial minorities (Christians and animists in Southern Sudan, Kurds in Syria and Iraq, Berbers in North Africa, and a few others), the rest of the population is culturally Arab. Culture is the language they speak, the poetry they recite, the songs they sing, the foods they eat, the music they dance to, and the history they share.

  Arabs - Moslems and Christians - have their hands full right now trying to field the onslaught of Zionist and neo-conservative propaganda spewing out of the West, without having to contend with a contingent of self-hating Arabs in their midst. In this charged political atmosphere of demonization of Arabs and Islam, we should reclaim our role as defenders, interpreters, interlocutors, spokespersons of our geographical hinterland, of our Arab depth. We have helped the nascent Arab empire in its early years gain access to the Greek classics, we have helped reawaken Arab identity from its Ottoman stupor. Let us not allow Western and/or Israeli fundamentalists to cast a pall over it again.

  When the crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099, we, Arab Christians, were massacred along with the Moslems. The brutality in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrates that the morality of the new crusaders is no better than the morality of those who came here centuries ago.

Raja G. Mattar is a former Middle East regional manager of a multinational company and is currently a business consultant living in Beirut. He can be contacted at ranimar@cyberia.net.lb


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