Tuesday 26 October 2021
Failed opening... BBC Arabic RSS feed channel
WayBackMachine takes you to the internet history
Here you can acces to MiddleEast Transparent website History

Old site is Arabic Windows Coding

The role of Arab Christians in the modernization of contemporary Arab World

Tuesday 17 July 2007

St Joseph University Faculty of Religious Sciences Center for Study, Documentation and Research on Arab Christians

The role of Arab Christians in the modernization of contemporary Arab World

Lecture presented



as a contribution to the activities of the "7th Month on Christian Orient 2007"

Gulbenkian Hall - Social Sciences Campus

St Joseph University Huvelin Street - Beirut

16th May 2007 at 19 h


The role of Arab Christians in the modernization of the contemporary Arab World.

Boutros Labaki

1- Introductory remarks:

1-1 Talking about the role of Christians in the Arab Middle East could sound presumptuous, even out of place in the present circumstances. In fact, we have the impression of being in a period of recession vis-à-vis the presence and efficiency of Christians in their main countries of origin: Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

We have a demographic recession due to their migration and their natural growth rate, which is generally inferior to national averages.

Further, we witness a political recession in several countries, due to the erosion of the multiconfessional coalitions of notables that governed till the 1950’s, (Wafd in Egypt, National Bloc and the People’s Party in Syria, and parties of notables in Iraq). This happened as a result of military coups and the absence of Christians in the military elites that controlled these countries. In Lebanon, the “wars for the others 1975-1990" and their repercussions have acted in the same manner as of 1975 and especially after 1990.

The progressive ascension of fundamentalism as of the 1967 Arab defeat against Israel was also unfavorable for the political participation of Christians, in several countries: Egypt (especially after 1970), Palestine (especially after 1987), and Iraq (after 2003).

In addition to the above, we also have an economic regression: in the economies that were subject to nationalization during the 50’s and 60’s of the XXth century (Egypt, Syria and Iraq): the traditional christian economic elites have suffered the consequences (the first were those in Egypt).

In Lebanon, this began after the 1975 – 1990 wars and accelerated as of the 1990s. Jordan and Palestine are a bit of an exception.

On the other side, it must be mentioned that even a partial return to the market economy in some countries (Egypt and Syria in particular) is favoring the emergence of new active Christian entrepreneurs in several economic sectors.

1-2 These preliminary remarks being presented, it seems to me that it is necessary to frame them in a specific spatiotemporal and cultural context. In the spatial context, I will try to treat the subject in the limit of my knowledge of Christians in Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Christians of these countries, who migrate to the Arab oil countries will be covered as much as possible.

In the temporal context, I will tackle developments as of the beginning of the 1950’s.

From the cultural point of view, I try to cover not only Arab Christians, but also the Armenian, Syriac and Assyro-Chaldean communities in these countries. I will also try to cover Christians in Sudan.

1-3 I do not pretend to be dealing with the subject exhaustively. However, I try to highlight what I perceive as the main headlines and tendencies.

1-4 A Brief Historical Overview I deem it important to note that the role of Christians in this contemporary era stems from a historical tradition.

At the political level, as of the 19th century, Christians were active in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and they strived to be liberated from the dhimmi status. They did so by seeking to establish national states via egalitarian ideological and political movements (nationalism, liberalism, socialism), such as the Christian elites in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. They were also active in searching for a pluralistic conviviality in the frame work of an equality of status and the balance of power relations (Lebanon). They also led the first peasant and democratic rebellions (in Mount Lebanon between 1780 and 1860).

This situation developed between the two world wars and until the end of the 1940’s.

This role the Christians played at the political level was accompanied by a modernizing role on the cultural level: the cultural renaissance (Nahda), of the second half of XIXth century. Here, the role of western missions and local ecclesiastic institutions in the educational field was a determining one.

