A survey in al-Akhbar newspaper asked Lebanese Sunnis, Shias, Druzes, and Christians if they supported “action for the overthrow of the Zionist regime”. The results show 77.4% for Lebanese Christians, the lowest out of all the sample groups except the Druze (65.9%). A classmate who also saw this survey told me she was surprised that Lebanese Christians were so militantly anti-Israel/Zionist.

Having recently mentioned historic tensions between Jews and Middle Eastern Christians (in pre-twentieth century times), I thought it might be interesting to examine something more recent. Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese Christians were instrumental in the formulation of Arab nationalism, and pan-Syrian nationalism. The latter ideology is less popular, and its chief, if not only, exponent has been the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded by the Greek Orthodox Lebanese activist Antun Saadah. This movement, now allied with Hezb Allah and the Free Patriotic Movement (and previously with Syria) in Lebanon, and a member of the ruling coalition in Syria (the so-called National Progressive Front, a grouping of several co-opted political parties with agendas vaguely similar to the Ba`th’s, including the Communist parties), calls for the formation of “greater Syrian” nation-state encompassing the states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Cyprus, Israel/Palestine, and parts of Iraq (as well as the parts of Turkey south of the Taurus Mountains, particularly Hatay Province, which was once a part of Syria, and the Sinai). Initially its membership was mainly Orthodox.* Many Greek Orthodox intellectuals, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian, were members of the SSNP during their youths. Many of them abandoned it for Arab nationalism later on. Over time the SSNP moved away from seeing Syria as a lone, non-Arab nation and more of a building block towards a wider Arab unity. Arab nationalism has proved more successful, though its influence has declined in the face of the return to sectarianism and political Islam. Both ideologies rejected the legitimacy of the State of Israel; as a Jewish state, it had no place in a region that was seen as being an integral part of the Syrian and Arab nations. Both movements carried their share of anti-Semites and did not differ on their stances towards Palestine or Zionism.

From 1979 to 1981, a survey was taken of Arab students studying in the United States at Northeastern University. “Islam, Pan-Arabism and Palestine: An Attitudinal Survey” aimed to determine to what extent Arab students identified along the lines of Arab nationalism, religion, sect, etc. 40% of the respondents were Christian, and the study compared Muslim and Christian attitudes towards Palestine and acceptance of Israel. The study controlled for the degree of religious conviction (asking participants to classify themselves as “religious” (practicing) or “nonreligious” (not practicing). The study “found that 35.8 percent of the Muslim Arab aggregate and 24.6 percent of the Christian Arab aggregate were willing to recognize Israel; 35.8 percent of the religious Muslims and 35.7 percent of the nonreligious Muslims were willing to recognize Israel; 36. 8 percent of the religious Christians and 13 percent of the nonreligious Christians were willing to recognize Israel.”

Further, “[i]nformation derived from the written survey and many follow-up interviews indicated that most of the nonreligious Christians were Arab or Syrian nationalists from Lebanon, opposed to the Maronite-dominated phalangist organization and its connections with Israel.” This assessment ties into a long rivalry between the Greek Orthodox and the Maronites, having its origins in a variety of factors especially the fact that the Maronites were given more power under Ottoman rule whilst the Orthodox Arabs had very little control over their own millet (which was controlled by Greeks, as the “Orthodox” millet was comprised of all non-Armenian Eastern Orthodox Christians) and were often under the control of the Maronites in Lebanon. On the issue of willingness to use force against Israel, as is mentioned in the al-Akhbar survey, the study offers more insights. 

On the whole, Muslim Arabs were somewhat more willing to use military means against Israel than were their Christian Arab counterparts (77 percent to 71 percent). Within the Muslim aggregate, the nonreligious were more inclined to do so than were their religious counterparts (82.8 percent as compared to 75.8%). The most interesting finding was the comparison within the Christian aggregate. Nonreligious Christians were significantly more inclined than their religious counterparts to use military means (91.7 percent as compared to 48.5 percent) and, once again, were by far the most militant group of the four.**

So this is not an especially new phenomenon. A few other pieces of media on this topic are also interesting. A MEMRI report from 2002 discusses the following:

Against the backdrop of the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, several Arab Christian clergymen – including some heads of various churches – condemned Christians in the West, particularly those in the U.S., as well as Jews and Israel. The following is a review of recent statements made by Arab Christian clergy [.]

