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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

Being non-Muslim in Islamic nations means 'protection' -- and problems

Iraq’s Christians make up in diversity and historicity what they lack in numbers. Still, there’s no denying that they are a minority religion in a Muslim state. And as most minorities will tell you, being different is risky.

The Aug. 1 attacks on Christian churches across Iraq signaled an unsettling turning point in that nation’s conflict, with many Iraqis, both Muslim and Christian, expressing surprise and shock at this new wave of violence that killed 11 and injured more than 50 people. It’s still uncertain who was responsible for the coordinated car bombings -- four in Baghdad and one in Mosul. But the blasts were strategically timed: Christians were just gathering for or beginning Sunday night liturgies.

Muslim leaders throughout the country, both Shia and Sunni, immediately condemned the violence. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the country’s highest Shiite leader, called the attacks “criminal actions.” He also issued a statement confirming “the necessity of respecting the rights of Christians and other religious minorities and their right to live in their country, Iraq, in security and peace.”

The official term for this right is “dhimmitude.” The world’s foremost expert on the subject, Bat Ye’Or, coined the word in 1983 to describe the legal and social condition of Jews and Christians (dhimmis) subjected to Islamic rule. Broadly interpreted, it appears benign: Non-Muslims enjoy a protected status among their Muslims neighbors. But dhimmitude becomes problematic because its supposed safeguards and protections can be withdrawn as selectively as they are applied by rulers or governments of Islamic states.

In Iraq, as in other predominately Muslim states, Christianity has existed side by side with Islam for centuries. For some observers (as well as those who experience it firsthand), the status of Christians is not one of cheery coexistence. Rather, it may be more like the old racial divides in the United States, where blacks lived near, but not integrated into, white society, and where they “kept their place” -- separate and unequal.

In a July 24 interview with NCR, Baghdad Archbishop Jean Sleiman, leader of Iraq’s Latin Catholic church, said that in Iraq, “Christians and Muslims can [live] side by side -- but only side by side. Side by side, but not equally. No mixing, no integration.”

Part of the difference between the experience of U.S. racial integration and that of Middle Eastern Christians is the nature of law in the respective cultures, according to Sleiman. Equal rights for all citizens are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution; even when those rights were denied, citizens could cite the Constitution and demand them.

Dhimmitude, he said, depends almost totally on the largesse of the leader or government. In other words, he said, “you [non-Muslims] have this not because it is yours by right, but because we [Muslims] are making a gift of it to you.”

Under Saddam Hussein, for example, the Christian churches could function, Sleiman said, but under tight controls and limits. “But what Saddam did isn’t new. It is a law applied by all leaders throughout the Middle East until now,” he said. “Some rulers are more liberal, some are not. But the principle is the same: You are not like the others, you are dhimmis.”

That dependence on the good will of those in power can make for a shaky coexistence with one’s neighbors.

In 2001, Ye’Or was invited to give a briefing on the challenge of Islamism at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill. As part of that presentation, she gave a historical overview of the situation of Christians under Islam. After the seventh-century Muslim conquest of the lands around the southern and eastern Mediterranean, she explained, the vanquished populations, both Christians and Jews, “were then ‘protected,’ providing they submitted to the Muslim ruler’s conditions.”

Basically, Ye’Or noted, dhimmis’ “protection” comes as a result of their subjugation as peoples conquered in a war. Non-Muslims are protected only if they submit to Islamic rule by a pact -- dhimma, in Arabic, from which dhimmi is derived -- that regulates their lives. But a veritable litany of situations also void the dhimmis’ protection: if they rebel against Islamic law; give allegiance to a non-Muslim power; refuse to pay the stipulated Quranic poll tax to the Muslim community; entice a Muslim from his or her faith; harm a Muslim or his property; or commit blasphemy (a very broad concept, ranging from anything that might be interpreted as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad to suggesting that sharia, Islamic law, is defective).

“The moment the ‘pact of protection’ is abolished,” Ye’Or testified, “jihad resumes, which means that the lives of the dhimmis and their property are forfeited.” As an example, she cited the Copts of Egypt, who in recent years were pillaged or killed by Islamists because as Christians they forfeited their “protection”; they had been unable to pay the imposed tax.

It’s that uncertainty that makes some Christians in Muslim nations like Iraq fearful about how winds of change can affect their security and well-being.

Sleiman said he worries that the latest wave of violence against Christians may mark a new trend. He worries even more that it could drive many in his tiny flock to leave Iraq. Frankly, he said, “Christians are exhausted from living with Muslims.”

-- Pat Morrison

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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