An ACRPS conference covering the history and future of Christian Arabs living in the Arab East closed in Doha on Sunday, 22 October. "Christian Arabs in the Greater Arab Mashreq: Determinants of Continuity, Emigration and Forced Migration" included two days of academic panels that brought together 20 scholars from across the Arab region and beyond. Panels on the second and final day covered some of the political and economic factors which drove Christians within the Arab East to leave.
The "Christian Question" in Iraq since the Fall of Mosul
Speaking on the first panel of the closing day, Iraqi scholar Yehia Al Kubaisi presented some of the facts surrounding the demographic reality of Iraqi Christians. According to Al Kubaisi, the numbers of religious and ethnic minorities within Iraq, and especially Christians, became the object of political disputes involving international actors and major Iraqi political parties.
According to Al Kubaisi, Iraqi Christians, from a number of various churches, accounted for 206,000 persons in 1957, rising to 256,000 in 1977. Al Kubaisi, who claims that later censuses in Iraq were unreliable due to the inaccessibility of Iraqi Kurdistan to census officials, projected that the number of Christian Iraqis would not have normally been greater than around 600,000 by 2003, the year of the US-led invasion. Nonetheless, he points out, a number of sources, including by governments around the world and global aid agencies have cited a mass exodus of "hundreds of thousands" of Christian Iraqis. Al Kubaisi pointed out the implausibility of such claims, suggesting that the political reality of quotas for various ethnic and religious groups means that a number of actors had a vested interest in exaggerating the number of Christian Iraqis.
Following Al Kubaisi, Saad Salloum offered a history of the calls for the creation of a "safe enclave" for Christian Iraqis in the Nineveh Plain. While initially controversial even among formal Christian political organizations within Iraq, the plan is now gaining increasing traction according to Salloum. This is due in part to the heightened threat of physical violence against the Christian communities of the Nineveh Plains since the rise of ISIL. With previously religiously plural cities in Iraq, like Baghdad and Basra, losing their entire Christian populations, the centuries-old Christian community of Iraq was instead witnessing a "reverse migration", and returning to the Nineveh Plains to the North and East of Mosul. Previously the site of established of Christian villages, it now sits on the fault lines between Kurdish Iraqis and the rest of the country and thus made the need for protection more pressing. Finally, another reason Salloum gave for the creation of a "safe zone" in Nineveh was economic: a secure and homogenous zone would act as a magnet for economic investment from within Iraq as well as from the prosperous diaspora community of Assyrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic Iraqis living in North America and elsewhere. These combined realities served to make the prospect of a Christian enclave in the Nineveh Plain more compelling for the religious and political leadership of Iraq's Christians.
Christian Exodus from the East: Tolerance and Intolerance
Habib Ephrem, President of the Lebanon-based Syraic League, was the first speaker to address the second panel. Ephrem began with an assertion that Christian was "essentially Oriental," deeply embedded in the fabric of the Arab East. "[Emigration to] neither Chicago nor Detroit will be able to replace my homeland," said Ephrem, who opined that emigration to the West was a "myth" which could never be a solution to the existential challenges facing the Christian communities of the East.
Ephrem insisted that a purely demographic, statistical understanding of the Christian role in the Arab East would be insufficient: instead, said Ephrem, the world needed to accept the reality of the equal citizenship and partnership of Christians in the Arab East. The speaker also placed the responsibility for combatting the rise of growing Islamist extremism and exclusionist policies on the wider Arab-Islamic civilization. Ephrem additionally placed some of the blame for the present threats facing the Christian communities of the Arab East on the West, which, it said, had worked to destabilize the states of the region and to disingenuously exploit the sufferings of Christians in the Arab region: since their presence had no strategic benefit for Western countries, Christian Arabs should not expect any special help from Western governments.
Ephrem was followed by Robin Shamuel, who gave a historical overview of the Assyrian Christians of Iraq. Shamuel explained that the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities in Iraq were some of the first people to embrace Christianity, making them one of the oldest continuously extant populations in the world. Shamuel also gave a brief overview of the massive contributions made by Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Iraq to Islamic Civilization.
Completing the geographical balance of the panel, Shady Lewis gave a description of the status of Coptic Christian Egyptians, who have faced a wave of increasing sectarian violence since the 1970s. In contrast to previous analyses which focused on the political and legal structures that allowed for violence against the Copts, Lewis took in the social attitudes which made violence against Copts acceptable throughout Egypt's 2011 revolution and since. Lewis suggested that the violence in Egypt since the 2011 revolution gave rise to a "New Martyrdom" of Egyptian Copts, a sect which had a long history of veneration of martyrs. Lewis suggested that one means to remedy the problems faced by Coptic Christian Egyptians could be the promotion of Coptic individuals in positions of authority in the Egyptian state.
The final speaker on this second panel was Majed Hassan Ali, whose paper covered the approach of Eastern Churches to the emigration of Christians from Iraq and Syria. Ali distinguished between two phases of Christian migration in the Arab East. The first, which took place between the decline of the Ottoman Empire and through the Second World War, was characterized largely by internal migration within the region itself. Beginning with the second part of the twentieth century however, increasingly vigorous nationalist sentiment drove a new wave of Christian exodus from the Arab East.
Migration and Forced Migration of Christians from Greater Syria
In the final session, Abdullah Hanna explored the reasons behind Christian Syrian external and internal displacement and migration, and offered an economic reading of these motivations. Ongoing intellectual and socio-economic developments in Syria following independence contributed to the process of integrating the population. The features of the modern state, which had been established by the French mandate, took shape, contributing to the emergence of a central national state with Damascus as its capital.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Christians lived under a national state of peace and security. Nonetheless, the last two decades of the twentieth century saw a decline in national advancement. This led to the resurgence of tribal and sectarian sentiments, which became dominant at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Consequently, the position of Christians became unstable, and their role in society became threatened. Hanna noted that the rate of rural Christian population migration to the city was higher than Muslim migration rates. The reason Hanna suggests for this is that when a Christian migrates to a city, and resides in the Christian neighborhoods his "minority complex" disappears. That is to say, he leaves behind the minority status he suffered in his village, where fears of Islam and compulsion to pay the Jizya are still stored in collective memory.
Samir Seifan's presentation dealt with the climate of conflict in Syria since March 2011 and its impact on the emigration of Syrian Christians. The regime's strategies against the Intifada, which includes intimidating minorities, among them Christians, contributed to pushing them away from the opposition. The regime deliberately instilled fear and suspicion in Christian circles about the opposition and Jihadist groups, and especially ISIL. With the continuation of the conflict, Christian convictions that Syria would not return as it was widened every day. Programs to resettle Syrian refugees in European countries, as well as Canada and Australia played an important role in encouraging Christians to emigrate. Seifan focused on a case study of Christian emigration from the city of Al-Suqaylabiyah, an Orthodox Christian city in the al-Ghab plain, located on the lines between Sunni and Alawite areas.
Concluding the final session of the conference, Mitri Raheb dealt with the major waves of Palestinian Christian emigration in the first half of the 20th century, namely migration to Latin America in the early 20th century. Today, the fourth generation represents about half a million Latin American Palestinian Christians. The professor also saw in his research that the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 was also a Christian Nakba by any measure. He finished his presentation by discussing the reality of Christian emigration from Palestine in the last 10 years by analyzing the results of research and studies carried out by Deyaar Group.