The multidimensional problem of Levantine Greeks in the Jerusalem and Gaza conflict

The events surrounding Sheikh Jarrah and the Al-Aqsa Mosque incident are merely the tip of the iceberg in a multi-generational problem that has troubled our Levantine Greek community for over a century.

To make it entirely understandable for readers of non-Levantine origin, we must travel back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Under the Empire’s millet system, we as Greeks of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Turkish-occupied Antioch) were part of the same Millet as the Greeks of Asia Minor, just as the Greeks of the Helladic mainland had been before their liberation and independence.

However, things began to change as Western powers searched for a way to bring down their oriental competitor. The method they would settle on would be Arab Nationalism.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a propaganda machine would begin by introducing the region to Western European Nationalism to bring down, from within, the Ottoman Empire.

For the indigenous Greco-Roman population, the arrival of Arab Nationalism would result in us no longer being registered as Rûm (Rhomaioi/Roman-Greeks) like in the millet system, but as Arab Christians or Arab Orthodox.

At the time, an Arab identity had been chosen because Arabic was the Lingua Franca of the region – the only common denominator to which a unifying Nationalism could be created out of the multi-ethnoreligious character of the Levant.

Arab Nationalism was therefore born and spread like wildfire.

Greek Schools were shut down, and the ordinary people lost all connection to their ancestral language. However, the language remained somewhat alive within the liturgical life for a few decades more before being entirely replaced by Arabic.

Many within our community embraced this new identity, especially with multiple persecutions still fresh in their collective memory, such as the 1850 Massacre of Aleppo, the 1860 Massacre of Damascus, and the Ottoman Greek Genocide of 1914-23.

Therefore, our ancestors felt that their best chance for survival was adopting this new secular Nationalism rather than anything else. Keep in mind that our community was spread throughout the Levant and did not make up a clear majority within one specific geographic area. This fact prevented us from developing our own Romaic National Movement.

Instead, we opted for any ideology that preached a unified Levant to keep our community whole.

Fast forward several decades later, and Arab Nationalism is now the ideological foundation of multiple modern States seeking the realization of a united Arab Ummah – that is until a physical obstacle appears in their path, the State of Israel.

This new non-Arabic-speaking State would become the number one enemy of Arab Nationalism, which leads us to the next layer of this multidimensional problem.

Why do local Christians, which were forcefully Arabized, not support Israel?

Well, Israel has historically demonstrated no regard to ethnicity or religion in terms of displacing local inhabitants.

Whether Muslim, Christian, or even Atheist, the Israeli government had no problem seizing your family home and throwing you off our ancestral land.

For example, when the State of Israel was declared, the city of Bethlehem was 86% Christian.

Today, its Christian population only makes up roughly 10%.

Numerous Churches and Christian communities have been demolished and displaced to make way for new Jewish settlements built on illegally confiscated land. This deliberate attempt at altering the demographic makeup of Palestine continues to this day and affects Muslims and Christians alike.

Therefore, it is easy to see how we, as Levantine Greeks, get locked in and taken hostage by these two competing ideologies. We’re forced to choose between a slow demise within Arabism or Genocide at the hands of Islamists. The same goes for Zionism, we are tolerated within Israel as long as we know our place, but we will never be equals.

Although Arabism has begun to decline in popularity among our community in Lebanon and Syria in recent years, those in Palestine remain faithful to this false identity and its ideological cause.

Although, a handful have decided to embrace the Israeli State in hopes of better economic opportunities, they are ostracized and viewed as traitors by our Arabist community leaders.

At the same time, those who embrace our ancestral Greco-Roman identity are a minority within a minority with no real influence.

Arabism and Zionism are but two sides of the same ideological coin.

Neither represents a long-term option for our community’s survival in the Levant, which brings us to another layer of this multidimensional issue.

Christian Zionists financing and aiding in the elimination of their religious brethren throughout the Holy Land.

Often American in nationality, these Western Christians believe they must help Israel in some misguided attempt to fulfill biblical prophecy.

These fanatics assume that by rebuilding the temple of Solomon, the second coming will occur. We are but collateral damage in their biblically inspire mission.

These Christian Zionists are too busy trying to fulfill a biblical prophecy to understand the negative impact they are having on the region’s indigenous Christian communities.

Unless we convert to their Protestant denomination, in which then the American Christian Right will lobby on our behalf, the story of our lives, conversion for protection, just like in the days of the Islamic Caliphates, will continue.

As Levantine Greeks, we must stay out of this conflict as no side will help us maintain our ancestral traditions and heritage. As Christians, we should always speak up about discrimination and unfairness, but the time has come to look out for ourselves.

Arabism did not save us; Zionism will not either.

We need to revive our own Greco-Roman heritage and language to form a strong community, strong enough to guarantee a future in our homelands.

However, this can only be accomplished with the aid of Greece, but Greece needs to reach out to us, just like Russia did in Syria.


Elias Rafael Issa is the Founder and Chairman of the Levantine Greek Association.

READ MORE: Does the dispute over the Al-Aqsa Mosque affect the Levantine Greeks? 

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor