The Abbasids chose Baghdad for headquarters, though for a short period of time al-
Mutawakkil (847-861) transferred his his seat back from Iraq to Damascus (885). As the
Melkites were few in numbers in Mesopotamia it was the Nestorians and the
Jacobites who under Abbasid rule shared more strongly in the literary life of the country
and brought greater contributions.The beginning of the Abbasid caliphate until the reign
of al-Mutawakkil (847-861) marked the zenith of the Nestorian Church from mid 8th
century to mid 9th century. This prodigious success was made possible by the great
number of zealous and educated monks, formed by the many schools existing at the
time. In Baghdad itself, there were apparently many important monasteries, groups of
professors, and students. There were, for example, the school of Deir Kalilisu and Deir
Mar Fatyun and the school of Karh.
In the last two schools medicine and philosophy were taught along with the sacred
disciplines. Christian physicians and especially scribes exerted some kind of tutelage
within the Nestorian Church, and tried their best to obtain for their community a more
benevolent legislation from Muslim rulers. Though the Abbasids showed tolerance
towards the other religious, non-Muslim groups, still their tolerance was displayed mostly
vis-a-vis some of their coreligionists who lived on the margins of traditional Islam.
The Christians, especially the Melkites who lived in the eastern provinces of the empire,
had much to endure. Before, al-Mutawakkil Abu Gafar al-Mansur (754-775) imposed
many vexing measures upon the Christians. In 756, he forbade Christians to build new
churches, to display the cross in public, or to speak about religions with Muslims. In 757,
he imposed taxes on monks, even on those who lived as hermits, and he used Jews to
strip sacristies for the treasury. In 759, he removed all Christians from positions in the
treasury. In 766 he had the crosses on top of the churches brought down, forbade every
nocturnal liturgical celebration and forbade the study of any language other than Arabic.
In 722, he required both Jews and Christians to exhibit an external sign to distinguish
them from other believers. Abu Gafar al-Mansur also put in prison, for different
reasons, the Melkite Patriarch Theodoret, the Patriarch Georges, and the Nestorian
Catholicos James. Al-Mahdi (775-785) intensified the persecution and had all the
churches built since the Arab conquest destroyed. The Christian tribes of Banu Tanuh,
which counted 5000 fighters, were forced to embrace Islam. Angered by the defeats he
incurred at the hands of the Byzantines, al-Mahdi sent troops to Homs in Syria, to have
all the Christians abjure their faith. However, many of these laws were not enforced. For
example, when Umar II tried to dismiss all dhimmis from government services, such
confusion resulted that the order was ignored.
The Barmakid viziers, of Turkish origin, who were the strong arm of the Abbasid caliphs,
seem to have manifested a certain measure of benevolence towards ahl-al-Dhimmi (the
tributaries) and especially towards the Christians. It is only at the end of the rule of
Harun al-Rahid (786-809), i.e., after the disgrace of the Barmakids, that some measures
were taken against the Christians. Harun al-Rashid re-enacted some of the anti-Christian
and anti-Jewish measures introduced by Umar II (717-720). In 807, he ordered all
churches erected since the Muslim conquest demolished. He also decreed that members
of tolerated sects should wear a prescribed garb. But evidently much of this legislation
was not enforced. Under his son al-Ma'mun (813-833) there was in 814 a general
persecution in Syria and in Palestine. Many Christians and church dignitaries escaped into
Cyprus and into Byzantine territories. Conditions under al-Watheq (842-847) did not
improve and were sad indeed for the Christians. Under al-Mutawwakil (847-861) there
was intensification of discontent on the part of Christians due to harsh conditions
imposed on them. In 850 and 854 al-Mutawwakil revived the discriminatroy legislation
and supplemented it by new features, which were the most stringent ever issued against
the minorities. Christians and Jews were enjoined to affix wooden images of devils to
their houses, level their graves even with the ground, wear outer garments of yellow
colour, and ride only on mules and asses with wooden saddles marked by two
pomegranates-like balls on the cantle. Basing their contention on a Qur'anic charge that
the Jews and the Christians had corrupted the text of their scriptures (Surs. 2:70; 5:16-
18), the contemporary jurists ruled that no testimony of a Jew or Christian was
admissible against a Muslim.
Legally speaking, the law put the male dhimmi below the male Muslim in nearly every
way. It protected his life and property but did not accept his evidence. Eight acts put the
dhimmi outside the law: conspiring to fight the Muslims, copulation with a Muslim
woman, an attempt to marry one, an attempt to turn Muslim from his religion, robbery of
a Muslim on the highway, acting as a spy or a guide to unbelievers, or the killing of a
Muslim. However, despite these stringent laws, the social status of Christians was not
that bleak. The consequences of this anti-Christian legislation were mitigated to a certain
degree by the number and influence of some Christians in prestigious and vital
professions, such as in medicine and high positions of government; e.g., Abu l-Hasan
Sa'id ibn Amr-ibn-Sangala, who occupied the position of secretary under the Caliph al-
Radi (934-40), and who was as well appointed as special secretary for the two sons of
the Caliph in 935, and also Minister of Expenditure, and who rendered inestimable
services to the Christians. Because Islam prohibits the practice of usury to Muslims,
Christians exercised a certain monopoly on the trades of goldsmith, jeweller, and money-
lender. Consequently, many Christians were rich and this stirred further feelings of
jealousy against them. On the whole, relations between Muslims and Christians were
peaceful and unfair laws were not always enforced.
However, the Christians could not help but feel and endure the stigma of inferiority. Even
the literature of Islamo-Christian controversy should not mislead us on their true
condition in the land of Islam. The tolerance they enjoyed was not the result of a state
policy consistently upheld by all the caliphs. On the part of the caliphs, it was mostly
motivated by their concern to protect and advance the sciences and the arts. The
Islamisation of Syria and Iraq and other lands no doubt facilitated Arabisation. After the
Arab military victory, there was the conquest and victory of Islam as a religion when
many Christians in Syria and other lands converted to Islam to escape their oppressive
and humiliating conditions. Finally there was the linguistic victory as Arabic supplanted
Greek and Syriac.
Addendum: Persecution of the Coptic Church
The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt
Perhaps the greatest glory of the Coptic Church is its Cross. Copts take pride in the
persecution they have sustained as early as May 8, 68 A.D., when their Patron Saint Mark
was slain on Easter Monday after being dragged from his feet by Roman soldiers all over
Alexandria's streets and alleys. The Copts have been persecuted by almost every ruler of
Egypt. Their Clergymen have been tortured and exiled even by their Christian brothers
after the schism of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. and until the Arab's conquest of Egypt in 641
A.D. To emphasise their pride in their cross, Copts adopted a calendar, called the
Calendar of the Martyrs, which begins its era on August 29, 284 A.D., in commemoration
of those who died for their faith during the rule of Diocletian the Roman Emperor. This
calendar is still in use all over Egypt by farmers to keep track of the various agricultural
seasons and in the Coptic Church Lectionary.
For the four centuries that followed the Arab's conquest of Egypt, the Coptic Church
generally flourished and Egypt remained basically Christian. This is due to a large extent
to the fortunate position that the Copts enjoyed, for the Prophet of Islam, who had an
Egyptian wife (the only one of his wives to bear a child), preached especial kindness
towards Copts: "When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your
proteges and kith and kin". Copts, thus, were allowed to freely practice their religion and
were to a large degree autonomous, provided they continued to pay a special tax, called
"Gezya", that qualifies them as "Ahl Zemma" proteges (protected). Individuals who
cannot afford to pay this tax were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or
losing their civil right to be "protected", which in some instances meant being killed.
Copts, despite additional sumptuary laws that were imposed on them in 750-868 A.D.
and 905-935 A.D. under the Abbasid Dynasties, prospered and their Church enjoyed one
of its most peaceful era. Surviving literature from monastic centers, dating back from the
8th to the 11th century, shows no drastic break in the activities of Coptic craftsmen, such
as weavers, leather-binders, painters, and wood-workers. Throughout that period, the
Coptic language remained the language of the land, and it was not until the second half
of the 11th century that the first bi-lingual Coptic-Arabic liturgical manuscripts started to
appear. One of the first complete Arabic texts is the 13th century text by Awlaad El-Assal
(children of the Honey Maker), in which the laws, cultural norms and traditions of the
Copts at this pivotal time, 500 years after the Islamic conquest of Egypt were detailed.
The adoption of the Arabic language as the language used in Egyptians' every-day's life
was so slow that even in the 15th century al-Makrizi implied that the Coptic Language
was still largely in use. Up to this day, the Coptic Language continues to be the liturgical
language of the Church.
The Christian face of Egypt started to change by the beginning of the second millennium
A.D., when Copts, in addition to the "Gezya" tax, suffered from specific disabilities, some
of which were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For example, there
were restrictions on repairing old Churches and building new ones, on testifying in court,
on public behaviour, on adoption, on inheritance, on public religious activities, and on
dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt
changed from a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country and the
Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in some expectation of Muslim
hostility, which periodically flared into violence. It is remarkable that the well-being of
Copts was more or less related to the well-being of their rulers. In particular, the Copts
suffered most in those periods when Arab dynasties were at their low.