At the social level, Christians were the main players in the promotion of peasants (in Lebanon, in the 19th century), in Egypt with the Christian Association for Upper Egypt (ACHE) and other initiatives. Also, they were at the origin of trade unionists and workers movements in Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon. They fought for, and obtained, social rights for the workers. We can mention that in the establishment of the Lebanese Labor and Social Security Codes, the Jesuit Priest Le Genissel played an active role. In the field of social housing and the expansion of modern medicine, we find the pioneering role of Christians (Armenians in Lebanon, and Christian sanitary institutions in several countries: Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine…)

At the economic level: the role of Christians was fundamental in the development of the modern sectors in the economies of Egypt, Soudan, Irak, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as other sectors: modern agriculture, manufacturing industry, trade and public works, banks, insurance, domestic and foreign trade, tourism, and several services, as of the 19th century.

Having gone through the above overview, we can now get into the heart of the subject: Christian modernizing role in the contemporary Arab Middle East. We will be tackling the latter through different aspects.

2- Christians and political modernization in the contemporary Arab Middle East

Even if regressing, the role of Christians in the political modernization of the Arab Middle East is far from being insignificant.

In Egypt, we can trace this role under three aspects:
-  The fight led by the Coptic Orthodox Church, in particular, under the leadership of Pope Shnuda, in order to ensure that Christians in Egypt have real access to citizenship, freedom of worship and the building of churches.

-  The fight led by several Christian intellectuals for social justice and equality: Milad Hanna, Michel Kamel, Samir Amin and others.

-  Finally, the contribution of intellectuals and liberal politicians in the modernization of the Egyptian political thought: Louis Awad and especially Boutros Boutros Ghaly, the founder of the Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, minister, main promotor of the Camp David Peace agreements between Egypt and Israel, Secretary General of the UN and then of the Francophony organization.

-  In Palestine, we cannot but mention the pioneering role of Christian leaders, such as George Habache, Nayef Hawatmeh, Kamal Nasser, Naji Allush, Munir Shafiq Assal, Eugene Makhluf, Bechara Khodr, Bernard Sabella and others in the contemporary national palestinian movement. For the Palestinians who remained in the territories that became Israeli territories in 1948, we cannot but mention the leading role of Emile Habibi, Toufic Toubi, Habib Kahwaji, Sabri Jeryess, Azmi Bechara and others. There is also the role of the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah in defending the existence and the role of Christian Palestinians in the occupied territories, as well as the role of Christian notables in the West Bank, such as Hanna Nasser, Antoine Atallah, Elias Freij and others.

-  In Iraq, Christians have played an important role in the Iraqi Communist Party and in the Baath Party (Tarek Aziz), which were two modern and modernizing parties. Also, the Assyrian parties have played and are still playing a significant role in the defense of the democratic rights of Assyro-Chaldeans.

-  In Jordan, Christians played an important role in the modernization of the Jordanian regime (Ministers of Foreign Affairs like: Dr. Kamal Abou Jaber, Marwan Al Maacher and others). They have also played a significant role in nationalist and leftist parties (Dr. Kamal El Shaer in the Baath Party, Nayef Hawatmeh—mentioned above—Salfiti in the Communist Party).

-  In Sudan, Christians played and still play a leading role in the fighting of South Sudan for equality and development (John Gareng and others).

-  In Lebanon, we can mention the leading role of Christians in the modern political parties (communists, SNSP, Kataeb, Democrats, etc…). But, the primordial role of the past twenty years was the fight led by the Maronite Church under the leadership of the Patriarch Sfeir for the liberation of Lebanon from the Syrian trusteeship, the respect of human rights, the fight against the marginalization of Christians since 1990, and the defense of the rights of the poor and the oppressed in Lebanon.

-  We should also mention the fight of Christian political leaders, former President Camille Chamoun, Raymond Eddé, Pierre and Bachir Gemayel and now, General Michel Aoun and his movement in particular, against the Syrian trusteeship, the violations of human rights, the political independence of Lebanon and against the provoked economic crisis since 1995, and for conviviality between the several Lebanese communities. This fight is presently led by General Aoun and Patriarch Sfeir, even if some Christian groups do not see eye to eye with them at present.

These two main movements initiated by Patriarch Sfeir and General Aoun were instrumental for the ousting of the Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, along with well-known international factors.

