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An Iraqi Christian woman prays at the Saint John's church (Mar Yohanna church) in the town of Qaraqosh (also known as Hamdaniya), east of Mosul, on December 25, 2016. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Minority report

Remark by President Trump has left some Christians in the Arab world on edge

February 20, 2017

As the legal questions and controversy over President Donald Trump’s ban on citizens from seven majority Muslim countries entering the U.S. continue, the statements he’s made about the mistreatment of Christians in majority Muslim countries in the Middle East have led to some nods, murmurs, and even fear from Christians in the region. I called my Christian Arab friends to inquire about their reactions to Trump stating, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, that the U.S. would give preferential treatment to the Christian population in the Arab world for their refugee applications. What I got is a complex story made more dangerous by Trump’s statement.

The discussion started with Aseel, an Iraqi Christian, who was quick to point out that “By him saying what he said about Christians so publicly, it is not doing the Christian minority that are already in danger a favor. On the contrary he is making them more of a target. Because now extremist Muslims will have even more reasons to attack Christians because they are being favored by a Christian nation.”

Rania, a Lebanese Christian friend who asked me to use a pseudonym instead of her real name said, “He is putting things in context where he is encouraging the discrimination between Muslims and Christians in the region.” And Nahid, a Palestinian Christian friend, said, “The way he is going about it is totally wrong. When he singles Christians out, now I say they first started to separate us and now we have tension between Christians and Muslims and Christians are feeling threatened by their safety. Who knows if we will get into a situation where the Christians will be attacked by Muslims.”

Trump has pointed out something that is indeed happening: Discrimination against Christians in many Arab countries. But instead of trying to constructively help bridge the divide, his statements are widening the divide and maybe creating even more tension — discord that many in the region attribute to the U.S. and its invasion of Iraq in 2003. That tipping point influenced how people dealt with their identities from a nationalistic and religious perspective.

Historically speaking, Christians and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in the Arab world for centuries. During the era of Arab nationalism that dominated the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, Christians and Muslims largely identified themselves by their nationality first and their religion second. Aseel, continues and explains how “under Saddam, Christians had a sort of announced protection. We were able to go to churches and practice our religion freely. In Baghdad we grew up with majority of the community were Muslims. It didn’t matter if you had a Christian friend or a Muslim friend. We celebrated each other’s holidays and we were very much accepted and part of the society.”

Nahid reinforces Aseel’s description by saying, “When we grew up, we were one people against the occupation and religion had nothing to do with it.” The same sentiments are echoed among Christians in other Arab countries, be it in Jordan, Egypt, or Syria. Being Lebanese, Rania brings another perspective. “You can’t generalize all Christians in the Arab world,” she says. “In Lebanon our identities shifted from nationalist one to religious one back in the ’70s when we were fighting in our civil war that was based on religious and sectarian divides.”

But things changed and women point to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as the turning point in that change. Aseel explains how the democracy that was brought to Iraq was “based on a sectarian division. Americans thought they were basing it on power-sharing, but the way it was translated on the ground was a dividing wedge between sects and religion for political representation and gain. In that division that was mostly based on Sunni and Shia, Christians were lost in that equation.”

Indeed, many Iraqis of all religions were upset at a census passed by the American administration of Iraq. In the census, people were asked to identify themselves not only by religion but also by sects. So Muslims were asked to identify themselves as Sunni or Shia. Christians were asked to identify themselves as Catholic, Orthodox or Assyrian, Chaldean or Armenian. This upset most Iraqis at the beginning. Eventually, power-sharing became based on religion and sectarian identity, which impacted fighting and tension between Sunni and Shia first. Over the years, it led to a switch of the primary identity from that of a national affiliation first to that of religious one first — and even a sectarian one.

Initially, Christians were “hanging on to their nationalism and Iraqism thinking that doing so would keep them safe in Iraq as they were before the war. But eventually, they started experiencing attacks for being Christians — they were the lowest hanging fruit in the midst of much sectarian fighting mixed with that a prejudice for being Christians,” Aseel explains. 

