Page 10, 4th January 1991

4th January 1991
Page 10
Page 10, 4th January 1991 — In the footsteps of St Paul

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Locations: Rome, Mosul, Beirut, Oxford


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In the footsteps of St Paul

Christian at the heart of Saddam Hussein's party

THE first Arabs I met were Christians to a man. This is not sexist language: they were all Jesuit students from the Lebanon. They had very poetic names.

I must have been very green (in the pre-ecological sense) at the time for I remember asking Abdullah Abihayla who converted his people. "Paul of Tarsus", he proudly replied. They were already Christians, he implied, when we were wandering through the forests in woad.

This set me thinking about the role of Christians in Arab countries. By their very existence they prevent the identification of Arab and Moslem being made too absolutely. Indeed, the five million Christian Copts of Egypt, for example, could prevent it being made at all.

They have a good claim to being more Egyptian and closer to the pharaohs than anyone else in the country. They still use the calendar of ancient Egypt. They have survived despite being overrun by the Moslems in the seventh century. The Egyptian claims to being Arab is a bit spurious or — to put it more politely — a matter of self-definition.

However, Egypt, like the Lebanon, turns out to be an exception. That's the trouble with trying to understand the Middle East. There are more exceptions than rules. There is no one"typically Arab" country.

But there are countries which claim to embody Arab aspirations or to be the vehicle of pan-Arabism. President Saddam Hussein's Iraq is one of them. So it seemed interesting that his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, whose name we have seen in the print so much recently, should invariably be described as a Christian.

Ancient heresies

What's more he's a Catholic. Ile belongs to the Chaldean Catholic church which descends from the ancient heresy of the Nestorians (two persons in Christ, one divine, the other human). By 1553 they had long abandoned their heresy and were reconciled with Rome. There are now said to be about 335,000 of them in Iraq, mostly around Mosul in the north. Last year they got themselves a brand new patriarch, Raphael I Bidawid.

Patriarch Raphael is quite a card. In Rome for the synod he assured right-wing Italian papers that Saddam Hussein is "a real gentleman" who is "certainly the best politician we have had to date." The patriarch also said that Tariq Aziz is a devout member of his congregation whose son received his first holy communion from the patriarchal hands in August.

The mystery deepened. Could this be the same Saddam Hussein depicted in Samir alKhalil's book Republic of Fear where he appears as a cruel monster running a police state based entirely on fear? Republic of Fear is certainly not western propaganda.

In fact it is the opposite, since it was written long before the invasion of Kuwait and reproaches the west for knowing about the genocide of the Kurds and doing nothing about it. No UN resolutions came to their aid: the unhappy Kurds have no oil.

But then the question becomes even more acute: why are Christians supporting such a bloody tyrant?

I took this question to Bishop Kenneth Cragg, a leading Anglican authority on Islam who now lives in very active retirement near Oxford. He has written many books, including The House of Islam and Jesus and the Moslems. What follows, though, should not be attributed to him: they are thoughts prompted by our conversation. There are precedents for Christians in high office in Moslem countries. Jordan had an Anglican foreign minister. Copts have held high positions in the Egyptian civil service. Tariq Aziz is in this tradition.

But it does not mean that Christians are able to exert any political influence as Christians. The whole point of the toleration bargain by which they survive is that they should be politically loyal or even obsequious.

They need to demonstrate, repeatedly, that they are more Iraqi than the Iraqi, and certainly more Iraqi than the Shiite Moslems who are suspected of links with Iran. Saddam Hussein is a Sunni Moslem. So Tariq Aziz and his patriarch will trot out the Ba'ath party line in season and out of it. Theirs is not to reason why.


That may sound very craven of them. But after 1,500 years they know something about the art of survival. The origins of Christianity and Islam disclose a deep contrast in the way of understanding politics. There is no distinction in Islam between "the things of Caesar and the things of God."

Mohammed is his own Constantine who combines religion and the state. Moslems never spent anytime in the underground existence of the catacombs. From the outset they expected and enjoyed political power. Within a short time they ruled over an empire.

There are exegetical arguments over what should happen to non-Moslems. The maxim in the Koran to the effect that "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) is often used to deny the view that Moslems should continue fighting nonbelievers until they are either destroyed or accept conversion to Islam.

But even when Christians and Jews were tolerated as fellow people of the book, as they mostly were, their religion was a private matter of rites and customs that could receive no public and therefore political expression. Tariq Aziz and Patriarch Raphael have to operate within these limits.

But when Moslems move out of their own countries, and become themselves a minority, they have a problem. In Europe the separation of church and state (in western terms) was a hard-won achievement of the 18th century Enlightenment.

It meant in effect that religion became a private matter as far as society was concerned. Religion is what you do in your spare time. Of course, it is still Open to individual Christians to put their case and state their values in the political arena, but they have to win consent for them. They cannot expect to impose them by authority.

It is unnatural and disconcerting for Moslems to be in a minority. It forces them into becoming a privatised "peoples religion" with no props in the society and where the state secular by nature, is perceived as hostile.

Much of the indignation aroused by Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses can be explained by this abnormal situation of powerlessness. Burning the book was a consolation for impotence. The

Christians in

acceptance of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwu was a nostalgic appeal to a higher law coming from a country where Islam is in power.

Year of Islam

From which I hope you will have gathered that my new year resolution is to try to understand Islam better. 1991 will be the year of Islam.

the Arab world

It looks as though the Vatican has reached the same conclusion. Its top diplomatic post has gone to a. 47-year-old Frenchman from Bordeaux, Jean-Louis Tauran. No one since Merry Del Val in 1904 has risen so far so swiftly. Mgr Tauran was nuncio in Beirut, a dangerous place but a superb listening-post for the Arab world.

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