Also, one must ask why Lebanon is the only Arab country where non-state owned armed movements were able to free an Arab territory from the Israeli occupation in year 2000. In my opinion, although it might seem paradoxical, Lebanese Christians played a sizable direct and indirect role in the liberation of this territory: in fact, the first resistance movements against the Israeli occupation in 1982 were initiatives of the SNSP and the Communist Party. The latter are two secular parties that were established and long led by Christians. We find that Christians of these parties were the first to partake in the early operations against the Israeli occupation: (Suha Bechara, Pierre Abu Jaude, etc.). Also, the presence of Christians in Lebanon makes of this country, despite everything, the less non democratic country in the Arab world. Among other things, it is this relatively democratic environment that allowed resistance movements to develop in Lebanon and not in other Arab countries.

It should be mentioned that at present the « americanized » democratization of authoritarian regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, is translated by the growth of an aggressive fundamentalism and an acceleration of the marginalization of Christians in these countries.

3- Christians and the modernization of the Arab Middle Eastern Societies

Here also, Christians contribute in the modernization of the society in different ways. In Egypt, I mention again the Christian Association for Upper Egypt established in the early XXth century by Fr. Ayrout S.J. with the aim of spreading basic education in rural Upper Egypt. This Association remains pioneer in this domain. Also, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Catholic and Evangelical churches lead networks of modern social and medical services.

In Lebanon, the main figure in this domain is Archbishop Gregory Haddad, the founder and leader of the "Mouvement Social" (Social Movement) since half a century. Originally inspired by the French "Abbé Pierre", this movement has a network of medical and social centers all over Lebanon, as well as a large number of other activities in many fields. This movement and its founder strongly inspired a sense of a multicommunity social responsibility in Lebanon.

One must also highlight the role of the Synod of the Catholic Church for Lebanon (1995), and later the Maronite Synod, in awakening the social responsibility of Lebanese Christians, and in the development of institutions of social solidarity in Churches since the 1990’s (cooperatives, mutual insurance funds, the development of the Caritas-Lebanon network, social housing, etc.).

Further, we must also mention movements such as the Young Christian Workers, and the role of Christian trade unions leaders in the establishment and the development of the trade unions and farmers movements in Lebanon.

Finally, the “Prado d’Orient” an association of priests working in poor and/or muslim environment, has been playing for more than forty years an efficient and discrete role in the action of the Churches in serving the poor.

The Young Christian Workers, Caritas, Prado and others are also active in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and partly in Sudan and Irak.

4- Christians and the Modernization of the Arab Culture

Here also, I will mention few examples by sector: In the field of printing and publishing, Lebanon remains the printer and the publisher of the Arab world. These are two sectors where Christians play a key role: Dar Al Nahar, Dar Riad Nagib El Rayess, Dar El Saki, Dar El Machrek, to mention a few. I am not acquainted with the situation in other countries of the Arab Mashreq, to the exception of the role of Dar al Hilal and Dar Al Ahram in Egypt that were founded by Gergi Zeidan and the Takla family respectively and that were nationalized in the 1960’s.

In the field of the press, we find that Christians in Lebanon play a pioneering role, as journalists, and newspaper editors.

Christian Lebanese journalists lead a good part of the Arab press in London, Paris and the Gulf. I am not quite familiar with the situation in other Arab countries.

It is certain that the expansion of Arab oil capital in this sector and the establishment of newspapers financed and managed by this capital have reduced the pioneering role of Arab Christians in the press.

For the audiovisual media, Lebanese Christians were the first to establish private radios and televisions in the Arab World (VDL, LBC, etc.). They were then joined by Iraqis (Auji). The Lebanese are instrumental in the establishment and management of television stations in other Arab countries: Iraq: Jean Claude Boulos and Tabet; in Lybia: Pierre Daher, in the Saudi televisions in the Gulf, London and in Italy, and other televisions in the Gulf.

It is also fundamental to mention the role of Christian schools and universities: former Al-Hikma University in Baghdad, Bir Zeit and Bethlehem University in Palestine, Saint Joseph University, AUB, LAU, USEK, NDU, Balamand University, Antonine University, Middle East University, Hagazian University, St Paul Institute of Philosophy and Théology, and others, in Lebanon in the relative cultural advancement of Christians, which was a necessary condition for their pioneering role.

