Christian Arabs and ‘peace and justice’

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Jordan and Palestine is a perfect opportunity to review and declare the role of Christian Arabs in the peace process.

To begin with, it is important for all to know that Arabs have been in Palestine and Jordan before Islam and Christianity. References to the word "Arab" and its derivatives are mentioned hundreds of times in the Old and New Testaments. The Biblical figure of Job is said to be Arab and Arabs were among the many attending the sermon on the day of Pentecost by St. Peter when 3,000 (among them Arabs) became Christians. Act 2 refers to Arabs having heard the sermon in their own tongue.

Arab Christians have, therefore, been an integral part of Palestine and the Middle East region since at least the Day of Pentecost. The role of Arab Christians in modern Arab nationalism was best reflected in George Habib Antonius’ book "The Arab Awakening". Antonius (1891-1941) was one of the first historians of Arab nationalism. Born of Lebanese-Egyptian parentage and a Christian (Greek Orthodox) Arab, he served in the British Mandate of Palestine. His 1938 book "The Arab Awakening" was written as Palestine was slipping from Arab control.

Antonius traced Arab nationalism to the reign of Mehmet Ali Pasha in Egypt. He argued that Arab nationalism was a product of the West, especially of Protestant missionaries from Britain and the United States. He saw the role of the American University of Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College) as central to this development.

The number of Arab Christians vary. Wikipedia states that Christians today make up 9.2 per cent of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon, they now number around 39 per cent of the population, in Syria about 10 to 15 per cent. In Palestine before the creation of Israel estimates range up to as much as 40 per cent, but mass emigration has slashed the number still present to 3.8 per cent.

In Israel, Arab Christians constitute 2.1 per cent (or roughly 10 per cent of the Arab population). In Egypt, they constitute between 9 and 16 per cent of the population (the government figures put them at 6 per cent).

Around two-thirds of North and South American and Australian Arabs are Christian, particularly from Lebanon, but also from Palestine and Syria.

While the number of Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem and the occupied territories has dwindled over the years, they are still a key component of the Palestinian and Arab peoples of the region. Activists blame violence, occupation and uncertainty, coupled with opportunities (or lack thereof) for work and emigration, as the main reason for the flight of Christian Palestinians to the Americas, Australia and Europe.

While the world looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict from an Arab-Israeli point of view, or a Jewish-Islamic one, the role and contribution of Arab Christians cannot and need not be ignored.

Unlike followers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, Christians have no religious attachment to physical locations. Scholars refer to the response of Jesus to the Samaritan woman’s question about whether to worship in Jerusalem or in the Sumerian mountains. Jesus replied to her: "Neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

Christian Arabs, however, believe that a lasting resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must both address the national aspirations of the Palestinians (of which they are part) and provide for the spiritual needs of the faithful, including Christians.

In this regard, Palestinian Christians are perhaps angriest with a radical but effective group of Christians who try to give Biblical support and legitimacy for the Israeli aggression against Palestinians. An entire industry that has been well endowed has cropped up in the West, attempting to hijack the Christian theological debate in favour of what is now referred to as Christian Zionism.

Right-wing governments in Israel and the US seem to be natural feeding grounds for these fundamentalists. Palestinian Christians have forcefully rejected this position and some established evangelical voices have also come up to debunk these myths and insist on the need for justice as an integral part of any peaceful resolution in the region.

The visit of the Pontiff has stirred plenty of interest in the contributions Christians can make to the peace process. Israel’s attempts to ban the Aida refugees in Bethlehem from erecting the stand for the visiting Pope by the 28-foot-high wall is perhaps the most glaring worry the Israeli occupiers have about the visit of the Pontiff. They fear precisely what Arab Christians insist on: that a truly Christian position on the Israeli-Arab conflict will not be merely satisfied with a call for peace, but will necessarily also include a call for justicefor Palestinians.

"Peace and justice" is the message of people of faith from the entire world, and is certainly the focus for Arab Christians.