The aim is to discredit the Palestinian church leadership and make Palestinians look bad (not that with leaders like they have they need much help). The quotations the report provides are typical of the attitudes that many Middle Eastern Christians hold towards Western supporters of Israel. It quotes Elias Awwad (a Greek Orthodox leader) as saying that

“[t]he Zionist movement controls European and American public opinion… For this reason, we witness a weakness in the defense of the Christian holy sites on the part of America and the European countries… These people [Western Christians] deal first of all with their interests, not their religion… In my view, they are not Christians, because they do not act according to the precepts of the New Testament…”

The head of the Roman Catholic Church (or Latin Church) in Palestine, Manuel Musalem, is quoted as stating that

I, the Christian Palestinian, say in all rage and daring to the Christians of the world: You are loathsome! You are contemptible! You are cowards! – because you cannot carry the message of Jesus in your hearts. The message of Jesus is one of love, sacrifice, mercy, life, and manhood, and these Christians of the world have no mercy, no compassion, no manliness, no sacrifice. I do not mean only towards us, but even towards the Jews, as not only do the Jews kill us – we also kill them, because we are in a war of self-defense…””We – and I say this brutally, because he who remains silent is Satan – are facing the filthy Christians of the West… We hear that the American Congress is demanding that Bush unleash Israel to slaughter the Palestinians. What kind of Christian is this?! This is not Christianity; it is not even paganism. This is Christianity of the jungle. Our New Testament is not their New Testament, our Jesus is not their Jesus, our [Church of the] Nativity is not their [Church of the] Nativity, and our peace is not their peace. I will say still more: Our God is not their God…

And that

“The Western Christian, without love, tolerance, truth, and justice in his heart, must cast away his New Testament. The New Testament and Christianity are innocent of that [Western Christian]. If I were the head of the church where the American president Bush worships, and he came to pray, I would bar him from entering, because he has renounced the church’s moral standards.”

The emphasis on the New Testament is characteristic of Middle Eastern Church culture. Some Middle Eastern churches do not use the Old Testament at all, claiming that it has been rendered irrelevant by the teachings of Christ. There are obvious political reasons for this as well; it is a rejection of things Jewish. Some Christian schools in Syria, Lebanon, and the Occupied Territories do not teach their students the Old Testament for this reason. (This does not mean that the Old Testament goes entirely unread or ignored, but it is generally de-emphasized.)

On the linguistic side, the MEMRI report refers to officials of the Arab Greek Orthodox Patriarchates (Antioch and Jerusalem) as being of the “Roman Orthodox Church”. This translation should sound funny, especially to Arabic speakers. The name for the (Antiochian) Greek Orthodox Church is Arabic is للروم الأرثوذكس (al-rum al-urthoodhoks). The name for the Church of Greece (the Greek Orthodox Church) is الكنيسة الأرثوذكسية اليوناني (al-kanisat urthodhoksiyyat al-iunaani). Finally, the name for the Roman Catholic Christianity — or the Latin Christianity as it is called in the Middle East (for reasons which will be explained shortly) is المسيحية الكاثوليكية (almessihiyyat al-kathulikiyya) and the main Latin Rite church in the Middle East is that of Jerusalem (كنيسة اللاتين في القدس; or kanisat al-latiniyya fi-l-quds; the Latin Church in Jerusalem), most other Catholics in the Arab world are Eastern Rite, either Byzantine (Melkite), Maronite, Syriac, or the like.

This is important to understand because, while al-rum al-urthoodhoks sounds like “Roman Orthodox”, rum does not mean “Roman” in the sense that most Westerners think of it. In many dialects of Arabic, rum simply means “Christian”; in Algerian Arabic, it was used to refer to French settlers. Through time it has differed. It originally referred to the Byzantines, who called themselves Romans and saw themselves as successors to the Roman Empire, but spoke Greek, not Latin. In Arabic and Turkish, what is now known as Anatolia was called Rum, because it was controlled by the Byzantines. The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum (سلاجقة الروم saaljuqat al-rum) covered most of central Anatolia. At times it was used to refer to Westerners generally, solely to Greeks/Byzantines (generally speaking after the Crusades when Western Christians, notably the Franks (الإفرنج ifranj) who made up a large portion of the Crusaders setting up shop in the Levant and who were mostly Catholic). The proper terminology to use for the “Roman Orthodox” fellows in the report above would be Greek Orthodox (or perhaps Byzantine Orthodox), as this is what the rum is really referring to.

Bernard Lewis discusses the term generally in The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (1998) noting that the term Rum was used to refer to most of what is now the Republic of Turkey until the abolition of the caliphate in 1923 and that for quite sometime rum refered to the whole of the Orthodox millet in the Ottoman Empire.

