Will Christians disappear from the Middle East?

Lebanese and other Christian leaders in the region need to take action to prevent Christians leaving the Middle East for good.

al-monitor Members of the Lebanese Christian Maronite community carry a statue and a sample of the blood of Saint John Paul II to Saint George Cathedral in downtown Beirut, May 16, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Caren Firouz.

Topics covered

lebanon, lebanese sectarianism, islamic fundamentalists, coptic christians, christians in the middle east, christians, christianity

Jul 27, 2014

More than 60 years after the collapse of the Jewish element in the Arab region and most of the Muslim world (because of the establishment of Israel), the Christian element of today — larger in numbers than the Jewish one ever was — is, for the first time, entering a whirlwind which threatens its existence. This is because of Islamic fundamentalism.

There are two main turning points for the demographic change in modern times which transformed the identity of our Arabic societies, as well as some Muslim ones.

The first is the establishment of Israel, which made our societies almost completely lose the Jewish element. The Jewish groups were an organic part of our Arab lives in Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, Syria and Iraq, as well as in Iran and somewhat in Turkey. The deep tension that followed the establishment of Israel by expelling the Palestinians caused the Jewish existence to gradually fade out of the Arab environment. Its existence in light of such a violent conflict has become impossible for many reasons.

The second is the situation of the past 10 years, after the Iraqi change and the Syrian outbreak. Syrian and Iraqi interference is the second turning point which could lead to an imminent loss of the Christian element in Syria and Iraq (not to mention the fact that the Christian element is fading out of Israel and the regions it occupies).

If the rise of Zionism is responsible for the historic course of the Jewish element in our societies, then the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is responsible for the situation of Christians today. In the face of this catastrophic deterioration, what is the point of talking about “moderate fundamentalism” and “extremist fundamentalism?”

During the past 30 years, it has been made very clear that extremist fundamentalism was born from the womb of what is now called “moderate” fundamentalism. Here lie the common responsibilities of the Muslim and Christian elites in the region: to find a way out of this fundamentalism which is uncontrollably spreading in our societies and countries, not only politically but also socially, culturally and economically.

The Coptic Church in Egypt has entered, for the first time, a struggle over the identity of the Egyptian government and has clearly sided with the movement opposing the Muslim Brotherhood.

The currently democratic Turkish government, due to the circumstances under which it was created in early 1920s, led the Greeks and Armenians to fade out of Anatolia. It also led most Christians to fade out of the region due to the religious background of the Turkish (Muslim) conflict with the Greeks and Armenians (Christians). … This Turkish government is structurally insensitive to Christian existence in the region and has long forgotten this time-honored tradition which survived until the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Iran, with its religious regime, is also concerned about priorities other than religious diversity. This is despite the fact that this Iranian government has noticed — through its interference with the change that occurred in Iraq and the Syrian conflict — the importance of the threat to Christian existence in these two countries. The clergy in Iran and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey have both learned from the Lebanese experience and from the essential role of Christians there. However, what is feared is that all these dealings with various Arab countries and societies is limited in Iranian and Turkish speech to political and cultural etiquette.

Saudi Arabia is concerned about limiting the spread of the Iranian “Shiite Crescent.” Since 2003, it has been dealing with Iraq on the grounds of protecting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), not defensively but offensively. However, the irony is that the same kingdom leading the Sunni offensive against Iran is now fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and has helped in eliminating it from Egypt. This role might contribute in the future to turning the region into a nonsectarian environment for conflicts.

Separately, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai’s visit to Damascus and later on to Israel was not followed, in the course of regional events, by any action from a political or religious official or any committee representing Christians in the Fertile Crescent and Iraq — especially not from Lebanon — that would indicate an understanding of the existential danger facing Christians in the region, specifically in Syria and Iraq.

The significance of the patriarch’s visits goes beyond the actual occasions. The first visit was to participate in the inauguration of the Orthodox patriarch and the second was to accompany Pope Francis in his visit to Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Both visits indicate a change in the political behavior of the Maronite Church, dictated by the unprecedented situation in the region, which is now threatening — and has already begun — to completely change the religious and cultural structure of the region since the appearance of Islam in Syria and Iraq. However, the greater catastrophe is that the political authority representing Christians in Lebanon, which is the only strong bloc both politically and economically among the Christians of the East (even though it is demographically smaller than the Copts in Egypt), did not react to this dangerous situation. This authority kept drowning in its personal conflicts and foreign engagements, as if what is happening to Christians in the region were not worthy of acting as if there is a state of emergency and launching a much-needed new strategy.

Where is the true review, which requires more than simply going over tactics and launching appeals? We say this while fully aware of the engagements of the Sunni and Shiite political elites, who are controlling their sects, as well as all the Lebanese political class in conflicting regional projects.

In a time closer to (destructive) endings rather than (promising) beginnings, it may be required that Lebanese Christian leaders deal with the Christian cause in the region by considering Lebanon “responsible” for the Christians’ fate in the region instead of being a mere witness. This requires a political responsibility that needs new priorities. It requires setting a noble mission for all Lebanese (and Arab) authorities, no matter what their confessions are.

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