Across the Middle East, Christians Faced with Turmoil

Article Summary
Christians across the Arab World have looked on with apprehension as inter-sectarian violence persists and minorities remain underrepresented in elected government. The Christian communities in some countries have emigrated from the region, while others have remained, demanding greater autonomy and a larger political role, writes Claire Chakar.

Lebanese Christian politicians are looking at the changes in the region - or what has come to be known as the Arab Spring - with great concern.  They are calling upon their supporters to carefully observe the situation in neighboring Arab countries [where Islamists have come to power], and to take it as a salutary lesson for the Lebanese Christians. [In the Arab World], Christianity has undergone a demographic decline in recent decades. Several political, economic and social factors have turned Christians into [latter-day] Native Americans, forced to hole up and defend their dwindling strongholds. Christians had pinned their hopes on an Arab Spring based on Arab identity; thus the purely Islamic tidal wave that has come to characterize the Spring has been alarming to the Christians of the region.

From Palestine, Iraq and Turkey, to Lebanon, Egypt and soon Syria, the Christian presence [in the Middle East] continues to deteriorate. Turkey was first to witness a Christian [displacement]. More than a million Christians were displaced in the early 20th century, and now there only are approximately 100,000 Armenian and Syriac [Christians] left in Turkey. Today, this Christian minority is represented by one single MP, who won his seat in parliament through a Kurdish electoral list.

In recent years, with the revival of the dream of Ottoman expansion [in Turkey], Ankara has been making "symbolic" attempts - characterized by a certain openness - to make amends for the "guilt" it feels for having displaced Christians. Some describe these attempts "systematic," as Turkey is preparing to host an expanded meeting of all Middle Eastern Patriarchs to discuss religious pluralism. Within this context, it is being rumored that one Patriarch commented that Syrian Christians would be welcomed into Turkey if Bashar al-Assad's regime was to fall.

Although the Iranian Constitution is Islamic, it nevertheless respects diversity. It provides for an official [parliamentary] quota for religious minorities (Armenians and Assyrians are both represented by two deputies). However, the prevailing Islamic atmosphere in the Persian country has [led most Christians to leave]. There are no more than 200,000 Armenians and perhaps 40,000 Assyrians left practicing the Christian religion in Iran.

The most painful blow to the Christian presence [in the Middle East] took place in Iraq - the land of the Babylonian, Assyrian and Chaldean cultures, and formerly home to over 1.5 million Christians. These Christians have clung to their lands throughout centuries of invasions into Iraq - from the days of Genghis Khan through the era of the Ba’athist regime, and during the fall of the central authority when the American disaster struck. Around 400,000 to 500,000 Christians are still living in the Mesopotamia. Iraqi Christians are distributed between Baghdad, where around 150,000 Christians reside, the Ninewah, which is home to the largest Christian presence (around 250, 000 Christians) and northern Iraq or Kurdistan, where around 12,000 Christians live.

One of the principal reasons behind the decline of the Christian presence in Iraq is that these groups did not choose to bear arms as many had. Iraqi Christians were also left without any external support to defend and preserve their rights; immigration was their only recourse. Furthermore, Christian leaders failed to develop a draft law on which they could base their rights. Christians in Iraq fell victim to the wars of “others”
Christians who have come to make up about 5% of the Iraqi population (the Iraqi authorities claim that this number is closer to 3%), managed to win five out of 325 parliamentary seats in the latest elections. This number is in accordance of the quota granted to them by the Constitution, although it is not representative of their numerical presence.

To make matters worse, some observers believe that the central authority does not see Christians as partners in the country, looking upon them instead as mere "guests," while it should instead have defended their cause given their sharp demographic decline. However, this has not been the case. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a spontaneous statement describing them [simply] as the "Christian Community" in one of his correspondences. This is overwhelming evidence of the superior feelings harbored by Iraqis, and of the fact that they look down on their fellow Christian citizens. However, it should be noted that Maliki apologized for [this statement].

The Kurds seek to turn [Iraqi] Kurdistan into the ideal model for addressing minorities. So far, they have taken the right steps. The deputy prime minister and the minister of finance are both Christian, not to mention that Christians are represented by five MPs in the Kurdish Parliament. Additionally, authorities have taken steps to "normalize" the Christian presence through a certain cultural renaissance taking place in Ankawa [a suburb of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil], and allowing for the revival of the Syriac language among other measures. Kurdish authorities have also welcomed and accommodated those displaced Christians coming from Baghdad and other governorates.

