Arabs in Palestine and Jordan predate Christianity and Islam

The 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.

To 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.

Antonius 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.”

“Many 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 Europe.

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 religion.

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.