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Christians in Islamic Countries

by Giuseppe De Rosa, S.I.

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    An article on the condition of Christians in Muslim countries. The central thesis of the article is that “in all of its history, Islam has shown a warlike and conquering face”; that “for almost a thousand years, Europe lived under its constant threat”; and that what remains of the Christian population in Islamic countries is still subjected to “perpetual discrimination,” with episodes of bloody persecution.
  • Larger Work:
    La Civiltà Cattolica
  • Publisher & Date:
    La Civiltà Cattolica, October 18, 2003

How do Christians in Muslim-majority countries live? [...] We must first highlight a seemingly rather curious fact: in all the countries of North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), before the Muslim invasion and despite incursions by vandals, there were blossoming Christian communities that contributed to the universal Church great personalities, such as Tertullian; Saint Ciprian, bishop of Carthage, martyred in 258; Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo; and Saint Fulgentius, bishop of Ruspe. But after the Arab conquest, Christianity was absorbed by Islam to such an extent that today it has a significant presence only in Egypt, with the Coptic Orthodox and other tiny Christian minorities, which make up 7-10 percent of the Egyptian population.

The same can be said of the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Mesopotamia), in which there were flourishing Christian areas prior to the Islamic invasion, and where today there are only small Christian communities, with the exception of Lebanon, where Christians make up a significant part of the population.

As for present-day Turkey, this was in the first Christian centuries the land in which Christianity bore its best fruits in the areas of liturgy, theology, and monastic life. The invasion of the Seljuk Turks and the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II (1453) lead to the founding of the Ottoman empire and to the near destruction of Christianity in the Anatolian peninsula. Thus today in Turkey Christians number approximately 100,000, among whom are a small number of Orthodox, who live around Phanar, the see of the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, who has the primacy of honor in the Orthodox world and who holds communion with eight patriarchs and many autocephalous Churches in both East and West, with approximately 180 million faithful.

In conclusion, we may state in historical terms that in all the places where Islam imposed itself by military force, which has few historical parallels for its rapidity and breadth, Christianity, which had been extraordinarily vigorous and rooted for centuries, practically disappeared or was reduced to tiny islands in an endless Islamic sea. It is not easy to explain how that could have happened. [...]

In reality, the reduction of Christianity to a small minority was not due to violent religious persecution, but to the conditions in which Christians were forced to live in the organization of the Islamic state. [...]

THE WARRIOR FACE OF ISLAM: “JIHAD”

According to Islamic law, the world is divided into three parts: dar al-harb (the house of war), dar al-islam (the house of Islam), and dar al-‘ahd (the house of accord); that is, the countries with which a treaty was stipulated. [...]

As for the countries belonging to the “house of war,” Islamic canon law recognizes no relations with them other than “holy war” (jihad), which signifies an “effort” in the way of Allah and has two meanings, both of which are equally essential and must not be dissociated, as if one could exist without the other. In its primary meaning, jihad indicates the “effort” that the Muslim must undertake to be faithful to the precepts of the Koran and so improve his “submission” (islam) to Allah; in the second, it indicates the “effort” that the Muslim must undertake to “fight in the way of Allah,” which means fighting against the infidels and spreading Islam throughout the world. Jihad is a precept of the highest importance, so much so that it is sometimes counted among the fundamental precepts of Islam, as its sixth “pillar.”

Obedience to the precept of the “holy war” explains why the history of Islam is one of unending warfare for the conquest of infidel lands. [...] In particular, all of Islamic history is dominated by the idea of the conquest of the Christian lands of Western Europe and of the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital was Constantinople. Thus, through many centuries, Islam and Christianity faced each other in terrible battles, which led on one side to the conquest of Constantinople (1453), Bulgaria, and Greece, and on the other, to the defeat of the Ottoman empire in the naval battle of Lepanto (1571).

