Who are the Christian Arabs? Some Facts about Who they are and their Place in the World
Photo: A Procession of Priests in Bethlehem in Palestine: the Birthplace of Christianity
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabs represent different branches of the Christian faith
Historically, as we know, Christians Arabs were well established in the Middle East before the arrival of Islam. Many of them did not convert to the dominant Islamic faith. Rather, they remained adherents of their Church, which followed either the Eastern or Orthodox rite or that of Rome, namely the Latin branch. In the pre-Islamic periods, Christians were often part of the upper, ruling classes. They were spread throughout the Fertile Crescent and across North Africa. Even in periods of Islamic rule, Christians played an important part in commerce and, at times, government. Today, significant numbers of Christian communities reside in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Constantinople, now Istanbul, was once an important center of Eastern Christendom. And, of course, Palestine was itself the birthplace of Christianity. Emigration has brought many Christian Arabs to the Americas, including, of course, the U.S. In the U.S., together with Muslim Arabs, they comprise a significant Arab American community.
Photo: Saint Sophia Christian Cathedral in Istanbul–later converted to a Mosque
What does it mean to be a Christian Arab?
The New Testament of the Holy Bible denotes that some of the first people to be converted to Christianity were known as ‘Arabians.’ This would make the people now known as Arabs one of the original Christian communities. However, not all Middle East Christians see themselves as descending from Arab peoples. For example , in my work in Lebanon, I’ve talked with Maronite Christians who say, for a female, “Ana Phonekia” or a male, Ana Phoneki,” meaning, “I am Phoenician,” or a descendent of the ancient Phoenicians. In Egypt, many of the Copts I knew didn’t consider themselves Arabs, but rather referred to themselves as descendants of the ancient Egyptians, Pharoni or Pharonia, meaning from the time of the Pharos.
Photo: A Mural of Pharaonic People, who are probably the Predecessors of today’s Egyptian Coptic Christians
For the Lebanese, backing up the belief in their Phoenician origins, a genetic study has found what is called a “genetic marker.” Such a marker for Phoenicians has been found in a very small proportion of people living in countries that ring the Mediterranean along the old Phoenician trade route, from Lebanon to as distant a place as Morocco. Remarkably, in Lebanon, fully one-third of the people today carry the telltale genetic marker, which is equally distributed among Christians and Muslims.
My work in Egypt led me to the fact that the language of the Copts of Egypt is a non-Semitic language that is indigenous to Northeastern Africa. Arabic, on the other hand, is a Semitic language, which is related to Hebrew. The Coptic dialect was called Sahidic. It’s in the same language family as the language of the Berbers with whom I lived in the Libyan Desert. Copts spoke Sahidic until around the 7th century. The written version was a composite of a local script which had borrowed heavily from ancient Greek. Coptic Egyptian grammatically resembles ‘Late Egyptian,’ which was the written language used by the people living during the more recent Pharaonic period known as the New Kingdom, around 1350 B.C.
Traditionally, Christian Arabs were tolerated by dominant Muslim governments
Again using Egyptian Christians as an example, the Copts have had an uneasy presence in their country over many centuries. Their discomfort began as soon as the Muslim Arabs began to take over Egypt in the seventh century. Coming from the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabs brought with them their new Islamic fervor and a different language and culture. Copts and Muslims are in fact two very different people. They not only differ in their origins but couldn’t be more different in their religions. Christianity and Islam, while both deriving from the Abrahamic tradition, are studies in contrast given their distinctive theologies and practices. I understood why the Copts were proud of their origins, which were perhaps rooted in the earlier Pharaonic society. But, when the Muslim Arab invasion gained its foothold, it took only two centuries for the Muslims to begin dominating the Copts. This was in the ninth century.