The word used by the Turks, and more generally by Muslims in the Middle East, to designate the Greeks is Rum. But Rum doesn’t mean Greeks; Rum means Romans, and the use of the name, first by the Greeks themselves and then by their new Muslim masters, echoes their last memory of political sovereignty and greatness — the Byzantine Empire. “Byzantine” is of course a term of modern scholarship. The Byzantines never called themselves Byzantines [. . .] For rulers and people, the state that was finally extinguished in 1453 was the Roman Empire. [. . .] For the Ottomans, the name Rum denoted the East Roman Empire which they had conquered and superseded — the empire in which Greek was the official language and Greek Orthodoxy was the established church. Because of this, under Ottoman rule, the Rum ranked first among the non-Muslim communities (millet). Westerners, haunted by the memories of a more ancient past, called that community Greek or later, in a neoclassical mood, Hellenic; but for both Christians and Muslims in the empire it was still Roman and in a sense even imperial, including Orthodox Serbs, Bulgars, Albanians, and Arabs as well as ethnic Greeks. The rising nationalist movements among the Balkan peoples in the nineteenth century fought a battle on two fronts, seeking at the same time to overthrow both the ascendancy of the ethnic Greeks within their church and the domination of the Ottoman Turks over their homelands.***

While this is a good starting point, it is far too general and does not offer enough insight into the modern context. The modern Arabic terminology for Greece is not Rum, but اليونان (al-iunaan). The modern Arabic word for Anatolia is not Rum either, but الأناضول (al-anaadul). Rum is used to refer to Frenchmen in the Maghreb. It is less popular in itself nowadays, and is still used for “Roman” (in the Byzantine sense, not the Western, Catullus, Cicero, Caesar sense; that Roman is لرومانية al-rumaniyya) at times elsewhere (such as this poem titled `uluj al-rum or “the Uncouth Roman/Crusader”, referring to Americans). Moving away from the generalism of Lewis a better explanation is offered by Masters (2001):

Nonetheless, the spiritual link of Syria’s Orthodox Christians to Constantinople, as well as their continued use of Greek as their language of liturgy, created linguistic confusion as to their ethnic identity for Europeans and Ottoman officials alike. This was in no small part due to the name they chose to call themselves.The Orthodox Christian Arabs of Syria were called Melkites (malakiyyun, “the king’s men”) in the early centuries of Arab rule. It was reputedly a term of derision imposed by the Muslims on those Christians who remained true to the faith of the Byzantine emperors. But over time, those same Christians took up the name as a badge of pride. By the Ottoman conquest, however, the term seems to have dropped out of common usage by either the community or the Muslim authorities. Instead, these Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians called themselves simply the Rum, a collective noun which could mean alternatively “Byzantines,” “Anatolians,” “Greeks,” or “Orthodox Christians” in Ottoman Turkish, while in Syrian Arabic, Rum could also mean “Ottomans,” in addition to the other possible meanings. These myriad lexical possibilities provided endless opportunities for ethnic misidentification by all those who were outside the community. The Catholic faction among the Rum in Syria in the eighteenth century revived the name Melkite, in an attempt to place distance between themselves and the Orthodox of the see of Constantinople. The term was slow to catch on in the popular imagination of the laity in Syria, however. ORthodox Arab chroniclers of the eighteenth century continued to label their own faction the Rum and the other “Catholics” (ta`ifa kathulikiyya) or more commonly “those who follow the religion of the Franks.” Catholic authors appropriated the collective Rum for themselves and labeled their opponents simply “heretics” (al-aratiqa).****

The Catholic faction mentioned here are the Melkite Catholics or Greek (Byzantine) Catholics (كنيسة الروم الكاثوليك kanisat al-rum al-kathulik) who entered unia with Rome in 18th and 19th centuries, coming mostly from Orthodox families.

* [ I have seen estimates from as late as the 1960’s showing that its membership was over 50% Orthodox, later on declining to the 40% range, a massive percentage considering that in Lebanon the Orthodox are less than 10% of the population, but still the second largest Christian sect. ]

** [ From “Introduction” in, Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism: The Continuing Debate. Farah, Tawfic E. (Ed.). Boulder: Westview Press, 1987. pgs. 7-8. ]

*** [ Lewis, Bernard. The Multiple Identities of the Middle East. New York: Stockton Books, 1998. pg. 12. ]

**** [ Masters, Bruce. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. pgs. 49-50. ]


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