Arab Christians are part of our heritage: who will help them?

Hamida Ghafour

It will come as a small piece of good news to Christians that the Government is to preserve and turn into tourist attractions an ancient church and monastery on Sir Bani Yas island. The archeological finds there, which probably date back to the seventh century AD, are considered part of the Gulf’s history, although Christianity gave way to Islam here after the ninth century.

There is not much other good news for Arab Christians these days.

“Oriental Christians”, as they were once known, are divided into a complicated array of sects and denominations, but generally fall under the umbrella of the Eastern church. Many are feeling besieged.

In Egypt, which is home to approximately 10 million Christians, there has been a spate of attacks on Coptic shops and churches by extremists. In Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, those who can afford to obtain a western passport are doing so as an insurance policy in case life becomes unbearable.

But the worst situation is in Iraq. Last month thousands fled Mosul, in the north, where a sizeable Chaldean and Assyrian population has lived since the second century, because their homes and churches were being targeted by Sunni extremists in a wave of car bombings and killings. Some have returned, but the chur- ches remain under heavy police protection. Since 2003, eight Iraqi priests have been murdered, including the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, who was kidnapped this year.

Iraq’s government has just allocated six out of 440 provincial council seats for Christians, but many are saying it is not enough.

It is sad because Arab Christians are part of the rich and complex culture of the region. The church and monastery on Sir Bani Yas island belonged to the Nestorian era. The Nestorians contributed to the development of Islamic medicine and flourished in Baghdad under the Abbasid rulers from the eight century.

Today, Iraq’s Christian population is thought to be less than 800,000. Many have gone to Jordan, where I met a refugee family recently. In Jordan, as in the UAE, Christians probably feel more safe than anywhere else in the Middle East, thanks to strong public support from the royal family and laws that allow them to worship and build churches freely. Still, Nadia Samaan, 49, a chemical engineer, told me she was desperate to move to Canada with her husband, an accountant, and their four children.

The family were Chaldean Catholics who recognise the Pope’s authority but celebrate the Eastern rites in the ancient Syriac language. The Chaldeans of Iraq are the descendants of those who did not convert to Islam in the seventh century.

Last year two of Samaan’s brothers-in-law were killed in Diyala province, which had fallen under the control of al Qa’eda In Iraq. The brothers, both teachers, were driving to Baghdad from Diyala when their car was stopped by insurgents who asked for identification. Their bodies were found the next day.

The family were living on their savings and could not find much work in Amman. Nadia said the Canadian authorities were taking a long time to run security checks on her husband because he served in Saddam Hussein’s army during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, which made him a suspected Baathist. Her husband’s arm was still bent in an awkward position from a war injury. “At that time everyone had to fight Iran, no one had a choice. If you didn’t, you were punished,” she said. “Today the insurgents say to us, ‘This is not your country’. But it is our country. We’ve lost many people too.”

She reflected on the cruel twist that the Christians suffered like anyone else under Saddam’s regime, but now they were considered part of the American occupation.

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Cecilia Bartoli’s concert at the Emirates Palace hotel on Saturday night was dazzling.

But there was one odd moment when the Italian diva first took to the stage. She looked up at the audience, expecting to see a sizeable number of people in “the gods”.

This auditorium, however, does not have “the gods” – a nickname for the cheapest seats high up in European theatres traditionally occupied by passionate, working-class fans.

At La Scala in Milan the gods attract serious opera buffs hissing and jeering singers who don’t perform to their exacting standards.

There was no danger of that at the Emirates Palace. The audience was encouraging and appreciative, not least because there was a feeling that Abu Dhabi had arrived at a milestone of high culture.