Don Belt's essay's pithy title, "The Forgotten Faithful Arab Christians" [sic.] of the Holy Land, adumbrates a compelling story of dispossession, marginalization, and extinction; yet, the factual errors, omissions, and distortions throughout his narrative disappoint and misinform.
Attributing the dwindling numbers of Near Eastern Christians to the Crusades is not only shoddy history, it is at once hypocritical and dangerous. Whatever happened to the Arab-Muslim conquests of the 7th Century? Did they not precede the Crusades by some 400 years and had already begun Islamizing Near Eastern Christians? Weren't the Crusades delayed defensive Christian wars, waged in an attempt to take back from Muslim conquerors what was taken by force from Christians some five centuries prior? Belt's dubious history doesn't stop with the condemnation of the Crusades and the whitewashing of the 7th Century Arab-Muslim conquests; his unrelenting references to Near Eastern Christians as "Arab Christians" -- wrongly subsuming them en masse under a monistic Arab ethno-national and linguistic label -- is a sinister and cruel expropriation of the history of indigenous, pre-Arab, Near Eastern Christians. Today's Copts, Maronites, and Assyrians, heirs to the ancient Pharaohs, Canaanites, and Aramaeans, would be amazed at Don Belt's assertion that Arabs were "among the first to be persecuted for the new faith, and the first to be called Christians." One wonders, whatever happened to the Jewish Jesus, and to the Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek speaking followers of Jesus? Whatever happened to Levantine Jews, Roman, and Greek Pagans and Pantheists who adopted Christianity some seven centuries prior the Arabs' blood-soaked entry into the Levant?
Aside from a host of other factual errors, Belt puts the onus for the disappearing Christians of the Holy Land squarely on modern Israel and Israeli policies, while 13 centuries of Arab-Muslim persecutions get nary the cursory mention. One wonders what role Israel plays today in the disappearance of the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, the Chaldaeans and Assyrians of Iraq, and the Syriacs of Syria among others? Is their dispossession of their homelands over the past 13 centuries also the result of "Israeli occupation?" Can someone at the NGM spell anachronism in this narrative?
I commend the National Geographic for attempting to shed some light on the plight of the forgotten Christians of the Near East. But under the guise of telling their story, Don Belt has set out to erase the historical memory of Near Eastern Christians. Subsuming them under a uniform, reductive "Arab" identity, and assuming pre-Muslim Arabs inhabited the Holy Land prior to the 7th Century advent of Islam is not only unscrupulous and misleading reading of Levantine history; it is hypocritical, inaccurate, ideologically motivated, and potentially dangerous. There are already enough misconceptions about the Middle East being intellectualized in the media and the academy; sadly, instead of correcting, illuminating, and informing, Don Belt's essay contributes to further distortions and politicization--not to mention forced "Arabization"--of Near Eastern history.
By Franck Salameh
Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Coordinator of the Arabic Studies and Hebrew Program
Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures