The Middle East: Spiritual Battlefield?

83.jpgWritten by Rachelle Kliger /Published Thursday, December 27, 2007
[Egypt] Under a woolen canopy, wisps of smoke from an outdoor fireplace mix with the scent of tobacco and rose tea. Magdi, an Egyptian Copt, nimbly rolls himself a cigarette. Sitting cross-legged on the cushioned floor, he ponders out loud how it came to be that all of his peers are happily married, while he is 32, good looking, intelligent, well-off– and yet still painfully single.

The problem, he believes, is that his Christian religion limits his options for finding a soul mate in Egypt.

“If I married a Muslim girl my mother would kill me,” he says. “If it was a Jewish girl, she wouldn’t mind so much. But a Muslim? Never.”

Magdi cannot quite explain his mother’s unyielding attitude. But her attitude is typical of the prevailing feelings in this part of the world. The antagonism between Muslims and Christians goes back a long way, and the ever-present chasm between the two communities is noticeable in every walk of life.

The enmity is not limited to Egypt. The slaying of a Christian bookstore manager in Gaza in October marked a sad milestone in the relations between Muslims and Christians in the Palestinian territories.

Rami Ayyad was stabbed and shot to death after being accused by Gaza-based Islamic groups of engaging in missionary activity.

Similar incidents occurred this year in Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. A group of 31 suspected Al-Qa’ida members were charged in Lebanon recently for plotting to bomb a church.

The list goes on. The Middle East is awash with religion-motivated violence.

Today, as Middle Eastern Christians dwindle in numbers and cling to their last vestiges, some are wondering whether Christians and Muslims here are engaged in a battle over the survival of the fittest.

Spiritual Warfare

Rev. Steven Khoury, head of the Calvary Baptist Ministries in Israel and the Palestinian territories, says the tension between Muslims and Christians is simmering beneath the surface. Paradoxically, he believes it will explode when the political crises in the Middle East are solved.

“Right now everybody — Muslims and Christians — is busy with politics,” Khoury says, tidying a pile of Arabic-language bibles at his chapel in eastern Jerusalem.

“Once the politics settle down, I believe it’s going to turn into more of a religious battle than a political battle.”

Once the politics are out of the picture, what remains will be spiritual warfare and the religious communities will be left alone to fight out their war to the bloody end, he predicts.

Not everyone agrees. “I’d resist the notion that there was a battle between the two religions,” says Prof. Gerald Hawting, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

From the advent of Islam there has been a religious dispute between local Christians and Muslims, but Hawting dismisses the notion that battles between the Byzantines and the Muslims in the ninth and tenth centuries, for example, were faith-based. Religion, he concedes, was often used as a propaganda tool to arouse the soldiers, but was not the main premise of the battle.

Crusades – A Quest for Earthly Gains?

And then came the crusades.

In the early crusades, Hawting says, the religious elements were very strong.

“The Europeans feel they’re engaged in a religious venture and they’re promised access to paradise if they’re killed in battle, and forgiveness for their sins,” he says.

But even in these early stages, there were other elements at play, such as economic and political gain, and the crusades gradually became more motivated by pragmatism.

“There’s a feudal system in Europe producing landless young men who haven’t much future in Europe. So sending them off to conquer land in the Middle East is a good way to keep them employed,” Hawting says.

As time progressed, European cities developed trade interests in the Middle East, and this, too, became an important motive.

Hawting does not believe the crusades is reason that Christians in the Middle East are discriminated against today.

“I think it’s convenient for some Muslims to raise that, but I don’t think the present difficulties between Christians and Muslims are to do with that. It’s to do with the reassertion of Islam and in the current situation. Local Christians are seen by some Muslims as a possible fifth column who are loyal to someone from outside.”

Wilfred Wong, a researcher with the Jubilee Campaign, says many Muslims in the Middle East have unofficially declared war on the Christians in the region, partly because of the United States and coalition forces fighting in Muslim countries.

Wong suggests that the Christians are wrongly perceived as being an extension of the Western forces, causing resentment towards them from many Muslims. The general increase in Islamic fundamentalism has also caused many Muslims in the Middle East to become more intolerant and resentful towards Christians and other non-Muslims living in their midst, he adds.

Wong says Christians are not trying to take over.

“Some Muslims are leading a crusade against the Christians, who just want to get on with their lives and stay in their ancient homeland.”


Christians are a minority in the Middle East among a Muslim majority. Historically, in states governed by Islamic law, Jews and Christians were considered “People of the Book” and were given a special status under Muslim rule known as “Dhimmi.” They had fewer legal and social rights than Muslims and were obligated to pay a tax known as jizya. But their life, property and faith were protected.

Today, rights organizations talk about severe encroachments on religious freedoms throughout the Middle East. Christians are often the first to bear the brunt.

