What’s to become of Mideast Christians?

November 25, 2011 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Syria’s Christians fear President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall, Henry Srebrnik writes.

Syria’s Christians fear President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall, Henry Srebrnik writes.

Middle East, November 21, 2011: The Arab awaking has been, at best, a mixed blessing for the Middle East’s Christian Arab minorities. The uprisings in Libya and Tunisia have had little impact on the region’s Christians, as these two countries are almost entirely Sunni Muslim in religion.

But Egypt and Syria are a different story. The fall of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, and the ongoing rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, the authoritarian president of Syria, has exposed these minorities to violence and persecution by extremists.

The upheavals have prompted concerns that regimes that were seen as guarantors of Arab Christian survival, whatever their other faults, may be replaced by ideological Islamists.

In fact, Christian Arabs have been leaving the Middle East for decades, fearing the growth of fundamentalist Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is estimated that about half of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians have fled the country since the American invasion in 2003, and even in Lebanon, which once had a Christian majority, the 1.7 million Christians are now only about one third of the country’s population.

They are now a negligible presence in the Palestinian territories – even in places such as Bethlehem. In Israel some nine per cent of its 1.6 million Arab citizens are Christian (hence about two per cent of the overall Israeli population). And in Jordan Christians comprise about three per cent of the population.

Egypt has some 10 million Christians, the largest remaining non-Muslim population in the Middle East by far. The ancient Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian denomination in Egypt, led by Pope Shenouda III. They represent more than 10 per cent of the total population.

Mubarak allowed them religious freedoms and punished Islamists who persecuted them. That protection is now gone.

A car bomb exploded in front of a Coptic Church in Alexandria last New Year’s Eve, killing 23 people and injuring at least 79. There was further sectarian violence in the country between Christians and Muslims in March and April.

The destruction at a Coptic church in southern Egypt on Sept. 30 further heightened tensions. When liberal Muslims joined Coptic Christians as they marched through Cairo’s Maspero area on Oct. 9 in protest, they were attacked.

Egyptian security forces then rammed their armed vehicles into the crowd and fired live ammunition indiscriminately. At least 36 people were killed and 272 injured.

The first stage of staggered parliamentary elections will begin on Nov. 28 amidst continuing turmoil and many Copts fear a strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Given these conditions, large numbers are leaving the country.

“If emigration of Christians continues at the present rate,” said Naguib Gabriel, director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations, “it may reach 250,000 by the end of 2011.”

Syria’s Christian population, once more than 30 per cent of the country’s total, is now down to 10 per cent. The 2.5 million Christians in Syria belong to various eastern rite Orthodox, Catholic and Assyrian churches.

The Assad regime in Syria is dominated by the Alawite minority, itself just 10 percent of the population. They came to political power in the 1960s by dominating the army and the Ba’ath Party.

A Shi’a sect, they are viewed by many Sunni Arabs – who are the vast majority of Syrians – as heretics.

Many Christians fear that Assad’s downfall would deprive them of the semblance of protection the Assad family has provided for four decades. (Bashar’s father Hafez ruled the country from 1970 until 2000.) They might be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership that has long been out of power.

The Damascus regime has claimed it is being challenged by Islamic radicals. The demonstrators deny that, but many Christians appear to believe it.

Hence there have been interventions from bishops and priests, Orthodox and Catholic, on behalf of the government. As the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Mario Zenari recently stated, Syria has been a country that has been “exemplary in terms of harmony between different religious confessions, for mutual respect between the Muslim majority and Christian minority.”

But the Assad regime is probably living on borrowed time. Syria has already been suspended from the 22-member Arab League. Its only Middle Eastern ally is fellow Shi’a Iran, while most Sunnis in the region, including the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, and non-Arab Turks, would shed few tears if it disappeared.

As Syria edges ever closer to civil war, Christians could well find themselves on the losing side. And should the regime fall, Syria might witness a bloodbath far worse than what we saw in Libya.

– henry srebrnik, journalpioneer

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