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‘A Common Word’ in the News

Arabs in Palestine and Jordan predate Christianity and Islam

visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Jordan and Palestine is a perfect
opportunity to review and stress the role of Christian Arabs in the
peace process and their strong support for peace with justice.

begin with, it is important for all to know that Arabs have been in
Palestine and Jordan before the arrival of Islam and Christianity.
References to the word “Arab” and its derivatives are mentioned
hundreds of times in the Old and New Testaments. The biblical figure of
Job is said to be Arab; Arabs were among the many attending the sermon
on the Day of Pentecost by St. Peter, and were among the 3,000 who then
became Christians. Acts II refers to Arabs having heard the sermon in
their own tongue.

Arab Christians have, therefore, been an integral part of
Palestine and the Middle East from the earliest days of the Church. The
role of Arab Christians in modern Arab nationalism was best reflected
in George Habib Antonius’ book The Arab Awakening. Antonius
(1891-1941) was one of the first historians of Arab nationalism. Born
of Lebanese-Egyptian parentage and a Christian (Greek Orthodox) Arab,
he served in the British Mandate of Palestine.

His 1938 book was written as Palestine was slipping from Arab control.

traced Arab nationalism to the reign of Mehmet Ali Pasha in Egypt. He
argued that Arab nationalism was a product of the West, especially of
Protestant missionaries from Britain and the United States. He saw the
role of the American University of Beirut (originally the Syrian
Protestant College) as central to this development.

In welcoming the pope at the King Hussein Mosque in Amman on
Saturday, Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad gave special reference to Arab
Christians: “Christians were in Jordan 600 years before Muslims.
Indeed, Jordanian Christians are perhaps the oldest Christian community
in the world, and the majority have always been Orthodox, adhering to
the Orthodox patriarchate of Jerusalem in the Holy Land, which, as Your
Holiness knows better than I, is the church of St. James, and was
founded during Jesus’ own lifetime.”

of them are descended from the ancient Arab tribes of al Ghassaneh and
al Khamin, and they have, throughout history, shared the fate and
struggles of their fellow Muslim tribesman.

“Indeed, in 630, during the prophet’s own lifetime, they joined
the prophet’s own army, led by his adopted son, Zeid Ben Hartheh and
his cousin Jaafar Ben Abi Taleh and fought against the Byzantine army
of their fellow orthodox, at the battle of Mu’ta.

“It is because of this battle, that they earned their tribal
name al Azezzat, which means ‘the reinforcements,’ and Latin Patriarch
Fouad Twal himself comes from these tribes.

“Then, in 1099, they were slaughtered by Catholic crusaders during the fall of Jerusalem, alongside their Muslim comrades.”

Prince Ghazi continued: “Later from 1916 to 1918, during the
Great Arab revolt, they fought against Muslim Turks, alongside Muslim
Arab comrades. They thereafter languished for a few decades, along with
their Muslim fellows, under a Protestant colonial mandate, and in the
Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967, and 1968, they fought with their Arab
Muslim comrades against Jewish opponents.”

STATISTICS REGARDING Arab Christians vary. Wikipedia states
that Christians today make up 9.2 per cent of the population of the
Near East. In Lebanon, they now number around 39 per cent, in Syria
from 10 to 15 per cent. In Palestine before the creation of Israel,
estimates range up to as much as 40 per cent, but mass emigration has
slashed the number at present to 3.8 per cent.

In Israel, Arab Christians constitute 2.1 per cent (or roughly
10 per cent of the Arab population). In Egypt, they constitute between
9 and 16 per cent of the population (the government figures put them at
6 per cent).

Around two-thirds of North and South American and Australian
Arabs are Christian, particularly from Lebanon, but also from Palestine
and Syria. The current president of El Salvador Antonio Saca comes from
well-known Christian Palestinian ancestry; his family emigrated from
Bethlehem in the early 20th century.

Although the number of Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem and
the occupied territories has dwindled over the years, they are still a
key component of the Palestinian and Arab peoples of the region.
Activists blame violence, occupation and uncertainty, coupled with work
(or lack thereof) and emigration opportunities as the main reason for
the flight of Christian Palestinians to the Americas, Australia and

While the world looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict from an
Arab-Israeli point of view, or a Jewish-Islamic one, the role and
contribution of Arab Christians cannot and need not be ignored.

Unlike followers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, Christians
have no religious attachment to physical locations. Scholars refer to
the response of Jesus to the Samaritan woman’s question about whether
to worship in Jerusalem or in the Sumerian mountains. Jesus replied to
her: “Neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and
those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Christian Arabs, however, believe that a lasting resolution to
the Arab-Israeli conflict must both address the national aspirations of
the Palestinians (of which they are part) and provide for the spiritual
needs of the faithful, including Christians.

In this regard, Palestinian Christians are perhaps angriest
with a radical but effective group of Christians who try to give
biblical support and legitimacy to the Israeli aggression against
Palestinians. An entire, well-endowed industry has cropped up in the
West, attempting to hijack the Christian theological debate in favour
of what is now referred to as Christian Zionism.

Right-wing governments in Israel and the US seem to be natural
feeding grounds for these fundamentalists. Palestinian Christians have
forcefully rejected this position, and some established evangelical
voices have also come up to debunk these myths and insist on the need
for justice as an integral part of any peaceful resolution in the
region. These were exactly the wrong usages of religion that the pope
referred to in Jordan when he spoke against the “ideologization” of


The visit of the pontiff has stirred plenty of
interest in the contributions Christians can make to the peace process.
Israel’s attempts to ban the Aida refugees in Bethlehem from erecting
the stand for the visiting Pope by the 28-foot-high wall is perhaps the
most glaring worry the Israeli occupiers have about the visit of the
pontiff. They fear precisely what Arab Christians insist on: that a
truly Christian position on the Israeli-Arab conflict will not be
merely satisfied with a call for peace, but will necessarily also
include a call for justice for Palestinians.

“Peace and justice” is the message of people of faith from the entire world, and is certainly the focus for Arab Christians.

The writer is director of media NGO Community Media Network
in Jordan and Palestine. He comes from a Palestinian Christian family
that traces its ancestry in Jerusalem 600 years. An earlier version of
this article appeared in
The Jordan Times.