Page 1 of 2 The closing of the Christian womb
A century ago, Christians dominated the intellectual and commercial life of the
Levant, comprising more than one-fifth of the 13 million people of Turkey, the
region's ruling power, and most of the population of Lebanon. Ancient
communities flourished in what is now Iraq and Syria. But starting with the
Armenian genocide in 1914 and continuing through the massacre and expulsion of
Anatolian Greeks in 1922-1923, the Turks killed three to four million
Christians in Turkey and the Ottoman provinces. Thus began a century of Muslim
violence that nearly has eradicated Christian communities in the cradle of
It may seem odd to blame the Jews for the misery of Middle East Christians, but
many Christian Arabs do so - less because they are Christians than because they
are Arabs. The Christian religion is flourishing inside the Jewish side. Only
50,000 Christian Arabs
remain in the West Bank territories, and their numbers continue to erode.
Hebrew-speaking Christians, mainly immigrants from Eastern Europe or the
Philippines, make up a prospective Christian congregation of perhaps 300,000 in
the State of Israel, double the number of a decade ago.
The brief flourishing and slow decline of Christian Arab life is one of the
last century's stranger stories. Until the Turks killed the Armenians and
expelled the Greeks, Orthodoxy dominated Levantine. The victorious allies
carved out Lebanon in 1926 with a Christian majority, mostly Maronites in
communion with Rome. Under the Ottomans, Levantine commerce had been Greek or
Jewish, but with the ruin of the Ottomans and the founding of Lebanon, Arab
Christians had their moment in the sun. Beirut became the banking center and
playground for Arab oil states.
The French designed Lebanon's constitution on the strength of a 1932 census
showing a Christian majority, guaranteeing a slight Christian advantage in
political representation. With the Christian population at barely 30% of the
total and 23% of the population under 20 - Lebanon's government refuses to take
a census - Lebanon long since has lost its viability. The closing of the
Christian womb has ensured eventual Muslim dominance.
Precise data are unobtainable, for demographics is politics in Lebanon, but
Lebanon's Christians became as infertile as their European counterparts.
Muslims, particularly the impoverished and marginalized Shi'ites, had more
babies. In 1971, the Shi'ite fertility rate was 3.8 babies per female, against
only 2 for Maronite Christians, or just below replacement. Precise data are not
available, but Christian fertility is well below replacement today.
Even before the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, infertility undermined the position of
Lebanon's Christians . The civil war itself arose from the demographic shift
towards Muslims, who saw the Christian-leaning constitution as unfair.
Christianity in the Levant ultimately failed for the same reason that it failed
in Europe: populations that are nominally Christian did not trouble to
Lebanon was a Catholic project from the outset, and the Vatican's thinking
about the region is colored nostalgia for a dying Christian community and a
searing sense of regret for what might have been. If only the State of Israel
hadn't spoiled everything, many Arab Christians think, the Christian minority
would have wielded enormous influence in the Arab world. It is true that in
many Arab countries, Christians comprised a disproportionate share of merchants
and intellectuals. But the same was true of the 130,000 Jews of Iraq before
1947, who owned half the businesses in Baghdad.
Contrary to the Arab narrative, the peak of Arab Christian influence occurred a
generation after the founding of the State of Israel, when Boutros
Boutros-Ghali became Egypt's foreign minister in 1977, and Tariq Aziz became
Foreign Minister of Iraq in 1983. In fact, the founding of the State of Israel
propelled Christian Arabs into leadership positions in Arab governments. The
Arab monarchies installed by the British in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq failed
miserably in their efforts to crush the new Jewish State in the 1947-1948 War
of Independence. Young military officers replaced the old colonial regimes with
nationalist governments, starting with Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup in Egypt.
Nationalism opened the door of political leadership to Arab Christians. The
Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq founded the Ba'ath party which later took power
in Syria and Iraq. The rise of secular Arab movements with strong Christian
influence was a response to the Arab failure to prevent the founding of the
State of Israel. After the Turkish destruction of Orthodox Christian
populations in the Levant, the Arab Christian elite - for centuries graced by
not a single name the world remembers - saw its chance to shine. Lebanon,
previously a backwater, and the pugnacious Maronite population, a marginal
group except for their ties to France, improbably emerged as the focal point of
But Arab nationalism failed just as miserably as did the monarchies invented by
the British after the Turks were thrown out. Having rolled the dice with Arab
nationalism, Arab Christians were left with diminished leverage and declining
numbers on the ground in the advent of political Islam. Both in politics and
demographics, the Arab Christians largely had themselves to blame.
Understandably, they find it more palatable to blame the Jews.
A case in point is Father Samir Khalid Samir, a Jesuit of Egyptian Arab origin
who prominently advises Pope Benedict XVI on Islam. I reviewed his fine book 111
Questions on Islam last March . Samir is circulating what he calls a
"Decalogue for Peace", leaked August 9 on the website of veteran Vatican
analyst Sandro Magister .
According to Samir:
The problem goes back to the creation of the state
of Israel and the partition of Palestine in 1948 decided by the superpowers
without taking into account the population already present in the (Holy) Land.
There resides the real root of all the wars that followed. To repair a serious
injustice committed in Europe against a third of the world Jewish population,
Europe (supported by the superpowers) decided to commit a new injustice against
the Palestinian population, who are innocent of the martyrdom of the Jews. The
original decision-making was shaped largely as reparation by the superpowers
for doing little or nothing to end a systematically organized persecution
against the European Jews as a 'race'.
Samir's plan includes
international troops on Israel's borders, recognition of the Palestinian right
of return, an international commission to decide the future of Jerusalem - in
short, what the Israelis would consider the end of their sovereignty and the
liquidation of the Jewish State. That a prominent Vatican Islam expert would
take such a stance speaks volumes about the power of nostalgia.
There is not a single fact in place in Samir's presentation.
Leave aside the fact that the League of Nations in 1922 confirmed the object of
the British mandate to establish a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine, and
that preparations for the Jewish State were complete before World War II. Leave
aside also the pope's Biblical belief that the Jews are in the Land of Israel
because God has commanded them to be there. The fact is that most Israelis,
contrary to Samir, descend not from the Jews driven out of Europe by the
Holocaust, but rather from Jews driven out of Arab countries after 1947.
There were 600,000 Jews in Israel on the day of its founding; an additional
700,000 were expelled from Arab lands, including Iraq, where the Jews had lived
for 1,000 years prior to the arrival of the Arabs. By expelling the Jews, the
Arab countries created a population concentration in Israel that made possible
the country's emergence as a regional superpower. The results were an exchange
of populations of roughly equal numbers, Palestinians leaving the new State of
Israel and Jewish refugees arriving from Arab countries.