A New Identity for Middle East Christians

By Phillip Smyth
A growing separation from the Arab world in hostile circumstances.

The 20th century was a time in the Middle East when nominally secular dictators espousing notions of pan-Arabism — the ideology of uniting the “Arab World” and downplaying or crushing the different cultural aspects of the region’s innumerable sectarian groups — reigned supreme.

However, as we continue past the first decade of the 21st century, the regional picture is changing. In 2003, the pan-Arabist dictator Saddam Hussein was deposed in Iraq. In 2005 occupying Syrian forces under another pan-Arabist, Bashar al-Assad, were forced out of Lebanon. Now the Arab Spring is demonstrating the Middle East’s new Islamist future.

Besides the battles involving rifles and sectarian militias, another fight has been an underlying feature of the contemporary Middle East: Identity. This newly exposed battle is especially prevalent among the region’s declining Christian population.

In his enlightening piece on Middle Eastern Christian identity, my friend and colleague Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi concluded, “[T]he degree of linguistic and cultural Arabization over time has played more of a part in the formulation of identity among Middle Eastern Christians than a simple desire to avoid persecution at the hands of the Muslims majorities.”

While this statement is quite valid in assessing the situation of Middle Eastern Christians, the current conditions of upheaval and increasing vacuum created by pan-Arabism’s failures has created a broad disenchantment with the ideology. With rising sectarianism — especially as some Islamist groups publicly adopted the remnants of Arabism — and a generally less ideologically oppressive atmosphere, there has been a flowering of non-Arab identity among the region’s Christians.

Non-Arab identity for Christians existed long-before the collapse of pan-Arabism. In fact, the “new” Christian identities are hardly new. Many have their present-day roots from the nationalist spurts that spread through Europe and the Middle East in the late 19th century and continued to develop into the 1940s. If anything, they were simply overshadowed by the more dominant Arabism.

Pan-Syrian ideology was innately non-Arab and primarily led by Christians. In 1943, with its Christian majority, Lebanon was founded as a pluralistic state with an “Arab face” but not with an intrinsic Arab identity.

Many Christians of the Levant, commonly referred to as Syriac-Christians (usually due to their use of Syriac-Aramaic as their liturgical language), exhibit some of the most marked revitalizations of separate non-Arab identity.

These Christians include Catholic and Orthodox sects and are some of the oldest Christian churches in existence. The Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Melkite Catholics and Orthodox, and Syriac Catholics and Orthodox are all considered part of the “Syriac nation.” Syriac Christians also call a wide swath of territory — from northwestern Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean in Lebanon — home.

Syriac Christian identities have a strong yet heavily debated linkage with the past. Assyrian Christians often emphasize historical connections to the Assyrian Empire. The more nascent Chaldean identity looks to the Chaldean Empire (Chaldeanism) for its historical depth. Syriac Catholics and Orthodox, Maronites, and some Melkites often ascribe to Aramean identity (Arameanism). As such, the Aramean peoples who inhabited the ancient Aramean states are seen as their ethnic progenitors.

In many cases these identities have historically, ethnically, and geographically overlap with one another. In turn, this has caused friction between the different identity groups. In an effort to make some of the identities more broadly acceptable, there has been the adoption of more inclusive terms such as: Assyro-Chaldean/Chaldo-Assyrian (by Assyrianists) or the addition of the more unifying “Syriac-” as a prefix to whichever church or ethnic identity is ascribed to.

As Christian self-identity developed over the years, their identity movements also went hand-in-hand with a desire for autonomy. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey lobbied the League of Nations for independence. A few years after the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Christians of the country expounded their non-Arab roots. Some concluded the so-called “Christian canton” run by the Lebanese Forces militia (now a political party), should either become independent or maintain autonomy through an eventual federalist framework. By 1979, Iraqi Christians established their own political party, the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa). The Zowaa fought for an autonomous, if not independent territory in northern Iraq. Today, the party pushes for the autonomy of Nineveh Plains as a safe-zone for Iraq’s Christians.

For many of these Christians self-determination is still desired. “If Israel could be revived why not Aram?” asks David Dag, a Swedish based Aramean activist. Acknowledging that current conditions might not allow for such a state, Dag added, “not today, but maybe in the future, a few decades from now.”

Still, only a decade ago, the basic struggle for identity was almost lost. Hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians left or fled their homelands and now live in the West. Also, in many of these countries Christian political presence was marginalized.

In Lebanon, the country’s diverse Christian population and history allowed it to become a prime base for non-Arab ideology. This was an immediate threat for Syria, whose regime gained legitimacy from pan-Arab ideology.
When Syria completed its conquest of Lebanon in 1990, it made sure to incorporate Arabism into the Ta’if Agreement which ended the Lebanese Civil War. “Lebanon is Arab in belonging and identity… Lebanon, with its Arab identity, is tied to all the Arab countries by true fraternal relations,” read the agreement. Lebanon’s imposed Arabism continued during the early stages of what would become known as the 2005 Cedar Revolution. In one extreme case, those pushing for separate identity (in addition to physically threatening Palestinians) were detained for voicing anti-Arabist sentiments.

