Lebanon Pulse

Do Christians Have a Future in the Middle East?

Article Summary
A recent conference in Amman gathered prominent Christian academics, politicians and parlimentarians from the Middle East to discuss the challenges Christians face in the wake of the Arab Spring.

On Sept. 27, approximately 50 academics, politicians and parliamentarians met in the Jordanian capital Amman for a three-day research conference. They were united by one thing: they are all Eastern Christians. They hail from the original Christian groups that remain in the region, from Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and Syria all the way to Lebanon. The conference — which Al-Monitor attended — was titled "Eastern Christians in Light of the Arab Spring." Yet, the few papers and recommendations that were presented were sufficient to realize the confusion in the title of the conference, for Christians are not certain that they will remain in the East. And there has been no "spring" in this region, where they have lived for more than two millennia.

The testimony of Christians presented by the researchers was impressive. The presentations on suffering, for instance, were divided into three areas. First, the status — including constitutions, laws and practices — of Christians in the Middle East in the various countries were addressed. The second area discussed was the demographic reality of those Christians. And finally, they addressed their expectations for the future.

While discussing the status of Eastern Christians, it quickly became apparent that all Christians of the region suffer from fatal discrimination — in terms of the provisions in their constitutions as well as laws and practices. All the constitutions in the region's states — with the exception of Lebanon — include a clear clause that says something to the effect of "Islam is the state religion" or "the primary religion of the state is Islam." Furthermore, these constitutions specify that Sharia is a source of the state's legislation, laws and regulations. From this primary discrimination emerges a never-ending series of distinctions, persecution and suffering. One of the parliamentarians in attendance — using black humor — described his situation as a Christian in his country. He said, "Our country's constitution stipulates that the president must be a Muslim and born in our country. On the other hand, our personal status laws, which are derived from Sharia, specify that if a child's parents are unknown — either the father, the mother or both — he is automatically registered as a Muslim." Thus, he continued, "Let's imagine that two children whose parents were unknown were found — one boy and one girl. They, of course, were registered as Muslims. Then, these two had a child, who naturally would be a Muslim. Here, this child, whose lineage is totally unknown to the Muslims of our country, would constitutionally be able to become president. Meanwhile, my son, whose ancestors have been on this land for thousands of years, is not able to aspire to this post."

Another parliament member from another Middle Eastern country explained the systematic and disguised persecution that Christians of various groups in his country suffer. According to him, they are not allowed to teach their children about the Christian religion, even in their few remaining private schools. Meanwhile, learning about the Islamic religion is mandatory for their children. There are also major obstacles when it comes to Christians obtaining public sector jobs. In the absence of laws or legislation on the subject, there exists a glaring aversion to hiring Christians in the public sector. Further, in the armed forces of this parliamentarian’s country, where some Christians are welcomed, a Christian officer can never advance beyond the rank of lieutenant colonel. Likewise, Christian officers will never be stationed in sensitive military or security centers. The reason given for this is that a Christian military pilot defected from his country’s army half a century ago and fled by plane to Israel. This justification is still seen as valid and sufficient in maintaining the discrimination leveled against Christians in the military for the past 50 years.

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A female Christian parliamentarian from a third country in the Middle East that is lauded as a symbol of “religious moderation” in the region, demonstrated the suffering experienced by Christian women in her country, where laws are drawn from Sharia. It goes without saying, as in all of these countries, Muslim men are permitted to marry Christian women. Muslim women, however, may not marry Christian men unless they convert to Islam. Inequality in divorce and inheritance rights are absolute: Women are entitled to half of what is given to men. In the absence of a clear heir, the property of a deceased person goes to the Islamic waqf. Yet, for deceased Christians, it goes to the state and not to the Christian waqf. In addition, custody of a divorced woman of her children depends on her religion. If a woman is Muslim, she may retain custody of her children until they are 13 years old. If the woman is Christian, however, her custody of her children ends when they turn nine. The standard here is exclusively up to the mother’s religion, and not what might be in the best interest of the children or the optimal conditions for raising them.

After the oppression spurred by constitutions, laws and practices, the subject of the demographic reality for Christians in their countries came up. There is one shared trait among them all: They are victims of a slow and masked form of genocide, one that has been ongoing for some time now. This genocide is on the verge of becoming more clearly detailed today, however. More than one million Christians have disappeared from Iraq, where there were fewer than 2 million Christians to begin with. Half a million Christians have left Syria, where there were once around 2 million. Copts in Egypt have persevered, however at tragic costs to their community. In Lebanon, the retreat has been clear. The conditions, current events and different climates are causing what appears to be a comprehensive transfer. They are all embarking down the same path as Palestinian Christians, as one of the participants from Jerusalem exclaimed. He spoke in a tone marked by a mix of desolation and sadness, “Only around 40,000 Christians remain in our country. In Gaza, where Sharia has prevailed for several years now, there are only 1,300 Christians. Even in Jerusalem, the city of the resurrection of Jesus and the cradle of Christianity, there are no more than 4,000 Christians.”

Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, among others, were at the conference. They listened, but they did not comment except for a few words on issues that specifically concerned them. Why is this? Was it out of a sense of responsibility for this tragedy? What are the possible ways of dealing with what has become one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time? We will look into these questions in the next article.

Note: All parliamentarians interviewed at the conference requested that their names and countries of origin not be made public.

Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station. He also teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon.

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Found in: religious minorities, muslims, muslim-christian relations, copts, christians in the middle east

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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