In the field of lyrical arts, I highlight the role of Christian Lebanese singers in the Arab world (Sabah, Fairouz, Majida El Roumi, Julia Boutros, Nancy Ajram, Zaki Nassif, Philimon Wehbe, Wadih Al Safi, Georges Wassouf, and others). This also applies to music and lyrical theater with the Rahbani brothers and their progeny, as well as Toufic Sukkar, and others in Lebanon. Further, we must also cite the exceptional role of Munir Bachir and his son Omar, who from Iraq were able to renovate the use of the lute in the Arab world basing their activity, inter alia, on the Christian oriental musical traditions of the early centuries of our era.

In the field of theater, we can highlight the role of Christian lebanese producers: Munir Abu Debs, the Multaka’s, Chakib Khury, Raymond Gebara, Jalal Khury, Roger Assaf, Raif Karam and others. Since the mid-1950’s, they have animated the renaissance of a modern arab theater and continue to do so.

Concerning the movies industry, we have to remember the role of the Egyptian producer (of Lebanese origin) Yussef Chahine, the actor Omar El Sharif (Michel Chalhub), as well as a group of young Lebanese filmmakers (Bahij Hjeij, Marun Baghdadi, Daniele Arbid, Philippe Aractanji and others) and Palestinian filmmakers (Elie Khalifi and others).

In the field of plastic arts, Lebanese Christians played a major role in the "renaissance" of this form of art in the Arab world (Howayek, Ghossub, Guiragossian, Daud Corm, Cesar Gemayel, others…) and continue to do so.

In the field of human and social sciences and philosophy, we have to stress the role of Egyptians (Louis Awad, Anwar Abdel Malek, Samir Amin), of Syrians (Elias Morkos, Michel Kilo, Antoun Makdissi), and Lebanese (Kamal Salibi, Elias Ghannageh, Nassif Nassar and others).

There are other facts to highlight in this domain, in particular the role of the founders of cultural institutions stemming from Christian Churches (schools, universities, printing presses, publishers, theaters) in the pioneering cultural role of Christians.

5- Christians and the Modernization of Arab Economies

In this aspect, the role of Christians, after having witnessed a regression as a result of the nationalization movement between 1956 and 1970 (in Egypt and Syria), is reviving in these two countries as a result of their gradual transition to market economy. This transition facilitates the activity of Christian Arab entrepreneurs in the Mashreq (Lebanese and Egyptians in particular, in Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan, that are gradually moving towards the market economy.

Also, the successive “oil booms” in 1973, 1974, 1978, 1979, and since 2000 favored the economic activity of Christians in the Mashreq countries and in the oil-producing Arab countries.

In this respect we can review the most important economic sectors: In the manufacturing industry: the role of Christians is visible in Lebanon. The two most important industrial groups are the "Doumith group" and the Indevco group (Frem), notwithstanding other pioneering and dynamic groups.

The liberalization movement in Syria and Egypt allowed for the reemergence of new Christian industrialists.

In the construction field, we must highlight, among others, the CCC group (Khoury and Sabbagh), a group of Palestinian businessmen, and the two Lebanese groups CAT and Al-Mabani. The three groups are essentially active in the oil-producing Arab countries.

In modern agriculture, we have to stress the pioneering role of Christian agricultural entrepreneurs in Syrian Mesopotamia (Maamarbashi, Najjar, as of the 1950’s and others).

The situation is similar in Lebanon in many agricultural activities: major modern productions in the Bekaa Valley and Akkar are initiated by Christian entrepreneurs: potato cultivation, grapes and wine production (such as Musar, Ksara, Kefraya); poultry production (Hawa and Tanmia groups) and new products: avocado, other tropical fruits, chestnut…

In the tourism industry, in Lebanon, the role of Christians in the sea and ski resorts, restaurant, hotel sectors, is a pioneering role despite the massive entry of Gulf capital in the hotel sector.

In Syria, Jordan and Palestine, Christians are active in the restaurant and hotel sectors (in Damascus, Aleppo, the Northwest of Syria and Holy Sites in Palestine).

In the banking industry: the Lebanese banks (which were mainly owned by Christian bankers until the end of the 1980’s) have played a pioneering role in the Arab Middle East as of the 1950’s. However, they were followed and surpassed by banks from the Gulf as of 1975, because of the wars in Lebanon and the successive oil “booms”. It is enough to remember the role of the Intra Bank, a Lebanese bank established by the Lebanese Palestinian Christian banker Yussef Baidass and its leading role in Lebanon, the Arab Orient, France, USA and the main countries of the Lebanese diaspora as a commercial bank, and a business and investment bank in the fifties and sixties.

Other Lebanese banks established by Christian bankers (BLC, Audi Bank) have opened branches in the Gulf countries as of the 1960’s and 1970’s. These past years, many Lebanese banks founded by Christian bankers are opening branches in Syria (BEMO, SGBL, Byblos Bank, Audi Bank), in Sudan (Lebanese Canadian Bank, Byblos Bank), in Algeria (Byblos Bank, BLF, ...), as a result of the gradual transition of these countries towards market economy.

The past two decades witnessed the increasing influence of Gulf oil capital in the Lebanese banking sector. This have led to the takeover by this capital of several Christian Lebanese banks (BLC, Crédit Libanais, Banque de Méditerranée, Allied Bank) or to an important share in these banks (Audi Bank and others).

In the transportation sector, we have to mention the pioneering role of the Syrian Lebanese group, Rodolph Saade and Sons (CGA-CGM) in the field of maritime transportation in Syria, Lebanon and France. In the field of air transportation, we can mention that as of the beginning of the 1950’s, Lebanon witnessed the establishment of private air companies, (Air Liban, LIA, and TMA) by Christian Lebanese entrepreneurs. The first two companies merged with MEA to create Middle East Airlines - Air Liban.

In the field of domestic and foreign trade, Christians in the Arab world have a long inherited tradition from the time of the “Capitulations” and protections and tight relations with Europe. The nationalization movement in Syria and Egypt, as well as other phenomena, has suppressed this leadership proactively everywhere, except in Lebanon.

In the field of technical consulting, we cannot but mention the role of “Dar El Handassah Shaër and partners” as the first Arab group in this domain and the fifth ranked group worldwide. It was founded by Dr. Kamal Al Shaër an eminent Christian Jordanian engineer, businessman and politician.

In the field of telecommunications: the “SAWIRISS” group, a Coptic Egyptian group, has a leading position in Egypt and Arab and non Arab countries (Algeria, Syria and others). This group is developing activities in other sectors and countries.

Finally, in the field of information technology, it seems to me necessary to stress on the pioneering role of groups such as Isticharat (Faddul), Chammas et many others in Lebanon and the Arab Orient as of the end of the 1960’s.

6- Provisional Conclusions

This quick overview of the role of Christians in the Arab world reveals two phenomena:

-  A relative regression due to demography (a growth rate that is below the national averages, and an increased migration), to the increase of fundamentalism, the catching up of the cultural, economic, political and social advancement of the Christian minorities by the elites of the majorities, owing to the educational development, the oil boom, and the long period of state-managed economy by bureaucratic or military elites who reconverted to business.

-  The persistence and the development of a pioneering role in some countries and some domains:
-  In Lebanon, in the political, cultural and economic domains.

-  In Egypt, in the political, cultural, economic and social domains.

-  In Syria, in the political and economic domains.

-  In Sudan, in the political domain.

The Christians in the Arab Orient are facing demographic and political challenges, and the future of their role depends to a certain extent on the way they are going to face these challenges.


print article without comments
Print article
print article with comments
Print article with comments
Send to a friend
envoi par email

Commentaire des lecteurs

Nombre de réponses: 1

  • The role of Arab Christians in the modernization of contemporary Arab World

    George Kronfli
    16 August 2007 - 

    An excellent and very well researched article, if perhaps slightly too long. The Christians’ main contribution to the Arab World was and still is the civilising and humanitarian influence that is so obvious in Arab countries with large Christian minorities and so lacking in those countries with no or very small Christian presence. I am sure we can all make our lists of these countries.

metransparent.com Ranking in Google PageRank Checker

Not yet registered ?

Be actor of this website. When registered and logged in you can write and publish directly your articles at this website very easily

Subscribe to our Newsletter and stay tuned of latest news


©Middle East transparent© This site is developed by Middle East Transparent team - 2007-2009.  This site is best seen at resolution 1024x768 and over  ©Middle East transparent©

4 visitors now