However, these measurements failed to prevent some Muslim groups from burning down more than 50 stores and hotels owned by Christians in December 2011, under the pretext that they were selling alcohol. This wave of violence came to be known as the "Battle of Zakho."

Christian leaders have been deliberating over the future of their followers. Some prefer to follow in the footsteps of other segments of the Iraqi society, demanding greater levels of autonomy as the country tends towards federalism. The leaders are demanding that the province of Ninewah (where half of the population is Christian, and the rest are a mix of Sabians, Yazidis and Mandaens) be granted a certain degree of anatomy. This proposal, however, has failed to generate a Christian consensus.

According to observers following the displacement of Iraqi Christians, most Iraqi Christians who have chosen to leave have chosen Europe, the United States or Australia as a destination. Meanwhile, more than 120,000 Iraqi Christians left for Syria at the beginning of the Iraqi crisis as part of the one million Iraqi refugees living there.

Additionally, more than 10,000 Iraqi Christians left for Lebanon. This number has declined to around 6,000 given the dire economic and social conditions in Lebanon due to the lack of formal care and the reluctance of [Lebanese] Christian forces to preserve their rights. This is not to mention the limited capacities of the Church in Lebanon. However, it has been said that at some point authorities will provide care to these Iraqi families and pave the way for their resettlement in an attempt to improve the demographic balance in Lebanon.

In the land of the Pharaohs, where the revolution ostensibly produced a democratic Spring, Copts who make up 6 to 10% of the Egyptian population according to the contrasting estimates, have not yet been able to taste freedom. The sectarian spirit sweeping across Egypt has pushed some Copts to cry out for the days of [toppled president] Hosni Mubarak. In the new parliament, the Copts are represented by only five MPs, one of whom one his seat off of an Islamic list. Afterwards, the central authorities appointed four MPs out of respect for the official quota. The Christian voice was stifled against the backdrop the electoral divisions that took place between segments of the overwhelmingly Muslim population. The Christian participation rate in the elections was very low, underscoring the frustration which has begun to creep among the Copts.

In Syria, Christians make up about 10% of the population and include Roman Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Armenians and Chaldeans. These groups together amount to less than two million people. The Ba’ath regime [in Syria] witnessed a Christian exodus - albeit limited - due to the [tough] economic situation and restrictions on public freedoms. One should note that although there are no official quotas for Christians given the state’s secular identity, religious freedoms are protected in Syria.

According to Habib Afram, the head of the Syriac League, Christians are not afraid, for their faith is strong. However, they are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon - which took place against the backdrop of a civil war - could play out again [in their own lands].

These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians, and have only been exacerbated by the death of more than 200 Christians in Homs as the result of the destructive violence in that area, where the only victims have been civilians.

[Syrian] Christians have been sounding the alarm; but they still have faith in the their land and have not deserted it. For this reason, the crisis in Syria has yet to result in a significant Christian exodus. There are reports that some affluent Syrian families have sought the opinion of Lebanese Christians leaders about Lebanon’s ability to accommodate displaced Syrian Christians. However, no answer has been forthcoming.

Christians' rights in the Arab and Islamic world should not be "limited to freely practicing religious rites; they should also be able to participate, like other communities, in the political process," said Habib Afram.

Recently, Christian groups have been seeking security and stability, especially in Syria, which has witnessed a serious [increase] in religious violence (the bombing of the Saidnaya Convent and the death of Father Basil Nassar). These events are aggravating the fears of Syrian Christians. The Syrian opposition, on the other hand, is faced by an even greater challenge: To secure the fate of the Christian minority, as the world, the Vatican specifically, remains silent in the face of these developments. Guarantees of their future have yet to be provided to Christians. Therefore, the survival of Christians in their own land lies in the hands of their partners, and especially in the hands of the emerging regimes, which are supposedly acting according to newly [embrace principles] of citizenship and equality. According to Afram, all of this remains just talk.

Found in: regional politics, minority rights, minorities, christian diaspora, christian, arab christians, arab

Cookies help us deliver our services. By using them you accept our use of cookies. Learn more... X