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability
and tolerance of Muhammad Ali's dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded
by the state as an administrative unit and, by 1855 A.D., the main mark of Copts'
inferiority, the "Gezya" tax was lifted, and shortly thereafter Copts started to serve in the
Egyptian army. The 1919 A.D. revolution in Egypt, the first grassroots display of Egyptian
identity in centuries, stands as a witness to the homogeneity of Egypt's modern society
with both its Muslim and Coptic sects. Today, this homogeneity is what keeps the
Egyptian society united against the religious intolerance of extremist groups, who
occasionally subject the Copts to persecution and terror. Modern day martyrs, like Father
Marcos Khalil, serve as reminders of the miracle of Coptic survival.
Despite persecution, the Coptic Church as a religious institution has never been
controlled or allowed itself to control the governments in Egypt. This long-held position of
the Church concerning the separation between State and Religion stems from the words
of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, when he asked his followers to submit to their rulers:
‘‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are
God's.'' [Mathew 22:21]. The Coptic Church has never forcefully resisted authorities or
invaders and was never allied with any powers, for the words of the Lord Jesus Christ are
clear: ‘‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.''
(Mathew 26:52). The miraculous survival of the Coptic Church till this day and age is a
living proof of the validity and wisdom of these teachings.
Autonomous government and birth of sectarian power sharing following the
1860 civil war.
The origin of the Christian hold of power in Lebanon can be dated back to 1861. In 1861
foreign powers imposed what is known as the "Reglement Organique" in which the
Ottoman government designated Mount Lebanon as an autonomous Ottoman province to
be ruled by a non-Lebanese Ottoman Christian governor, selected by the Sultan, and
approved by the great powers Of Europe. The autonomous province was to become a
special Ottoman governornate or mutasarrifiyya. A new 12-member council whose seats
were allocated on a sectarian basis aided the governor. Aziz Abu Hamad said that this
system increased the Maronites power at the expense of the Druze and other sects.
In the opinion of one historian, Aziz Abu Hamad, Christians from 1861 were able to be
autonomous during the Ottoman rule. This was very crucial for the development of their
nationalism and their aim of forming a Christian state. Many Maronites conceived the
mutasarrifiyya as the basis for an independent Lebanon that would be a Christian bastion
and an out-post of Western Europe in the Middle East.
The Christian Druze confrontation spilled into the beginning of the twentieth century. For
instance, in September 1903, Christian and Muslim clashes resulted in the death of 7
Christians and 15 Muslims. An estimated 20,000 Christians, mainly Maronites, took
refuge in the mountains until sectarian tempers cooled.
The French mandate and the increase of the Christian political influence
Christian power in Lebanon increased in September 1920 with the establishment of the
state of Lebanon under the French mandate. The creation of Grand Liban (Greater
Lebanon) by general Gouraud, High Commissioner for Syria and Lebanon, was the first
step taken by France to fulfil its pledges to its traditional Lebanese Christians, especially
the Maronites for the establishment of a Christian state. The establishment of an
independent Christian state, with extended borders, and under French protection was the
realisation of a centuries old dream of Christians especially the Maronites.
For the Muslims in Syria and the areas newly attached to Lebanon (Akkar, Tripoli, Beirut,
Bekaa and the South), however, it was the final blow in a series of demoralising events
which had began six weeks earlier, with the defeat of the Arab army at Maisalun, and the
subsequent occupation of Damascus by the French and the expulsion of Faisal the Syrian
king from Syria.
The Lebanese Muslims were disappointed about not being able to unite with the Muslim
dominated Syria. Christians welcomed the French mandate power that sided with them.
The governance system, which the French designed for Lebanon, favoured Christians
over Muslims. The establishment of a pro Christian system strengthened the status of the
Christians in Lebanon and in the Middle East.
Abbot Paul Naaman adjudged the establishment of the republic of Greater Lebanon to the
efforts of the Maronite Church, and considered it as the Church's greatest
accomplishment. Following the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920, the relations
between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon deteriorated rapidly; Muslims attacked
Christian villages in Lebanon. The creation of Greater Lebanon set a time bomb by
forcing Muslims, whose allegiance was to Syria and to the Arab nation, to be citizens of
the new state.
Eyal Zisser explained that the Christian population in Lebanon dropped from 85 per cent
to 54 per cent once the new areas were added to the new region of Lebanon's Mountain.
The creation of Greater Lebanon would contribute to their fall 70 years later, with the
addition of those Muslim populated areas.
Sami Ofeish elaborated that the sectarian system was at work as early as 1920s:
Seats in the first parliament, initiated in 1926s were allocated on a sectarian basis. The
sectarian allocation of top state offices also started to take shape during this period,
although the Christian elite predominantly filled them.
