William Dalrymple in The Guardian (Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images):
According to tradition it was St Thomas and his cousin Addai who brought Christianity to Iraq in the first century. At the Council of Nicea, where the Christian creed was thrashed out in AD325, there were more bishops from Mesopotamia than western Europe. The region became a refuge for those persecuted by the Orthodox Byzantines, such as theMandeans – the last Gnostics, who follow what they believe to be the teachings of John the Baptist. Then there was the Church of the East, which brought the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, as well as Greek science and medicine, to the Islamic world – and hence, via Cordoba, to the new universities of medieval Europe.
Now almost everywhere Arab Christians are leaving. In the past decade maybe a quarter have made new lives in Europe, Australia and America. According to Professor Kamal Salibi, they are simply exhausted: “There is a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East. Now they just want to go somewhere else, make some money and relax. Each time a Christian goes, no other Christian comes to fill his place and that is a very bad thing for the Arab world. It is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world 'Arab' rather than 'Muslim'.”
Certainly since the 19th century Christian Arabs have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity. It is no coincidence that most of the founders of secular Arab nationalism were men like Michel Aflaq – the Greek Orthodox Christian from Damascus who, with other Syrian students freshly returned from the Sorbonne, founded the Ba'ath party in the 1940s – or Faris al-Khoury, Syria's only Christian prime minister. Then there were intellectuals like the Palestinian George Antonius, who in 1938 wrote in The Arab Awakening of the crucial role Christians played in reviving Arab literature and the arts after their long slumber under Ottoman rule.
If the Islamic state proclaimed by Isis turns into a permanent, Christian-free zone, it could signal the demise not just of an important part of the Arab Christian realm but also of the secular Arab nationalism Christians helped create.