Sunday, Apr 27, 2003
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By Atul Aneja
Christian minorities in the Arab world in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon had played an influential role in shaping Arab nationalism, the last major political and intellectual upheaval that is now rapidly losing ground to more radical and sectarian trends. As a result, Arab nationalism became a vehicle that helped to peacefully integrate minority Christian and majority Muslim Arab communities in the region.
For instance, in Iraq, Michel Aflaq a Christian, founded the Baath party, which at one time played a key role in expressing Iraqi nationalism. Consequently, Christian political and religious leaders developed close ties with the Baathist regime, allowing Iraqi Christian communities of Chaldeans, Assyrians and Armenians to occupy a prominent political and social space in the country.
Not surprisingly, the Iraqi Christians have continued to espouse nationalist aspirations and have opposed the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Assyrian Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, Monsignor Ignace VIII, Abdel Ahad, recently said, "Christians of Iraq are foremost in solidarity with their Muslim compatriots. Like all Iraqis who are proud and attached to their land, they will defend their country." Mr. Abdel Ahad said that he did not see Anglo-American invasion as a war of liberation, but an attempt to colonise Iraq. Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian religious hierarchies have adopted a similar stance to the invasion.
After the war, Christian communities, especially in Iraq, are bracing themselves for facing difficult questions. What should be their response, in case Iraqi nationalism gets subordinated to a sectarian Sunni-Shia struggle for power? What happens if Iraq became a Shia Islamic State? Will radical Islam emerge as the dominant ideology in West Asia? Iraqi Christians are also apprehensive that powerful right-wing forces in the United States could seek to foster them as "Christian islands" among majority Muslim populations in the region. Would that trigger a backlash that could threaten their security? Will Christians, as in the days of the Ottoman empire, be tolerated, but stripped of political rights? For Iraqi Christians, signals emerging from Washington have not been soothing so far. Foisting of leaders such as Ahmad Chalabi, it is feared, would only result in a Iraqi backlash cast in extremist Islamic religious overtones. Already, with political turbulence affecting Iraq for nearly two decade, Christians have steadily migrated from the country. From a population of two million in the 1980s, only around 800,000 Christians reside in Iraq today.
Aware of the negative consequences of a changing West Asian political and intellectual order on Christians, the Vatican had been a staunch opponent of the war in Iraq. It is now expected to exert itself to prevent any anti-Christian backlash in the region.
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