“We’ve lived with this discrimination for 1,400 years,” says Nader Fawzy, President of the Canada-based Middle East Christians Association (MECA).

Contrary to Hawting, Fawzy believes the discrimination stems first and foremost from the religious differences.

“They cut our tongues and burned our churches,” he says. “The discrimination has nothing to do with the government more than it has to do with Islam.”

Nina Shea, director of the Center of Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, says that while the attitude of the regimes toward Christians in the Middle East varies from country to country, generally their situation relative to many other minorities in this part of the world, is bad.

The one positive exception, Shea notes, is in the Gulf states, where religious tolerance has improved in places like Qatar and Bahrain.

But elsewhere, the pattern in which Jews were coerced into leaving Muslim countries is now repeating itself with Christians. Countries are going from a once-Christian majority to having no Christians at all.

“And it’s accelerating,” Shea says. “I think it’s a very dismal picture.”

Not everyone paints such a bleak picture regarding Christian-Muslim relations. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, says the main problem facing his community is not the Muslims. The one to blame for the Christians’ situation is Israel, because of its policies in the Palestinian territories, and the West.

“I think the main problem is the interference of the West here, militarily,” Raheb says.

“This interference is not letting our region enjoy any stability.”

Raheb is particularly concerned about Western efforts to recruit the Middle East’s Christian community as a tool against the Muslims.

Mohsen Haredy, an Islamic scholar and editor of the online information service, Ask About Islam, urges caution in generalizing about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.

“Ordinary people, Muslims and Christians, live their life normally and they have good relations with each other,” he says.

“If some Christians are suffering somewhere in the Middle East, they are victims of the political agenda of some states, the same way Muslims are suffering, too.”

Conversion Attempts

Assuming the Christian claims of persecution are accurate, some Muslims say they are not entirely unprovoked. The primary grievance leveled against the Middle East’s Christians is their efforts to convert Muslims to Christianity, a practiced disdained by Islam.

Christians, on the other hand, complain of forcible conversions to Islam. In Egypt, there have been reports of Christian girls being kidnapped and coerced into becoming Muslims; or Christians who are bribed with jobs and money to change their faith.

The boom in media channels, satellite television and especially the Internet has created new ways for both faiths to reach out to potential newcomers, making the practice more difficult to counter.

Khoury does not deny encouraging people to embrace his faith.

“I believe that each Christian should do their duty and that is to preach the gospel and to speak about the life that Christ lived,” he says. “I don’t think it’s wrong at all to speak about my Savior.”

Khoury does not believe in aggressive missionizing, but the sensitivity of the issue will not push him to the shadows.

“If I keep a low profile, how effective will I be?” he asks. “If a Muslim wants to listen about my religion and my faith, I’ll be more than happy to speak with him. I don’t think it’s wrong.”

This attitude does not fare well with the Muslim community. In response to a query posted by a reader on the popular website Islam Online, a religious advisor listed instructions about how Muslims should deal with evangelizing campaigns in Islamic countries.

Muslims should learn to identify the problem and deal with it through preventative methods and educational programs, it says.

“Determine the outlets through which these missionizing messages are coming,” the site instructed. “Whether it’s through films, leaflets, magazines or other means. Do not let them through, and punish anyone who violates this with a deterring penalty.”

It also advises the more well-off Muslims to provide social support to the underprivileged and tend to their needs, so that evangelizing Christians will have no reason to reach out to the poor and take advantage of them.

“Muslims don’t want Christians to trade with their religion,” Haredy says.

Christians should not be exploiting the poverty and ill health of others in order to pull them into the religion. Calling on any belief should be based on dialogue and understanding.”

Other Muslim scholars voiced similar concerns about Christianity using the poor status of some Muslims to recruit them to the Christian faith.

Dr. Hamza Dib, a lecturer on Islamic law at Al-Quds University in eastern Jerusalem, maintains that the most disturbing element is that those targeted are often uneducated and do not have the intellectual tools to challenge the conversion attempts.

“I’m not concerned for those who know about Islamic religion. I’m afraid for those who don’t,” he says.

While religious figures on both sides claim the relationship between the Muslim and Christian communities on a daily basis is mostly cordial and even warm, the attitude of Muslims toward their co-religionists who convert to Christianity is an entirely different story.

Muslims who insist on converting to Christianity testify to horrendous difficulties in maintaining their faith.

“This is a catacomb existence for these new Christians,” says Shea. “It’s not a flowering of Christianity. There are some conversions, but it’s a hard cultivation and there’s much intolerance in these places. They have to hide their conversion.”

A case in point is Sam (The Media Line is withholding his real name out of concern for his safety). Sam, who is Middle East native, converted from Islam to Christianity nearly 20 years ago and has since made a home for himself in Europe.

“It was a long journey. I’m one of the early converts,” he says.

