Pope Benedict XVI concluded on Sept. 14-16 a special visit to Lebanon, designed to strengthen the Christian communities there. His visit was held during a period in which many Christians in the Middle East feel threatened by the rise of Islamic political power. The process causing many Christian communities in the region to diminish in size, has accelerated on the heels of the Arab Spring and is even likely to lead to the disappearance of these communities — just like the Jewish communities that once flowered in the Arab world also disappeared over the last century.
This is not a new phenomenon — that Christians who are threatened by Islamic extremists, and facing lack of opportunities at home, look for better lives abroad. Christians today constitute about five percent of the population in the Middle East, compared to more than 20% a hundred years ago. But if today’s pressures will continue — as expressed by terrorist attacks against churches, as well as low birth rates among the Christians — there are real fears about the future of the Christian communities.
Memories of Iraq are still fresh in the memories of many Christians. The ethnic-based murders, carried out in the wake of the American invasion, let to mass departures of Christians from Iraq. Now the main concern is the future of religious minorities in Syria, home to the bloodiest chapter of the Arab revolutions. The worry is that the dismissal of one minority, the Alawites, will arouse the religious goblins and the Iraqi scenario will repeat itself. If that happens, it is highly probable that the Christians in Syria will be caught in the cross-fire of the power struggle between the Shiites and Sunnis, and will feel impelled to leave the country.
Iraq is an example of the connection between chaos, and violence inflicted against minorities. Ever since 2003, the Iraqi Christian community became a target for violent attacks, despite the community’s second-century CE roots in the country. As a result of the attacks, more than a million Christians left the country. The future of the community in Egypt, the largest of the Christian communities in the Middle East, is also shrouded in mystery. The assessment is that due to the Egyptian upheaval, about a quarter of a million of Christian Copts have left the country and many others submitted applications for emigration. The increase in number of attacks against Coptic churches and villages, and the worry that religious pluralism would be further eroded with the rise of the Moslem Brotherhood to the government, intensified the insecurity of this ancient community.
The Copts have been complaining for a long time about discrimination in the work-place and discriminatory legislation. One example of this are the difficulties involved in building churches, as opposed to the ease with which mosques are constructed. Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, announced that he would treat all the Egyptians fairly, In practice, however, Egypt’s judiciary sentenced on Sept. 18, a Christian Copt to six years behind bars, because he insulted the Prophet Mohammed.
The rich history of Christianity in the region is not sufficient to guarantee its future. The rise in the status of Islamic movements, threatens the fragile religious equilibrium. The period of instability is from the revolutionary stage to the stage in which the new regime becomes stabilized. Thus, although Islamic parties do not automatically pose threats against the Christians, there is reason for worry in light of the events of the past year-and-a-half in the Middle East. Should signs of democracy develop in the long-term, this is likely to bring about pluralism and greater integration of minority groups, but in the short term there is concern that the violence will only intensify. The anti-Islamic film disseminated by a Coptic Christian, which led to an ugly wave of violence by Muslims in the region, will not contribute to the precarious circumstances of the Copts in Egypt, the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and the Assyrian Christians in Iraq.
With regards to preserving minority rights, Israel has also not reached a desirable level. Israel can, and should, serve as an example and paradigm for protecting the Christian communities within its borders.
The author is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) [Tel Aviv University].
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