Photo: Egyptian Coptic Pope Presiding over a Church Service
There is a legendary story that reflects the uneasiness of the relationship between the Copts and Muslims. The story goes that in the tenth century a Coptic Pope named Abraham of Alexandria had challenged the Caliph of Egypt to a kind of ‘duel.’ This was a period when Copts still had some freedom. The Pope quoted a New Testament verse on moving mountains, which the Caliph insisted he prove or else risk the loss of many Coptic lives. With the Caliph present at the Muqattam hills, a rocky outcropping on the eastern rim of Cairo, the Pope offered a mass. He quoted the Gospel of Matthew, “if one has faith like a grain of mustard, one can move a mountain.” At that very moment, the Pope and the Caliph both purportedly witnessed the vertical movement of a piece of the massive rock. So, as the story goes, the mountain moved, the Copts were saved, and the Pope and the Caliph became good friends. Christian-Muslim accord in Egypt has never since remained that collegial.
A little-known fact about Christianity’s influence on Islamic theology
Islam tended to suppress Christianity in many of the regions it had overtaken; at the very least it succeeded in reducing the number of practicing Christians through conversion or expulsion. Curious it is, then, that Islamic theology has borrowed from Christianity a few beliefs derived from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. As members of the so-called Abrahamic faith, Christians and Muslims are considered, along with the Jewish people, to be ‘People of The Book.’ This means that they share in the belief in one and the same God.
In this context of the shared Christian-Muslim belief in God, it’s important to know, first, that Muslims accept the idea of Jesus the man. They consider Jesus to be one prophet in a long line of which the Prophet Mohammed is the capstone. Muslims even accept the virgin birth of Jesus by his mother, Mary or Miriam. However, importantly, they don’t believe that Allah had a divine son, much less any son at all. They see Allah according to the Qur’an, as a remote, omnipotent source of all-power. While linguistically Allah is masculine in Arabic, that doesn’t denote gender per se.
Similar to the concept of God in Judaism and Christianity, in Islam, “Allah is the Originator of the heavens and the earth!” But a clear distinction between Islam and these other Abrahamic faiths appears in the Qur’an, which states: “How could it be that He (Allah) should have a child without there ever having been a mate for Him-since it is He who has created everything, and He alone knows everything?” (Chapter 6, verse 101) This tenet of Islam is reinforced in a later chapter: “All praise is due to God, who begets no offspring…” (Chapter 17, verse 111) So, while certain Christian beliefs have influenced Islam, the major tenet of Christianity that Jesus is the “Divine Son of God” is not one of them.
Photo: A Typical Representation of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem–Muslims believe in the Virgin Mary and Jesus the Man
Christian Arabs in the U. S.
According to the Arab American Institute (AAI), 63% of Arabs living in the U.S. are Christian. Numbers and percentages here, however, are a bit elusive. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that approximately 2 million Americans claim Arab descent. But AAI estimates that number is much higher, around 3.7 million. Census figures put Arab Christians at just over 1 million, while according to the AAI figure, there would be well over 2.3 million Arabs adhering to Christianity. In any case, the proportion of Christian to Muslim Arabs in the U.S. is the opposite of that proportion in the Arab Middle East.
Again according to AAI, 35% of Christian Arabs are Catholic, representing the Roman Rite; 18% are Orthodox or the Eastern Rite; and 10% are Protestant, mainly converts. Whether Christian or Muslim, two-thirds of Arab Americans are located in 10 states, including California, Michigan, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Of those, one third is located in the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit and New York.
As of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, Christians worldwide continue to have the largest number of believers, 2.38 billion, with Muslims next highest at 1.8 million. These numbers, like many, are elusive, since the number of new Christians in Europe is declining and in some cases the birth rate of Muslims is growing proportionately higher. In any case. it doesn’t have to be that these two major religions are in competition, though some see this as a permanent, continuing battle. To put things in perspective, population size itself is just one determinant of a religious community’s influence—a case in point is Judaism, whose population represents a mere .01% of the world’s total population of 7.3 billion. In any case, antagonism and conflict among peoples of differing religious communities is not especially about theology, but more about power and authority. Religion is in effect “used” as a pretext or cover for other-than religious motives.
John Mason is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017.