Deceased Christian Arabs face discrimination by Muslim authorities - opinion

Despite the great contributions of generations of Greek Orthodox and Greek Melkite Catholics, such as Shireen Abu Akleh, they still face discrimination in life and death.

 A PALESTINIAN MAN draws a mural of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
A PALESTINIAN MAN draws a mural of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

When I heard about the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a journalist from the Palestinian Greek Melkite community, I was not aware of her ethnic or religious background. Indeed, most Levantine Greeks, or Rum, are a cosmopolitan mix of identities and blend in with the majority.

Within hours after her death, all of us became aware of her Melkite Greek Catholic background. Sadly, social media was flooded with comments and videos from Arab Muslims that forbid their fellow Muslims from asking God to grant her mercy, as is tradition in the Middle East. Because Shireen wasn’t a Muslim, such a farewell statement was said to be forbidden. Despite her strong support of the Palestinians, for Muslims in the region, she remained a stranger.

Shireen isn’t the only one to face such discrimination. Last year, Michel Kilo, a brave Syrian dissident from the Greek Orthodox community of Syria, died. He is considered one of the founding fathers of the Syrian opposition movement. When he died, many Syrians who were staunch opponents of the Assad regime argued against asking God for mercy for his soul simply because he was a Christian. They held this view despite the fact that he spent his life taking profound risks to fight the Assad dictatorship.

Many Levantines of Greek heritage have played prominent roles in the most important issues in the Middle East. They headed Arab nationalist, communist and leftist movements. They even led radical Palestinians movements (George Habash and Wadih Haddad, for example). Despite all the praise that Muslims and Arabs give these Greek Levantine figures, they are brutally attacked if they utter a word of their native culture.

On Easter, a well-known Greek Orthodox TV presenter named Nicholas Khoury published the phrase “Christ has risen” on his Facebook account. He was instantly attacked with thousands of comments that ridiculed him, including from his own fans who had long cheered him for confronting Islamophobia.

 Shireen Abu Akleh (credit: AL JAZEERA) Shireen Abu Akleh (credit: AL JAZEERA)

Despite the great contributions of generations of Greek Orthodox and Greek Melkite Catholics, they still face discrimination in life and death.

What the previous Rum Generation fought for no longer appeals to the new generations who suffered greatly from the Islamic movements that flourished during the Arab Spring. Due to the power of social media, they witnessed first-hand the true extent of the hatred they are exposed to. In turn, they blame their ancestors for not sufficiently focusing on their Greek Levantine identity and distinguishing themselves from Sunni Arabs.

This revisionist historical narrative has led to calls for Rum to actively avoid conflicts that their ancestors were involved in – anti-colonial and anti-Zionist movements which came at the expense of defending their authentic Greek Levantine issues.

Greek Levantine organizations still active today

Today, there are Greek Levantine organizations in the diaspora and the Middle East (specifically Lebanon), that call for the recognition of an eastern Greek identity, as an ethnicity independent of Arabs and Turks.

This struggle is being led by educated young women and men, and members of the older generations that saw with their own eyes how their fight to affirm an inclusive identity has failed in the face of Islamism. Greece and Cyprus should take these transformations seriously and help the Levantine Greeks form new associations and engage in peaceful solutions in the region.

Peace be upon the soul of Shireen Abu Akleh. She gave her life to a cause which many racists and supremacists are involved in, who do not distinguish between Christian and Jew, but rather see them all as infidels. These radicals, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, actually applaud the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. No wonder they can’t bring themselves to ask God to have mercy on the soul of Shireen.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.