The 1943 pact
It is very important to look carefully at the structure of the Lebanese political sectarian
regime. That structure has ensured Christian political dominance until 1990. The
sectarian system was reinforced with the declaration of independence in 1943 following
the collapse of the French mandate. President Bishara Al-Khouri (a Christian) and Prime
minister Riad Soleh (a Muslim) joined in an unwritten agreement, which was called the
The National Pact set a new political system for Lebanon. It resolved to preserve the
position of the presidency for the Maronites, the premiership for the Sunnis, and the
parliament speakership for the Shiites. Moreover, the Pact agreed to distribute
parliamentary seats, cabinet posts, and administrative and army positions at all levels on
a sectarian basis. Sami Ofeish said that the National Pact favoured Christians and in
particular the Maronite elite.
The 1943 Pact cemented the Christian political power, which was given to them in the
1920s by the French Mandate. It enabled Christians to rule Muslims for the next 32 years
until it started to crack in 1975. Certainly, Christians enjoyed overwhelming control of the
political system, despite the allocation of the next two top political office positions to
Similarly Mark Tomass noted that the Christians acquired the lion's share of sectarian
This pervasive sectarianism was reflected in the constitution of 1943 drawn under the
French Mandate (1920-1945). It allocated specific government posts to sect leaders.
Because of their greatest and specific ties to France, Maronite-Christians acquired the lion's
share of posts.
All the above may give the indication that the Christians were given the edge over the
Muslims, and, therefore, they dominated the country until the start of civil war.
Chapter 2: Christians maintained hold on power from 1943-1975
This chapter argues that the Christians managed to hold on to power despite the Muslims
attempt to demand a far more share of power from the Christians.
According to Brenda Seaver, the Lebanese political situation between 1943-1975 endured
periods of severe internal strain. The major causes of this strain were the 1958 civil war,
the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the influx of Palestinian refugees and the PLO's arrival in
Lebanon. These above-mentioned events would serve as a catalyst for the civil war of
1975 and the fall of the 1943 political system in 1990.
The establishment of the new state of Israel and its effects on Christians and
Muslims in Lebanon
The creation of Israel in 1948 greatly affected the cordial harmony between the Lebanese
Christians and Muslims. The reason for this is that some Christian leaders publicly met
with Israel. However, Muslims saw Israel as the main enemy to the Arab world and that
any cooperation with it would be considered treason.
Patriarch Antoine Arida was the first Christian leader to sign a Zionist-Maronite treaty of
1946. The treaty laid down the guidelines for the establishment of close ties and co-
operation between the Maronites in Lebanon and the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, on the
basis of mutual recognition of rights and national desires. The Christians made no
secret of the fact that they believed that they could benefit from the ties and experience
of the Jewish Yishuv.
Eyal Zisser explained the reason for the Maronites seeking ties with Israel:
The only thing the Maronites wanted was to recruit discreetly Israel support for their
struggles in the Lebanese domestic arena, keeping these connections as tightly under
wraps as possible.
Despite the fact that the parties involved did not execute the treaty, it shows how
Christians were looking for an ally to protect them from the enemy within namely "the
Muslims" who started to gradually distance themselves from the National pact of 1943.
According to Eyal Zisser, there were other Christian leaders who voiced their sympathy to
the Zionist movement publicly, namely the archbishop of Beirut, Ignatius Mubarak.
Since the Muslims saw Israel as an obstacle for a mightier Muslim Arabic world, they
sought support from outsiders such as the Palestinians in the early stages of the
Lebanese civil war and Syria in the later stages.
The civil unrest of 1958
The political power of the Christian political elite was challenged in 1958. The country
was shaken during this period. In 1958 Syria and Egypt came together in the United Arab
Republic (U.A.R) under full Egyptian command. The union received support among the
majority of the Lebanese Shiites and Sunnis.
The Lebanese government dominated by Christians was fearful of the supporters of the
pro Arab unity who were trying to topple the government. President Camille Chamoun
backed by the bulk of Christians was absolutely determined to preserve Lebanon. As a
consequence, only a small spark was needed to ignite widespread violence. Therefore
on 8th May, unknown assailants killed an anti-regime Maronite journalist in Tripoli (the
Second largest Lebanese city). Public order instantly collapsed in Tripoli and the Muslim
sections of Beirut, as riots extended into the mobilisation of gangs and small militias by
radical parties Nasirites and Ba'th.
President Chamoun, a Christian, asked the Eisenhower administration to curb the civil
unrest of 1958. The Eisenhower administration quickly responded by sending 10,000
Marines, in order to shore up the government's forces. Aziz Abu-Hamad cited that the
Maronite-led government troops and the Maronite militia battled an alliance of Muslim
militias and their leftists and Nasirist allies in Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. Aziz
added that the 1958 crisis was defused when President Chamoun dropped his plans for a
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested