For almost 100 years Christians have been leaders in Arab world
Photo: Government Press Office
Pressure from radical Islam is shrinking Christian community
Photo: GPO
On the brink of extinction
Christians are paying price of shift to religious categorization

The consternation displayed by Iraqi Christians following a wave of church attacks is similar to the dismay expressed by their counterparts in the West Bank and Israel.


After all, for almost 100 years, Christians have integrated into the Arab national discourse and even led it.


The Christians, particularly the Greek Orthodox, were among the fathers of secular Arab nationalism in the Middle East and among the leading objectors to Zionism and Israel, in an attempt to gain acceptance from the Muslim majority.


Educated Christian Arabs adopted anti-Zionist rhetoric


In the 1930s, George Antonius authored his seminal work on Arab nationalism, “The Arab Awakening.” Michel Aflaq established the pan-Arab Ba’ath party, and Anton Sa’ada formed the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.


George Habash, Nayef Hawatmeh, and Wadia Hadad established the Arab nationalist movement, which gave rise to the PLO’s Palestinian Liberation Organization’s left wing groups.


These educated Christian Arabs and others (such as former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz) attempted to blur the religious distinctions among Arabs, partly by adopting a fiery anti-Zionist stance.


Similarly, Christians have also distinguished themselves among the Israeli Arab leadership.


However, the pressure exerted by radical Islam, which barely tolerated the autonomous Christian presence amidst it, had its influence.


Intifada accelerated Christian decline


In the past decade, Christians have almost completely vanished from the Israeli Arab community and Arab world’s leadership.


The reason is, first and foremost, demographic - Christian Arabs are quickly becoming an extinct minority. An especially low natural growth
rate coupled with stepped-up emigration have dropped their share to 1.7 percent of Israel’s population (160,000).


The intifada accelerated their decline: thousands left the Bethlehem area to for South America and are not planning to return. Meanwhile, the Copts in Egypt are already paying a “skull tax” (jizyah) to radical Muslims, while Lebanon is continuing to lose its Christians.


Forces they freed turned on them


These data have led the Vatican to estimate Christian communities in the region will vanish in several years.


Saddam’s regime protected Iraq’s Christians, and its collapse created a new phenomenon in the Arab world’s attitude to them. From a barely tolerated minority, they are turning into an intolerable minority and a candidate for ethnic cleansing.


The terror wave directed at them is intended to make them flee. In the framework of the religious war waged by al-Qaeda, they are no longer perceived as part of the Arab whole, but rather as a fifth column of the western crusaders.


In this manner, our region is shifting from national to religious categorization. No longer is it Israelis versus Palestinians, but rather Jews versus Muslims, with nationalism losing its centrality. And the Christians are bearing the heaviest burden.


Tragically, they pledged allegiance to the banners of anti-Israeli, Arab nationalism - and were betrayed by these same forces. As far as many Muslims are concerned, they belong out of the fold.


Guy Bechor is a Middle East affairs expert at Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and a frequent contributor to newspaper 'Yedioth Ahronoth'
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