I travelled with my family in India in 2008 and my most useful guide was the writing of a Scot named William Dalrymple. This past spring we travelled in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and found that Dalrymple has done it again in his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, which was first published in 1997. Dalrymple searched out and described Christian communities in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel (including the occupied West Bank), and Egypt. While the book is a bit dated, it remains a compelling and useful resource describing the disturbing reality that Christians are either being forced out or are leaving the countries that he profiles. The most accommodating nation in the region is Syria and even there Christians fear for their future.
Dalrymple says that the great flowering of Christianity in the Middle East began after the Roman emperor Constantine declared in the 4th century that Christianity would be the official religion of the empire. The golden age, embodied in the Byzantine Christianity, lasted for about 300 years, until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. During that time, Dalrymple writes, “the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilization.” But he writes that Christianity is suffering “a devastating decline in the land of its birth.”
Dalrymple certainly is not anti-Muslim. He says that for centuries the predominantly Muslim countries of the Ottoman Empire practiced a far greater tolerance for Christians and Jews in their midst than Christian countries of Europe did for either Jews or Muslims. “Only in the 20th century has that tolerance been replaced by new hardening in Islamic attitudes,” Dalrymple says, adding that this is in great part due to a series of humiliations visited upon Muslim countries by the West. “Almost everywhere . . . the Christians are leaving,” he says.
At one level Dalrymple’s book is a travelogue. He seeks out the remnants of Christian communities from Turkey to Egypt. These are often monks living in remote monasteries but he also finds the beleaguered and usually elderly survivors of other Christian communities as well. In Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) he finds that descendants of the Byzantines continue to leave what was once the first city of Christendom. In Eastern Turkey, he finds that the Syrian Orthodox church has been almost entirely wiped out. Turkey continues to insist that the Armenian genocide never actually occurred and the state is attempting to remove evidence that Armenian Christians ever existed there. The few remaining Christians in the region are mistrusted and victimized by both the Turks and the Kurds, who are advocating, often violently, for their own homeland.
In Lebanon, Dalrymple blames the Maronite Christians for fomenting the calamitous civil war that occurred between 1975 and 1990. Following the First World War, the League of Nations granted France a mandate in the region and in 1920 the French carved the Lebanese state out of greater Syria. Dalrymple says that this was done at the request of Maronite Christians and was at least partly aimed at maintaining a sympathetic Christian beachhead in the predominantly Muslim region. Dalrymple says the Maronites were contemptuous of their fellow Arab and Muslim citizens. Rather than negotiating a sharing of political power, the Maronites chose to arm themselves and prepare for battle. Dalrymple says they lost that war and the stranglehold they had previously held on power. The war also provided an opportunity for the fundamentalists in Iranian-backed Hezbollah (army of God) to consolidate their power base in Lebanon and to add to the region’s instability. By the war’s end, at least one third of Lebanon’s Maronites had fled. Signs of the civil war still exist. In 2010, we saw people in Beirut living in the hollow skeletons of buildings that had been destroyed during the fighting years ago.
Dalrymple says that when the state of Israel was created in 1948, an estimated 55,000 Palestinian Christians were driven from their homes or fled — in addition to 650,000 Muslim Palestinians. In the 1967 war, Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and they were placed under military occupation. Israel has undertaken a relentless colonization by creating Jewish settlements in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem. Early in the 20th century, Christians comprised more than half of Jerusalem’s population, but Dalrymple says their numbers have declined to about three per cent. Christians now make up about two per cent of the population in the country as a whole. The Israeli government, says Dalrymple, is systematically erasing the landmarks and history of Christian presence.
In Egypt, Dalrymple writes, the Coptic Christians experience discrimination from the authoritarian Mubarek regime and suffer increasing violence at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists. Dalrymple says that Christians in Egypt “are well aware that things are likely to get much worse if President Mubarek falls and an Islamic revolution brings the fundamentalists to power.”
It is in Syria, under another authoritarian regime, where Christians are most free to practice their religion and to participate more equally in society. It was in Syria that Armenian and Syrian Orthodox Christians found sanctuary from neighbouring Turkey. The northern city of Aleppo is home to hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians who provide a distinctive atmosphere in business, culture and cuisine. While there on a Saturday evening in April, we went in search of Christian churches and came upon a wedding occurring at the Armenian cathedral. The bride’s mother invited us to stay and although we had to decline we did see the wedding car a short time later decked with flowers and announced by blaring horns in the old city’s narrow streets. In Aleppo and the capital city of Damascus, the spires of Christian churches dot the skyline along with the minarets of mosques and we heard the tolling of church bells as well as the frequent calls to Muslim prayer.
