Relaymedia

Arab Christians Squeezed by Conflict

Mar 24, 2003 10:24 AM EST

Beleaguered Arab Christians are finding their position among majority Muslim populations more precarious than usual as the US and UK pursue military action in Iraq.

The town of Madaba is home to some of Jordan's most prominent Christian families - who are fiercely loyal to the state and royal family but believe their relations with Muslim neighbours are deteriorating.

"Mosque preachers are talking about a "crusade" being waged by American and British forces against Muslim Iraq," says Toufiq Mitri al-Salaitha, who cuts a splendid figure in pyjamas, tartan dressing-grown topped off with the traditional ghatra and igal headdress.

Mr Salaitha describes the use of the word crusade as "very worrying" for Christians, because it places them on the side of the Americans, when in fact only a tiny minority of his co-religionists support American policy.

"We want peace," says another Madaba resident who identified himself only as Fouad. "We know (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein is a bad dictator and we want to see him go, but not like this."

'Suspicion'

Fouad says - as a Christian - he is constantly being obliged to emphasise to other Jordanians how Church leaders have condemned the war in Iraq.

"They (the Muslims) look at us differently, they are suspicious of us," he says.

Nowadays, it is hard to find a single Christian who supports US military action, although observers say that there was evidence before the war that Christians were among the keenest in Jordan to see regime change in Iraq.

Mr al-Salaitha says America's reputation has been "made rotten" because of Washington's perceived rush to a war that most people see as unprovoked and unnecessary.

Washington's closeness to Israel, and what Arabs see as its unwillingness to stand up for the rights of Palestinians, has also alienated Christians.

"The US used to be very well-received and respected by people here, but now I don't think more than two or three people in 100 appreciate Americans now," he says.

"Indeed, I don't advise American people to visit some parts of Jordan, because they will not be well-received."

Damaging language

Fouad, on the other hand, has a message to the American leadership.

"Solve the problem of Palestine, by making a Palestinian state, and our lives will be much easier - because that is the reason for much tension."

He says the Muslim population - and Christians to no lesser extent - are enraged by TV pictures of Muslim Arabs being killed in the occupied territories - and it leads Muslims to view Christians as somehow allied to the US, and by extension Israel.

He admits that the fact that many Christians - at least 100 in his own family's case - have emigrated to the US compounds that impression.

"But especially when (United States) President (George W) Bush talks about a "crusade" against terrorism in the Middle East, this is a big problem for us."

"The Americans should think what they say and what they do; they must remember that there are Christians here, and what they do affects us," he says.

By Albert H. Lee
chtoday_editor@chtoday.com