Nahid adds another layer to Aseels’ point. “When President Bush gave the ultimatum that you are either with us or against us, many Muslims were against him and assumed that the Christians were with the West as they always associated Christian Arabs with the West because of the religion.” Though Christian Arabs share the same language, culture, habits, music, and food, it is true they were always associated with being more Western because of their religion. “This furthered the divide between Christians and Muslims in ways that had not existed until mostly after the Gulf War. Muslims chose to be ‘against’ America and assumed that the Christians would be ‘with’ America,” Nahid explains. The second Gulf War tipped the balance where religious identity overtook all other identities.

“I have seen the last 10 years the transformation not only on the ground but within me as well and I can tell you my identity as an Iraqi started to shift within the last few years. It doesn’t mean that I feel less Iraqi, but I feel that there is an imposing power from the outside to call me Christian rather than Iraqi. There are two factors that are impacting my identity. One is from the outside and that is most crucial to me. People in the last five years, I am talking about Americans and even more so Iraqis from the ground, the moment I say I am Iraqi they say, ‘No you are Christian.’ I, as an Iraqi Christian, want to hold on to my Iraqi identity as long as I can but being impacted by people from my own country who are forcing the lens that I am Christian before I am Iraqi. They see first as a Christian and then as Iraqi and it is [the] most disturbing thing for me. It is like someone is trying to rip off my identity,” Aseel explains.

Aseel is not the only one who feels this way. George, a dear Iraqi friend and colleague, was forced to leave Iraq with his family two years ago. When asked why, he said, “First it was the physical attacks on us. Then, it was attacks on our churches, and now we can’t even get a job because we are Christians. That’s when we know there is nothing for us here.” His move to France was heartbreaking for him initially as he felt forced out of Iraq and it took him two years before he was able to adjust to his new life in France.

Nahid blames many for that change of identify and more so the hostility between the two religions in the past few years. She starts by holding Arab political leaders accountable for not putting a stop to religious prejudice, Muslim religious leaders for inciting religious division, and in her case as a Palestinian, Israeli leaders for giving a preferential treatment to Palestinian Christians that led to “Muslims becoming more rigid because they are being treated worse than Christians.”

As a Muslim, hearing this from my Christian friends broke my heart. I have grown with my dearest friends being Christians, we celebrated each other’s holidays, lit candles in churches and broke our fasts together. Not once did we think of our religious difference as an issue. But reality has changed in the last few years by all accounts. Aseel says change happened in the last 10 years. Nahid says the change has been noticeable more recently, in the last five years. Rami says it’s happened in the last two years. 

It does not matter. The truth is the change has happened, that religious rigidity and extremism in Islam has indeed spread throughout the region. And whether or not the reasons for prejudices against Christians were politically oriented or a suppressed discrimination, as some suggest, it is one that has emerged and is having a direct impact on people’s sense of identity and safety.

Though everyone was sad about our conversation, not one was willing to give up. Rania told me of a movement in Lebanon led by youths urging people to go by their national identity first and, most important, before any other identity. Nahid talks about religious and political leaders’ responsibility to stop the divide and the tension that is happening in the region as she talks about the importance of Arab culture in her children’s identities. And Aseel continues to do all she can to help celebrate Iraqi art and culture around the world, particularly in America.

As for me, it is becoming harder and harder to talk as a moderate Muslim about issues that indeed need addressing in the Arab world and within Islam itself when there is such a persistent attack against Islam that is coming from the outside. It is hard to even have a dialogue among Muslims on addressing the issues that need addressing, changes and reform that needs talking about when outside attacks seem to be consistent and often out of context with generalizing and sweeping statements that are damaging and creating more rigidity and tension, than any attempt for peace and reform. 

Many moderate Muslims are feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, there is an acknowledgement for the need of discussion within the religion itself. On the other hand, one is always left to defend the religion in the face of such gross and, often, generalizing attacks that paint the whole religion as violent — which is neither accurate nor fair. Still, my friends and I, Christians and Muslims alike from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and other countries continue to hold onto the fact that we share our lands, our culture and heritage and we continue to go out, dance over our common Arabic music, and eat our favorite hummus and tubule. A triumph of hope and love as I see it.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit