Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 9-12.
Over the centuries, political Islam has not been too kind to the native Christian communities living under its rule. Anecdotes of tolerance aside, the systematic treatment of Christians and Jews (who fall under the Islamic category of dhimmi) as second-class citizens is abusive and discriminatory by any standard. Though in some respects Christians and Jews fared better under Islamic rule than Muslims and Jews did, say, at the time of the Catholic reconquest of Spain in the late fifteenth century, the long term debilitating effects of dhimmitude have proven more detrimental. Under Islam, the dhimmi are not allowed to build new places of worship or renovate existing ones; dhimmi women are available for marriage to Muslims while the reverse is strictly prohibited; the political rights of dhimmis are absent; and the targeted dhimmi community and each individual in it are made to live in a state of perpetual humiliation in the eyes of the ruling community. These measures can only spell a recipe for gradual liquidation. With the notable exception of the Christians of Lebanon, Christian communities native to the Middle East today exhibit the scars of centuries of inferiorization and marginalization. They constitute living relics of the ravages of a system that, although technically abolished in many modern Arab states, continues on the level of official as well as popular attitudes and practices. The Christians of the Holy Land, for example—Palestinian Christians—are symptomatic of this dhimmi genre and its attendant complexes.
According to reliable sources, the number of Christians of all denominations today in Israel (including Jerusalem), the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip is in the neighborhood of 150,000. Christians in Jerusalem number around seven thousand. Between 1947 and 1967, the Christian population dropped from over forty–five thousand in the Old City and its environs to twenty–eight thousand. The trend is clearly towards an emptying out of the city’s dwindling Christian population: "Emigration has for some time threatened to reduce Jerusalem to a museum of Christian history rather than the center of a living Christian community," writes Norman Horner in his A Guide to Christian Churches in the Middle East. Informed Palestinians often speak about an identity crisis that afflicts Christians in their ranks. Being neither Muslim nor Jewish, they feel rejected by the two larger communities. Being Palestinian, they can never be a part of Israel even if some of them carry Israeli passports. And being Christian Arabs, they are not easily integrated into the wider Christian world. Add to these factors the economic difficulties that many of them have faced—the land seizures and the arbitrary hirings and firings—plus the obstacles they experience in trying to get a higher education (only 5 percent of the students at Israeli universities are Arab) and the rising tide of Muslim, Jewish, and evangelical Christian fundamentalisms—and the pressures to emigrate become very palpable. Nor does it help that the hierarchy of the largest Christian denomination, the Eastern Orthodox, is composed of ethnic Greeks, thereby creating a linguistic and cultural rift between church authorities and their Arab congregations.
By and large, Palestinian Christians have looked to Palestinian nationalism for a meeting ground with their Palestinian Muslim counterparts. This point of intersection has all too often been mythologized by intellectuals and clergymen who never tire of insisting that harmony has always prevailed between Muslims and Christians in Palestine. The Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem Riyah Abu–‘Assal stated emphatically to this author: "The entire history of Palestine never witnessed any religious conflict between Christians and Muslims." In her book This Side of Peace, Hanan Ashrawi declares that while growing up she felt no difference between Palestinian Christians and Muslims: "We did not know who was what, and it was not an issue."
This sentiment is motivated primarily by a desire for a unified position vis-à–vis Israel. But it also stems from a deeper dhimmi psychological state: the urge to find—or to imagine and fabricate if need be—a common cause with the ruling majority in order to dilute the existing religious differences and perhaps ease the weight of political Islam’s inevitable discrimination. The history of Palestinian Christianity has, for the most part, been no different from that of dhimmi Christianity throughout the Levant. Were Israel not in the picture the problem of dhimmi subservience would still exist for Palestinian Christians. And even with Israel as the perceived and proclaimed enemy of both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, the specter of dhimmi subjugation continues to lurk just below the surface. Palestinians, particularly Christians, get very agitated and defensive when confronted with reports of persecution of Christians by Muslim Palestinians. Their reflex attitude is to dismiss such reports as lies inspired by Israeli disinformation.
Palestinian Christianity differs from the rest of Middle Eastern Christianity in that it is marked by an obsession with the Arab–Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem. Christians in Palestine improbably suppose that all persecution of Christians in the region would be softened, if not alleviated altogether, if the Palestinian problem were solved. This view relies on the myth that everything was fine between Christians and Muslims until Israel came along.
There are two big problems with this Palestinian Christian interpretation. First, it does not account for the subtle complexities and convoluted nuances of a region like the Middle East. Once again, removing Israel from the equation and satisfying the Palestinians beyond their wildest dreams would not eliminate the violence against non–Muslims inherent in political Islam. Second, this interpretation is not shared by the vast majority of the region’s Christians, whether dhimmi or free. Egyptian and Lebanese Christians, the largest and most significant Christian communities of the Arab world, do not share the same set of anxieties as the Palestinian Christians do. They know better than to believe that once the Palestinian problem is laid to rest all will be well.
Palestinian Christians further differ from other Christian communities in the region in their acute discomfort with the Jewish Old Testament. They cannot bear to recite certain Psalms or to read the Old Testament stories because of their immediate associations with today’s state of Israel and the Arab–Israeli confrontation. This unfortunate situation is tantamount to a modern version of the Marcionite heresy, which was put to rest in a.d.144. Marcion ( c. 90–c. 165) rejected all appeals to the Old Testament and urged Christians to concentrate exclusively on the New Testament Gospels and the letters of St. Paul. In the spirit of Marcion, some Palestinian Christians in their liturgies have excised or doctored specific references to the Old Testament and to the People of Israel. These contemporary Marcionites transpose their current political tragedies resulting from the Palestinian–Israeli conflict to the realm of religious faith, with much doctrinal confusion as a result. This misdirected and unnecessary alienation of Palestinian Christians from the Old Testament ought not to be encouraged. The last thing their traumatized and precarious ancestral faith needs now is to be burdened with a Marcionite heresy.
Whichever way one looks at it (except as an expression of the prevailing dhimmi motif), Palestinian Christianity is unrepresentative of the wider Christian communities scattered throughout the Middle East. There lurks a disturbed restlessness in the Christians of the Holy Land not shared by their brothers in neighboring lands. Maybe there is no remedy for this restlessness, this anxiety and confusion about who they are and whether they have a future and, if so, what and with whom that future might be. I have been pondering these questions for years, as have others, and answers are in very short supply. I try to nurture a hope that from within Palestinian Christianity will emerge an understanding that is the exact opposite of Marcionism: a theology and moral vision that will recognize Jews as elder brothers in the faith of Abraham, and offer them the land freely. On such a basis, or so I would like to believe, Jews and Christians could work out a peaceful and enduring relationship to their mutual benefit. With God all things are possible, and we should not despair of that happening. Meanwhile, the ominous prospect is that there soon will be no Christians who call home the land that Christians call holy.
Habib C. Malik teaches at the Lebanese American University (Byblos branch).