But the conquering spirit of Islam did not die after Lepanto. The Islamic advance into Europe was definitively halted only in 1683, when Vienna was liberated from the Ottoman siege by the Christian armies under the command of John III Sobieski, the king of Poland. [...] In reality, for almost a thousand years Europe was under constant threat from Islam, which twice put its survival in serious danger.

Thus, in all of its history, Islam has shown a warlike face and a conquering spirit for the glory of Allah. [...] against the “idolaters” who must be given a choice: convert to Islam, or be killed. [...] As for the “people of the Book” (Christians, Jews, and “Sabeans”), Muslims must “fight them until their members pay tribute, one by one, humiliated” (Koran, Sura 9:29). [...]

THE REGIME OF THE “DHIMMA”

According to Muslim law, Christians, Jews, and the followers of other religions assimilated to Christianity and Judaism (the “Sabeans”) who live in a Muslim state belong to an inferior social order, in spite of their eventually belonging to the same race, language, and descent. Islamic law does not recognize the concepts of nation and citizenship, but only the umma, the one Islamic community, for which reason a Muslim, as he is part of the umma, may live in any Islamic country as he would in his homeland: he is subject to the same laws, finds the same customs, and enjoys the same consideration.

But those belonging to the “people of the Book” are subject to the dhimma, which is a kind of bilateral treaty consisting in the fact that the Islamic state authorizes the “people of the Book” to inhabit its lands, tolerates its religion, and guarantees the “protection” of its persons and goods and its defense from external enemies. Thus the “people of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab) becomes the “protected people” (Ahl al-dhimma). In exchange for this “protection,” the “people of the Book” must pay a tax (jizya) to the Islamic state, which is imposed only upon able-bodied free men, excluding women, children, and the old and infirm, and pay a tribute, called the haram, on the lands in its possession.

As for the freedom of worship, the dhimmi are prohibited only from external manifestations of worship, such as the ringing of bells, processions with the cross, solemn funerals, and the public sale of religious objects or other articles prohibited for Muslims. A Muslim man who marries a Christian or a Jew must leave her free to practice her religion and also to consume the foods permitted by her religion, even if they are forbidden for Muslims, such as pork or wine. The dhimmi may maintain or repair the churches or synagogues they already have, but, unless there is a treaty permitting them to own land, they may not build new places of worship, because to do this they would need to occupy Muslim land, which can never be ceded to anyone, having become, through Muslim conquest, land “sacred” to Allah.

In Sura 9:29 the Koran affirms that the “people of the Book,” apart from being constrained to pay the two taxes mentioned above, must be placed under certain restrictions, such as dressing in a special way and not being allowed to bear arms or ride on horseback. Furthermore, the dhimmi may not serve in the army, be functionaries of the state, be witnesses in trials between Muslims, take the daughters of Muslims as their wives, be the guardians of underage Muslims, or keep Muslim slaves. They may not inherit from Muslims, nor Muslims from them, but legacies are permitted.

The release of the dhimma came about above all through conversion of the “people of the Book” to islam; but Muslims, especially in the early centuries, did not look favorably upon such conversions, because they represented a grave loss to the treasury, which flourished in direct proportion to the number of the dhimmi, who paid both the personal tax and the land tax. The dissolution of dhimma status could also take place through failure to observe the “treaty”; that is, if the dhimmi took up arms against Muslims, refused to remain subject or to pay tribute, abducted a Muslim woman, blasphemed or offended the prophet Mohammed and the Islamic religion, or if they drew a Muslim away from Islam, converting him to their own religion. According to the gravity of each case, the penalty could be the confiscation of goods, reduction to slavery, or death – unless the person who had committed the crimes converted to Islam. In that case, all penalties were waived.