Dalrymple says that Syria has been a “Noah’s ark” of shelter and safety for Christians but that to some extent there is a Machiavellian reason for it. Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970, was an Alawite, a Muslim minority within Syria that is considered heretical by the majority Sunni population. Hassad remained in power and ruled with ruthless authority by forming an informal coalition of religious minority groups including the Christians who form about 10 per cent of Syria’s population. Hassad died in 2000 and his son Bashare took over for him. Dalrymple says that Syrian Christians fear that they may suffer a savage backlash when and if the Assad dynasty falls — and he reports anecdotally that those Syrian Christians who can afford it are attempting to obtain second passports as a precaution.
Dalrymple believes that the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East has important consequences beyond the stories of discrimination and violence that so many people have experienced. He quotes from his interview with Lebanese historian Kemal Salibi, author of the classic book A House of Many Mansions. “Since the 19th century the Christian Arabs have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity,” Salibi told Dalrymple in an interview. “It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were Christians . . . If Christian Arabs continue to emigrate, the Arabs will be in a much more difficult position to defend the Arab world against Islamism . . . Everyone is frightened by the spread of fundamentalism.”
One reviewer has said that Dalrymple’s book is not an optimistic one about the future of Christians in the Middle East — and it is not. Yet, Dalrymple reminds us of the great similarities between the two world religions: “Today the West often views Islam as a civilization very different from and innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realize how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s Western incarnation.”
Although not extremely well educated nor totally aware of the history of Christianity, I have always had a certain amount of respect for the Muslin religion,as I have admired their devotion to their belief and many of their family traditions. Unfortunately neither their nor our Christian way of life is without sin and shame, as that is a human trait. However, having read this article and realizing Christianity was the older religion in Europe prior to the rise of Islam in the 7th Century, I definitely now feel that we Christians have been totally misled by our leaders and clergy, in that we have never truly been led to live up to our beliefs; nor done everything possible to encourage peaceful living of all peoples. Our churches have failed by not speaking up and denouncing our way of life, as here in the West there is no longer any self respect nor caring for our fellow man, whereas in the East Islam does not respect women nor allow them to live equally in the eyes of God. What we need to achieve peace, is for both religions to search their souls and move more towards a central understanding of our religions, which when one truly compares them, are very similar. Basically the West needs to revert to a more respectful and less greedy way of living, while the East requires to give their women the respect and freedom to express themselves as God intended. The way things are going it is the West that will eventually destroy mankind through its greed.
Thanks, Dennis, as always,
I must read Dalrymple’s book. This piece has encouraged me to do so. I was wondering if he or if you had explored other factors like the relative ease which Christians and Muslims have in emigrating to western countries due to official receptiveness, education levels, families and communities that can receive and support them on arrival and so on. In other words, are there any “pull” factors in addition to the “push” issues which you describe?
Lawrence S. Cumming
Dennis replies: Thanks Lawrence. I do not have reliable info on how Muslim people actually get to Canada and other Western countries. It is a question that often comes to mind when I see veiled women in a mall near my house. Every person has her story, if only we knew what it is. I would invite comment from other readers about how immigration actually happens.
Greetings- very good piece showing the complexities of the region- The Alawite are viewed by both Shia and Sunni Muslims as more christian than Muslim–Bill Knight
Thanks for that.
Here’s an update of sorts from a 2006 [just after the latest Lebanon war] article.
William Dalrymple in Damascus The Guardian Saturday September 2, 2006
The final place of refuge for Christians in the Middle East is under threat
That is, from the west, as he expresses concern about attempts to destabilize Syria, that having already accomplished in Lebanon & Iraq.
He talks about the latest Syrian influx of Christians, some 350 000 from Iraq.
William Dalrymple has many of his article archived here —
I ask myself,” What do Muslims want” They want to see their children do well and live a life where there needs are met.Given that they will be MORE generous toward there none Muslim neighbour. I believe this was done during the time of the Moors. Dalrymple speaks about ” a series of humiliations visited upon Muslim countries by the West.” These humiliations continue and worsen today. There are areas in the Middle East where the number of Christians are increasing. They are in the military bases of NATO, especially the US. Have a look at the number of US military basis in the article “Towards a World War III Scenario? The Role of Israel in Triggering an Attack on Iran,” At http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=20584. The only Chistians that the Muslims of Middle East can really lash out against, for this occupation, is their Christian neighbour.
I was brought up Roman Catholic but was not practicing. In 2003 I became a born again Christian and never looked back. Christians must realize that are true enemy is not actually people of other faiths but the devil himself. The devil works through 4 avenues: ourselves, other people, our physical environment, and the ideology/beliefs (religion)of a society. The thief come not but to kill, steal, and destroy but I come but to give life and give it abundantly…the words of Jesus. I am not an expert on Islam but I am aware of their basic beliefs. I live in Montreal and some of my neighbours are Muslim and they are very humble and respectful people. It was through honest and open dialogue I became close friends with my neighbour Wafa…a very lovely Muslim woman from Morocco. She is married with 2 girls. Ignorance of a religion breeds fear and then violence. Open communication with the sincere intention to understand brings forth respect and acceptance. I never knew Muslims believed that Jesus was a prophet and born of the virgin Mary.