The shared history of Muslims and Christians in the Levant: concept of rights, equality, and citizenship

By Rose Obeid

Special to The Communitarian

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Father Kail C. Ellis is assistant to the president, dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, former vice president for Academic Affairs, and associate professor of political science at Villanova University. Photo courtesy of Villanova University

The Rev. Kail C. Ellis from Villanova University gave a lecture at DCCC titled “The Shared History of Muslims and Christians in the Levant: Concept of Rights, Equality, and Citizenship” Feb. 20.

Ellis is an ordained Catholic priest and a member of the Augustinian Order as well as the founder-director of Villanova’s Center for Arab and Islamic Studies.

In his lecture, Ellis stated that the common perception of the West is that the Arab world is all Muslims.

However, this perception may have originated by the invading Crusaders, inaccurate information, and or lack of knowledge about the region. Christianity in the Middle East existed since the 4th Century, the era of St. Paul. Aramaic was the language of Jesus, his disciples, and all those who converted to Christianity.

Many monasteries and churches still thrive in many parts of the Arab world such as Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. It was a monastery in North Lebanon that introduced the first printing press in 1585.

For centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims in the region thrived side by side, contributed, and shared in all aspect of civilization; science, medicine, literature, and music, according to Ellis.

With the advance of Islam, Christians, then and now never consider themselves as a minority because they are the original inhabitants of the region before Islam.

For centuries, they thrived and contributed to the rich diversity of the region and beyond.

As for the interpretation of the word Dhimma under Islam, it was considered a protected status for non Muslims and not as protected status for minorities. Under the Ottoman Empire, it was required that Christian and other communities have separate system of laws to rule themselves. This type of separate system resulted in division and separation among various communities, where it was seen that a dominant minority ruled over the majority, Ellis explained.

An example of this is the Sunni minority ruling over the majority Shi’a in Iraq.

As for equality, gender roles, and citizenship, the Arab world consists of 22 Arab countries that each has its own laws and system of government that affect gender roles, citizenship rights, and equality.

What applies in one country cannot be instituted in another. In Tunisia, women have equal rights to men, whereas in Lebanon, women are not allowed to give citizenship to their children if married to a foreigner.

As for the demographic decline of Christianity in the region, Ellis attributed that to many factors: wars, invasion, western foreign policies, political meddling, shifting allegiances/ alliances, and discriminatory laws, and immigration, all of which resulted in fractured and failed states. As a consequence and with the presence of ISIS, both Christian and Muslim communities suffer persecution and expulsion as witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. Failed states are the result of political meddling, corruption, lack of opportunities, inequality, discrimination, and total disregard to human rights that resulted in loss of life and property to all, regardless of religion or gender, according to Ellis.

The irony of the current political climate in the region is that most political leaders are not necessarily or truly religious, however, they appeal to sectarianism and to extreme religious groups that fight each other and other groups in the name of religion. Therefore, all religious groups in the region are victimized.

In spite of the dwindling number due to immigration and decrease of birth rate, Christians still play vital and fundamental roles in their respective governments; Christian president in Lebanon, Christian foreign minister in Syria, even before the Iraqi invasion, Christians were represented in the government. These communities, irrespective of their numbers, are the original citizens their respective country or region.

On an optimistic note, Ellis stated that at a recent conference in Al Azhar Mosque in Egypt, all Christian and Muslim representatives at the conference called for a renewal of alliance among all Arab citizens in order to bring about harmony and healing of their communities.

Ellis concluded his lecture by emphasizing that in order to remedy the ills of wars and upheaval, there must be sound and unbiased foreign policies, strategic assessment, security, democratic governments, opportunities, and equal rights for all citizens in the region irrespective of gender and religion.

More about the Rev. Kail C. Ellis

Ellis earned his PhD from the Catholic University of America. Currently, he co-edits the Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and is the editor of three books: “Secular Nationalism and Citizenship in Muslim Countries: Arab Christians in the Levant,” 2018); “Lebanon’s Second Republic, Prospects for the Twenty-first Century,” (2002), and “The Vatican, Islam and the Middle East,” (1987). He has also presented papers, published articles and contributed book chapters related to the Middle East.