CONSEQUENCE: THE EROSION OF CHRISTIANITY

It is evident that the condition of the dhimmi, prolonged through centuries, has led slowly but inexorably to the near extinction of Christianity in Muslim lands: the condition of civil inferiority, which prevented Christians from attaining public offices, and the condition of religious inferiority, which closed them in an asphyxiated religious life and practice with no possibility of development, put the Christians to the necessity of emigrating, or, more frequently, to the temptation of converting to Islam. There was also the fact that a Christian could not marry a Muslim woman without converting to Islam, in part because her children had to be educated in that faith. Furthermore, a Christian who became Muslim could divorce very easily, whereas Christianity prohibited divorce. And apart from all this, the Christians in Muslim territories were seriously divided among themselves – and frequently even enemies – because they belonged to Churches that were different by confession (Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches) and by rite (Syro-oriental, Antiochian, Maronite, Coptic-Alexandrian, Armenian, Byzantine). Thus mutual assistance was almost impossible.

The regime of the dhimma lasted for over a millennium, even if not always and everywhere in the harsh form called “the conditions of ‘Umar,” according to which Christians not only did not have the right to construct new churches and restore existing ones, even if they fell into ruins (and, if they had the permission to construct through the good will of the Muslim governor, the churches could not be of large dimensions: the building must be more modest than all the religious buildings around it); but the largest and most beautiful churches had to be transformed into mosques. That transformation made it impossible for the church-mosques ever to be restored to the Christian community, because a place that has become a mosque cannot be put to another use.

The consequence of the dhimma regime was the “erosion” of the Christian communities and the conversion of many Christians to Islam for economic, social, and political motives: to find a better job, enjoy a better social status, participate in administrative, political, and military life, and in order not to live in a condition of perpetual discrimination.

In recent centuries, the dhimma system has undergone some modifications, in part because the ideas of citizenship and the equality of all citizens before the state have gained a foothold even in Muslim countries. Nevertheless, in practice, the traditional conception is still present. [...] The Christian, whether he wish it or not, is brought back in spite of himself to the concept of the dhimmi, even if the term no longer appears in the present-day laws of a good number of Muslim-majority countries.

To understand the present condition of these Christians, we must refer back to the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Ottoman empire of the 19th century, where the millet system was in force, the tanzimat, “regulations” of a liberal character, were introduced. [...] From the second half of the 19th century to the end of the first World War, there was a “Reawakening” (Nahda) movement in the Arab world, under Western influence, in the fields of literature, language, and thought. Many intellectuals were conquered by liberal ideas.

On another front, the Christians created strong ties with the Western powers – France and Great Britain in particular – which, after the dissolution of the Ottoman empire, obtained the protectorate of the countries that had belonged to the empire. This permitted the Christians both greater civil and religious liberty and cultural advancement. Moreover, during the first half of the 20th century various political parties of nationalist and socialist, and thus secularist, tendencies were born, such as the Ba’th, the Socialist Party of the Arab Renewal, founded at the end of the 1930’s in Damascus by Syrian professor Michel ‘Aflaz, a Greek Orthodox. In 1953 this party was united with the Syrian Popular Party, founded in 1932 by Antun Sa’ada, a Greek Orthodox from Lebanon. In brief, political regimes inspired by the liberal and secular principles of Western Europe rose up in various Islamic countries.

THE BIRTH OF RADICAL ISLAM

These events provoked a harsh reaction in the Islamic world, due to fears that the secularist ideas and “corrupt” customs of the Western world, identified with Christianity, would endanger the purity of Islam and constitute a deadly threat to its very existence. This reaction was fed by strong resentment against the Western powers, which had dared to impose their political rule upon Islam, “the greatest nation ever raised up by Allah among men” (Koran, s. 3:110), and against their customs “despised” by the “nation (umma) that urges to goodness, promotes justice, and restrains iniquity” (ibid, s. 3:104).

Thus was born “radical Islam,” which set itself up as the interpreter of the frustrations of the Muslim masses. Hasan al Banna, Sayyd Qutb, Abd al-Qadir ‘Uda in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood; Abu l-A‘li al-Mawdudi in Pakistan, and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran are its most significant witnesses, and their followers have spread from Dakar to Kuala Lumpur. [...]

THE PRESENT CONDITION OF CHRISTIANS IN THE MUSLIM WORLD

Radical Islam, which proposes that shari’a law be instituted in every Islamic state, is gaining ground in many Muslim countries, in which groups of Christians are also present. It is evident that the institution of shari’a would render the lives of Christians rather difficult, and their very existence would be constantly in danger. This is the cause of the mass emigration of Christians from Islamic countries to Western countries: Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. [...] The estimated number of Arab Christians who have emigrated from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel in the last decade hovers around three million, which is from 26.5 to 34.1 percent of the estimated number of Christians currently living in the Middle East.

Furthermore, we must not underestimate grave recent actions against Christians in some Muslim-majority countries. In Algeria, the bishop of Orano, P. Claverie (1996), seven Trappist monks from Tibehirini (1999), four White Fathers (1994), and six sisters from various religious congregations have been brutally killed by Islamic fundamentalists, although the murders were condemned by numerous Muslim authorities. In Pakistan, which numbers 3,800,000 Christians among a population of 156,000,000 (96 percent Muslim), on October 28, 2001, some Muslims entered the Church of St. Dominic in Bahawalpur and gunned down 18 Christians. On May 6, 1998, Catholic bishop John Joseph killed himself for protesting against the blasphemy law, which punishes with death anyone who offends Mohammed, even only “by speaking words, or by actions and through allusions, directly or indirectly.” For example, by saying that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, one offends Mohammed, who affirmed that Jesus is not the Son of God, but his “servant.” With this kind of law, Christians are in constant danger of death.

In Nigeria – where 13 states have introduced shari’a as state law – several thousand Christians have been the victims of incidents. Serious incidents are taking place in the south of the Philippines and in Indonesia, which, with its 212 million inhabitants, is the most populous Muslim country in the world, to the harm of the Christians of Java, East Timor, and the Moluccas. But the most tragic situation – and, unfortunately, forgotten by the Western world! – is that of Sudan, where the North is Arab and Muslim, and the South black and Christian, and in part, animist. Since the time of president G.M. Nimeiry, there has been a state of civil war between the North, which has proclaimed shari’a and intends to impose it with fierce violence on the rest of the country, and the South, which aims to preserve and defend its Christian identity. The North makes use of all of its military power – financed by oil exports to the West – to destroy Christian villages; prevent the arrival of humanitarian aid; kill the cattle, which are the means of sustenance for many South Sudanese; and carry out raids, for Christian girls in particular, who are brought to the North, raped, and sold as slaves or concubines to rich, older Sudanese men. According to the 2001 report of Amnesty International, “at the end of 2000, the civil war, which started again in 1983, had cost the lives of almost two million persons and had caused the forced evacuation of 4,500,000 more. Tens of thousands of persons have been compelled by terror to leave their homes in the upper Nile region, which is rich in oil, after aerial bombardments, mass executions, and torture.”

We must, finally, recall a fact that is often forgotten because Saudi Arabia is the largest provider of oil to the Western world, and the latter therefore has an interest in not disturbing relations with that country. In reality, in Saudi Arabia, where wahhabism is in force, not only is it impossible to build a church or even a tiny place of worship, but any act of Christian worship or any sign of Christian faith is severely prohibited with the harshest penalties. Thus about a million Christians working in Saudi Arabia are deprived by violence of any Christian practice or sign. They may participate in mass or in other Christian practices – and even then with the serious danger of losing their jobs – only on the property of the foreign oil companies. And yet, Saudi Arabia spends billions of petrodollars, not for the benefit of its poor citizens or of poor Muslims in other Muslim countries, but to construct mosques and madrasas in Europe and to finance the imams of the mosques in all the Western countries. We recall that the Roman mosque of Monte Antenne, constructed on land donated by the Italian government, was principally financed by Saudi Arabia and was built to be the largest mosque in Europe, in the very heart of Christianity.

A link to the complete article, in Italian, on the website of "La Civiltà Cattolica": http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/Quaderni/2003/3680/Articolo De Rosa.html

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