The problems facing converts in his home country apply to every aspect of life: including issuing an identity card, getting married, educating children, and securing an inheritance. The harassment is both bureaucratic, from the government, and physical, from friends and even family members, he says.

Sam insists that he was not encouraged by the Christian community to become a Christian because “they were scared.”

“I had a friend, a young lady from a family of strong Muslims, and her family slaughtered her because she became a Christian,” he says.

The government does not systematically kill people if they convert, but if they are killed by someone in the community, the murder will be met with impunity, he explains.

According to Islam, Muslims must not convert from their faith.

Traditionally, a Muslim man who turned his back on the religion would be executed and a woman would be imprisoned until she repented. But this penalty is only applied if these people pose a threat to Muslim society, such as propagating their new religion, says Dr. Muhammad Serag, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo.

He explains that this severe attitude toward converts was originally adopted for political reasons — in order to preserve the interests of the Muslim society.

“In the past it could be appreciated, understood or justified, but not in modern times.”

Conversion from Islam is still frowned upon in Muslim society.

Haredy says Muslims have no problem with people of other faiths and cites the Quranic verse “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” (Al-Baqara, 2:256) as evidence.

“If some Muslims are not practicing this, then the problem is with their understanding of Islam, not with Islam itself. Islam should not be judged by the bad practice of Muslims.”

Fawzy, like Khoury, believes there is a battle between the two religions, and does not see an end in sight under the current conditions.

“The only way to end the war is to say Christianity is in the church, Islam is in the mosque and let us live as Egyptians. We don’t need to have religion everywhere in our lives,” he says.

Many identify this perceived battle between Muslims and Christians with the clash between East and West. But while the battle has until now been limited to conventional war-like tactics, the 21st century could mark a dangerous turning point, with the weapons available today becoming both more effective and more destructive.

Dwindling Numbers

Quantifying the number of Christians in the Middle East today, compared with their numbers in the past, is a difficult, if not impossible task. Governments in the region have an interest in keeping census data quiet for political reasons, while Christians tend to inflate their numbers.

“Religious demographics are so sensitive in these places that they don’t take censuses that are meaningful, so we’re just guessing the figures,” says Nina Shea, director of the Center of Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

Any census of religious groups would also include ethnic minorities, so the results could upset the delicate balance of power in countries where the relative strength of one group compared to another can affect the political make-up. Lebanon is a prime example of the phenomenon.

Numerous United Nations organizations and NGOs contacted by The Media Line could not provide sufficient data to point to an accurate trend in Christian demographics in the Middle East over the past century. However, several Christian sources and academics estimated that Christians comprised between 20 and 30 percent of the population at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

The major changes came about through civil wars, and especially in the massacre and deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Today, with the exception of Lebanon, Christians comprise less than 10% of the populations of most Middle Eastern countries. In some states, such as Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Somalia, there are none. (See chart below)

The reasons for the decline in the numbers of Christians vary. Some are fleeing because of discrimination from their societies or from the regime; and some are being persecuted.

The ease of travel has made it much simpler now than in the past to leave the region. Many Christians are well-educated and find that they have more opportunities in the Western world than in the Middle East.

The fact that Christians have a lower birthrate than Muslims also works against them demographically.

Conversions from Christianity to Islam, whether forced or voluntary, is another contributing factor – although not a major factor, numerically – in their dwindling numbers.

Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, points to another disturbing aspect of this exodus. It is not just the Christians leaving the Middle East, he says. Those departing also include secular Muslims and in the case of Israel, liberal Jews.

The region, he says, is gradually losing its pluralism and leaving a disgruntled, homogeneous and more radical society behind.

The Christian population in Iraq, for example, has diminished significantly since the war in 2003, because many are fleeing from both the hardships of war and persecution.

It is estimated that Iraqi Christians account for nearly 40% of the refugees who have fled the country, a percentage several times higher than their proportion in the general Iraqi population.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, the percentages of Christians living in countries and territories which are members of the Arab League are as follows:

1) Algeria – Less than 1%

2) Bahrain – 9%

3) Comoros – 2%

4) Djibouti – 6%

5) Egypt – 10%

6) Iraq – 3%

7) Jordan – 6%

8) Kuwait – Less than 15%

9) Lebanon – 39%

10) Libya – Less than 3%, if any (no info)

11) Mauritania – None

12) Morocco – 1.1%

13) Oman – None

14) Qatar – 8.5%

15) Saudi Arabia – None

16) Somalia – None

17) Sudan – 5%

18) Syria – 10%

19) Tunisia – 1%

20) West Bank – 8%, Gaza – 0.7%

21) United Arab Emirates – Less than 4%

22) Yemen – No info, except that there are some very small Christian communities

It is worth noting that because of a lack of hard data, many of these figures are based on estimates. In several cases, Christians in these countries say their true numbers are much higher.


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