British Muslims no doubt feel uplifted when they hear the adhan recited over the loudspeakers at Regent’s Park or Whitechapel mosques. They are not the only ones. It may surprise Muslims that some Christians are also love the words –not the religious content, but the language – Arabic. Arab Christians in Britain thrill at the sound of their mother-tongue, whatever is being said. To them, Arabic may not be the language of heaven, but it is the language of their hearts. It should be remembered that the Father of Arab Nationalism was a Lebanese Protestant, Butrus al-Bustani – as Michael Caine might say, ‘not a lot of people know that’, whether they be British Muslims or Christians.
No one is quite sure how many Arab Christians there may be in Britain, but there would seem to be tens of thousands, from all over the Arab world. Part of the problem in discovering their numbers is that the Arab community in general has been marginalised by Government race policy, which only ever talks about ‘blacks and Asians’, despite the estimate of up to 500,000 Arab UK citizens. Arab Christians have come to Britain for varying reasons. A number come on business or work assignments, perhaps the best example being the Palestinian Representative (effectively ambassador), Afif Safieh, who is a Catholic. However, these tend to be temporary. Many who stay on originally came as students, especially in the 1970s, married locals, and thereafter remained in the country.
In some cases, they had no choice. Jameel Bilata, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Church from Jerusalem, came here to study in 1964, and worships at St. George’s Orthodox Church in London, where most members are Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians. As a result of the Zionist aggression in 1967, he was prevented from returning to the city. His family is now scattered across the world - a microsm of the Palestinian Tragedy. Bilata is Treasurer of the Arab Club (whose secretary is Fadi Rahi, a Lebanese Maronite), and of Living Stones, a group fostering contact between British Christians and their co-religionists in Palestine and adjacent countries.
Bilata stated that the Zionists persecute Arab Christians just much as they do Arab Muslims. He rejected allegations from Christian Zionist elements that in the current Intifada Christians had been targeted by Muslims, and stressed that Arab Christians and Muslims were one cultural fabric. Bilata said that British Arab Christians felt strongly about events in Palestine, and about the sanctions against Iraq, both because of their religion and their national identity. As Christians, they deplored the human rights abuses and Apartheid discrimination against Arabs because of their race, and the suffering of the Iraqi people under sanctions, since Christianity teaches respect for human life. As Arabs, they shared the same patriotic outrage at the suffering of their compatriots in these countries.
Similar sentiments are found across the denominational spectrum. The only Arab pastor in the Church of Scotland is Rev. Samuel Hosain, author of an excellent pamphlet on Palestine entitled Israel Reassessed, which explodes Christian Zionism. Ironically, when he first came to Britain, he studied at the college where over twenty years later, this writer was a lecturer, but in his day, he suffered many painful experiences at the hands of a Christian Zionist lecturer (times have changed!). He has been outspoken about the suffering of Palestinians, and once trounced an Israeli Professor in a Christian-organised conference by his presentation, by reminding the audience that when Spain evicted its Jews, the Arabs/Muslims took them in, and also stated that when the Great Reckoning comes, Arabs and Muslims will be able to point out that nothing like Auschwitz ever happened to the Jews in the Islamic world.
Father Bishoy Makar of St. Mark’s Coptic Church in London said that there were 17 Coptic churches in the British Isles, with about 15,000 families, mainly Egyptians, and some Sudanese refugees. He expressed the hope that the present crisis would cause Arabs to awake, unite and aid the Palestinians, leading to peace with justice, and likewise with Iraq. Egyptian-born Pastor Wagih Abdel-Masih of the Arab Evangelical Church, whose grouping has several congregations here, with Arabs from several countries, claimed that 30% of British Arabs were Christians, mainly Egyptians and Lebanese, most being professionals, often doctors. Some, especially from Sudan were refugees from religious discrimination (something British Muslims need to recognise – writer). Though most lived in London, there were many in places like Manchester and Birmingham.
Wagih had recently been interviewed about Palestine by Premier, the Christian radio station. He rejected Christian Zionist theology, denying that Zionism played any role in the Second Coming of Christ. He deplored the double standards against Iraq, contrasting it with Western action over Yugoslavia. The community’s highlight this year was the recent opening of the Agape Arab Christian Centre, with Arabic bookshop and coffee-shop, at 11 Porchester Road, Bayswater, a sign of the increasing institutionalisation of Arab Christians here.
The existence of Arab Christian Britons is an exciting development. As reported in a previous article, Muslim-Americans have greatly benefited from the aid of the mainly Christian Arab-American community, and since many of the overseas concerns of Arab Christians and Muslims are similar, collaboration in these fields could be very fruitful. Since many Arab Christian Britons are professionals, and some like Sir Magdi Yaqub, the famous Coptic surgeon, or Eugene Cottran, Britain’s only Palestinian judge, have achieved prominence, this is especially true. What is needed is a broad British-Arab Council, through which Muslims and Christians could lobby against both domestic and overseas Arabophobia. Perhaps Arab Muslims like Azzam Tamimi, Fadi Itani (and Fuad Nahdi?) could help found this, utilising the vibrant skills of Arab Christians in the service of both communities.