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The plight of Christians in the Middle East

The plight of Christians in the Middle East

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Terrorism has reared its odious head yet again, this time not only in Manchester and London but in Egypt as well. The dastardly terrorist attack on 26 May targeting a bus of Coptic worshipers in the Province of Minya south of Cairo, which resulted in the killing of at least 29 innocent people, mostly children, has cast a fresh spotlight on the plight of the beleaguered Christian community in the Middle East. I am not going out on a limb in stating that the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, has been on the receiving end of persecution, displacement, and killing at hands of Islamist extremists for decades. However, their situation has worsened in recent years, particularly since ISIS blasted its way onto the regional stage in 2014, capturing large swathes of Iraq and Syria.

While it is undeniably true that Muslims have borne the brunt of the turmoil and chaos sweeping across the region, the Middle Eastern Christian population is on the verge of extinction, with its numbers plummeting from 20% a century ago to just 3–4% today.  If current demographic trends persist, it is likely Christian communities will have vanished away without a trace by the end of the century. This short essay is a clarion call to the Muslim majority to take steps aimed at rectifying the historic injustice against the Christian natives and at safeguarding the precarious Christian presence in the Middle East before it is too late. The very existence of Islamic civilization is contingent upon such steps, no less.

The disappearance of Christianity would catastrophically lead to the spiritual and cultural impoverishment of the region and to the destruction of one key component of Islamic civilization. The Christian communities, whose presence in the Middle East stretches as far back as the inception of the Christian faith, played a remarkably vital role in establishing Islamic civilization and in spawning the latter’s scientific, philosophical, and technological efflorescence for over five centuries.

In the early centuries of Islam, indefatigable Christian scholars (particularly Nestorians/Assyrians), who had lived in the Byzantine and Persian domains the Arab armies had conquered in the 7th century, engaged in the laborious task of producing Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts in science, medicine, and philosophy, thus bringing the ancient Greek heritage within the purview of the Muslims. We should be forever in debt to scholars such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873), Yihya Bin Uday (893–974), Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus (870–940), Yuhanna Ibn Masawaih (777–857), Qusta Ibn Luqa al–B’albaki (820–912), and countless others, who left an indelible imprint on the history of science by transmitting Greek wisdom to the Islamic world. Some of these scholars even served as personal physicians and advisers at the courts of the caliphs. Several Christians rose through the ranks of the caliphate’s administration, with Ibn Uthal, personal physician of Umayyad caliph Mu’awiyah (died in 680), becoming governor of Homs, and Al–Akhtal al–Taghlibi (died in 710) functioning as a judge and official poet of the caliphate.

The abovementioned invaluable contributions underpin the case for the perhaps provocative, albeit long overdue, idea that our Middle Eastern civilization is not only Islamic but Christian as well. Since medieval Christian scholars helped lay the groundwork for a long intellectual renaissance, the civilization of the Middle East should henceforth be called Islamo–Christian, rather than just Islamic. Christianity is woven into the fabric of this region, and it is incumbent on all of us to put up stout resistance to the extremists’ nefarious efforts to do away with it.

Christian Arab intellectuals were also at the forefront of what is known as the “Arab Renaissance” of the 19th century when the backward Arab world at the time came into fruitful contact with the more advanced European civilization, thus prompting the Arab elite to recognize the urgent need to keep pace with the Western scientific and technological advancements their culture had lost sight of. Christian Arab intellectuals like Butrus al–Bustani (1819–1883), Jurji Zaydan (1861–1914), Farah Anton (1874–1922), and Shibli Shmayil (1850–1917) infused new life into Arab culture by using their command of foreign languages to convey Western knowledge to their Arab/Muslim surroundings.

We as Muslims should acknowledge not only the priceless gifts the Christians have given us but also the suffering and misery that extremists falsely acting in our name have inflicted on them throughout the centuries. It is our Islamic duty to come to terms with the fact that Christians in Muslim–majority realms have endured harassment, humiliation, expulsion, and mass killings for long centuries. Islamic history has certainly known leaders who were tolerant and sympathetic toward Christians (such as Umayyad caliph Mu’awiyah and his son Yazid I, Abbasid caliph Al–Ma’mun, Mughal emperor Akbar, Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim). In addition, it is now an established truth that Christians remained a majority in the Islamic empire two to three centuries after Arab armies erupted from the Arabian peninsula and secured control of the Levant and North Africa – a testament to the fact that, broadly speaking, Islam as a faith (rather than as a political system) was not imposed by the sword, at least in the first few centuries.[1]

However, we cannot ignore shameful episodes such as the decision of Umayyid caliph Umar ibn Abd–al–Aziz (717–720) to ban Christians from building new churches and from wearing what is known as the zunnar (belt or girdle); the destruction of churches and icons by order of Umayyid caliph Yazid II (720–724) in 723; the slaughter of the monks of Jerusalem’s Mar Saba Monastery during the reign of Abbasid caliph Harun al–Rashid (died in 809); the forcible conversion of Christians in Aleppo at the behest of Abbasid caliph Al–Mahdi (775–785); the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and the turning of Hagia Sophia Church into a mosque immediately thereafter; or the enslavement of over a million Christians by the Barbary pirates. This is but a small sample of injustices against Christians. The massacre of defenseless Copts on 26 May forms a continuum with these injustices. Unless we acknowledge these ugly facts, recognize and talk openly about the true origins, formation, and nature of Middle Eastern society, our war–ravaged region will know no justice or reconciliation. We owe it to our Christian compatriots. We owe it to our Islamo–Christian civilization.

Silence and inaction are no longer acceptable. Nor are mere condemnations sufficient. Will anyone heed my call?

[1] Christian Arab historian Samih Ghanadri argues:

“During the reign of the Umayyid Caliphate, Christian Arabs remained the majority in many central cities in the Levant and Mesopotamia, including the capital Damascus. According to the old history books, the number of Muslims in Syria did not exceed 200,000 in the first century following the Islamic conquest while its population stood at 3 million and a half, most of whom were Christian. These figures refute the myth that people were violently forced to convert to Islam upon the Islamic conquests” (Arab Dawn: Eastern Christianity Across Two Thousand Years 273).

American sociologist and historian of science Toby Huff states:

“From the scattered studies of conversion that do exist, perhaps all one can say is that the process of conversion was long and drawn out in the various areas of Islamic domination. In general the conversion process seems not to have run its course and reached something like a majority until somewhere between the middle of the tenth century and the beginning of the twelfth century. Professor Levitzion offers his opinion that in the new Islamic empire the number of Muslims did not equal the number of non–Muslims until ‘the middle of the tenth century, i.e., three full centuries after conquest’” (Max Webber and Islam 8).

Tamer Nashef is an independent researcher who writes on the history of science, Western philosophy, and Christianity. He is currently writing a book on Islamic civilization’s scientific tradition. 

Image by Mark Fischer on Flickr available under this Creative Commons Licence

Tamer Nashef

Tamer Nashef

Tamer Nashef is an independent researcher who writes on the history of science, Western philosophy, and Christianity. He is currently writing a book on Islamic civilization’s scientific tradition. 

Posted 19 June 2017

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