Yet, following the 2005 Syrian pullout from Lebanon, quests for separate identity among Christians were reinvigorated. Sami Gemayel, a Member of Parliament and leader in the Kataeb Party, went so far as to say, “As a Lebanese citizen my identity is Maronite, Syriac [meaning Aramean], Christian, and Lebanese.”

Even in Syria there has been a marked shift. The Assad regime first attempted to subsume non-Arab Christian identities under Arabism and then met with representatives from leading organizations which represented non-Arab Christian ethnic interests.

Christian identity battles haven’t simply been initiated as a response to Arabism, but also directed inwardly toward other Christians who’ve embraced other non-Arab identities. The battle over identity has become a common element of Internet discussion between those who ascribe to different Middle Eastern Christian ethnicities. Usually, one group will attempt to impose its name over the others. While these arguments usually begin as a quest for greater Christian unity, they often devolve into more fractious infighting.

According to David Dag, “The Assyrianists use polemics based on [false] theories against those of us who opt for the true Syriac-Aramean identity of our people.” For an Assyrian activist who wished to be called “Sargon” (after the Assyrian king Sargon II who defeated an Aramean army in 720 B.C.), “The Chaldeans manufactured an identity! It’s fake. It’s nothing but ideas to split Christians. Chaldeanism is as fake as being an ‘Aramean.’ The Christians of the East [meaning the Middle East] are Assyrian.”

In Sweden, home to one of the largest expatriate populations of Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs, disagreements over identity have spilled over into verbal arguments and team rivalries on the soccer pitch. In 1977 Arameanists created the Syrianska Football Club in part, as a response to the 1974 creation by Assyrianists of the Assyriska Föreningen soccer team.

Despite the differences between the identities, one element that both unites and is seen as fundamental is the push to revive the Aramaic language — or in the contemporary case, versions of neo-Aramaic.

In the early 1990s, Aramaic was taught in some Iraqi churches and after the fall of Saddam Hussein it became more commonly taught in schools catering to Christian students. As Juliana Taimoorazy of Iraqi Christian Relief Council revealed, “The truth is, if the Assyrian nation is to be kept from extinction, it is through our next generation who will live in Iraq, keeping our beloved traditions, and our sacred Aramaic language.”

On the border with Lebanon, the Israeli Maronite village of Jish has been undergoing a renewed sense of identity with Aramaic language classes. “Reviving the Aramean Syriac language in Jish is part of a whole Aramaic cause to revive our language and identity,” says Amir Khalloul, a teacher of Aramaic and a leader in the effort to revitalize the language and culture.

When asked if there was any resistance to the Aramaic language and identity program, Khalloul answered, “We encountered problems from ‘Arabized’ Christians. They want to show us and our project as threatening to the Arab identity. They think that doing so will let them gain chairs, positions, and advantages from their Arab political parties or surrounding community.” He added, “Whether they are aware or unaware of this fact, it is a language and culture for all Levantine Christians, without any exemptions.”

For the project in Jish, support came from what would appear to be an unusual source. “We have Arab-Muslim friends that support our cause and are helping us to achieve our goals,” Khalloul recounted. He wished to thank Mrs. Khatib, “She’s the headmaster of the school in Jish. Mrs. Khatib is an intellectual Arab-Muslim lady who supported us significantly to teach our Aramaic language in the school.”

In addition to Aramaic language classes, there has been an explosion of media outlets servicing Syriac Christians. In 2004 Zowaa established Ashur TV. 2005 saw the creation of Ishtar TV by the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council. From late 2005 to early 2006, Swedish-based Arameanists established the increasingly popular Suryoyo Sat. In 2011, Assyria TV was also started.

Regardless of the successes made by the Christian groups, there is still significant communal pain, especially due to regional strife and being targeted. Around half of Iraq’s Christians, mostly represented by the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christian sects, have been turned into refugees. Churches and Christian businesses have also been attacked. Due to political splits, Maronite power in Lebanon has ebbed in recent years. Syrian Christians fear what may happen to their community as the civil war in that country continues to get worse.

Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans (formerly known as the Syriac Universal Alliance), listed some requests he would like addressed by Middle Eastern states with Aramean populations:

“First of all, recognition of the Aramean people as the indigenous people of these countries — unlike Kurds for example who have stolen much of our traditional lands and annexed them to their irredentist ideology of a larger Kurdistan. Secondly, equality — we ask for a fair treatment based on constitutions which ensure our rights and duties as for all citizens and groups. Thirdly, justice for the past inflictions of maltreatment of our people — we have been persecuted, discriminated against, killed, pushed away, uprooted and, while living in the diaspora, we are now suffering again from the expropriation of our ancestral land as well as other properties that legally and historically belong to the Aramean (Syriac) people.”

While there have been many positive developments for these communities, the going will be tough. With ideological infighting, a shrinking population in their homelands, and attacks against their communities, these Christian groups may find their revival a much harder prospect than what many hope for. Nevertheless, they will continue their struggle. For one Chaldean academic, “It’s what happens in the diaspora — that’s what matters. We can rebuild and return, but it will all take lots of time.”