Mideast Christians: The litmus test of the Arab Spring

Post-protests and elections, do Christians have a future in the Middle East?

An Egyption Coptic father and son in a Cairo church (photo credit: Reuters)
An Egyption Coptic father and son in a Cairo church
(photo credit: Reuters)
Late in 2010, it seemed a pair of brutal terror assaults on Christian congregations in Egypt and Iraq had finally brought the plight of the Middle East’s embattled Christian minorities to the fore, at least to the point where Western leaders could no longer ignore this abysmal problem.
An al-Qaida cell’s shocking raid on a Baghdad cathedral in late October had murdered 44 Christian worshipers, two priests and seven Iraqi security personnel. Then on New Year’s Day, 2011, a powerful car bombing targeted a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 parishioners and wounding nearly 100 just as they were finishing midnight Mass.
As a long-time observer of the Middle East, I held out hope at the time that these tragedies would prove to be a tipping point, and the West would finally come to the rescue of the dwindling and battered Christian communities of the region. But then the Arab Spring erupted and realpolitik took over. Sadly, there was no time to deal with radical Muslim attacks on Christians when the entire Middle East was convulsing with unprecedented massive political protests.
Still, the vicious slaughter in Alexandria had left Egyptian Copts with an uneasy sense that the Mubarak regime was no longer able to protect them. So many withdrew their traditional support for the government and joined the mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square.
Yet now that the Muslim Brotherhood and an even more militant Salafist faction have won some 70 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament in Cairo, many Copts are having second thoughts. Already facing discrimination and harassment from a secular regime, they realize things could actually get a lot worse under the Islamists.
An ancient Christian community that according to tradition was introduced to Egypt by Saint Mark in 42 CE, the Copts today comprise nearly 10% of Egypt’s 80 million people. They are a proud faith community – proud that they have survived centuries of Muslim persecution and repeated attempts at forced conversion to Islam. This pride of identity goes even to the point that many Copts have small green crosses tattooed on their wrists.
Yet they are faced with a dilemma under the emerging new order in Egypt. The nation’s laws require that everyone over age 16 must carry an identity card containing their personal details, including their religion. The card is necessary for employment, education, access to public services, and even to be married and buried. Thus, for good reason Copts want to be identified as Christians. Yet holding such a card means facing certain discrimination in job opportunities, education and other pursuits in life.
As a result, the Copts are anxious to see whether the new constitution being drawn up for the country will guarantee them both equal rights as citizens and full religious freedoms as a distinct faith community. They also are fearful the army and courts will no longer be there to shield them from Muslim agitators and terrorists. Some have serious doubts on both accounts, and Western embassies in Cairo are already reporting an increase in Coptic Christians seeking to apply for emigration abroad. Some estimates claim as many as 100,000 Christians have already fled Egypt since the Mubarak regime fell last February.
Similar bouts of Christian exodus have been seen in other Arab countries, with Iraq’s ancient Assyrian Christian community collapsing from 1.5 million to as few as 250,000 since the Second Gulf War commenced in 2003.
So as the Arab Spring runs its course, the litmus test of whether democracy truly is taking root in Egypt and elsewhere in the region is if the emerging rulers respect the rights of their Christian minorities and secure their place in society.
Now there is good reason to seriously doubt that this will come about naturally. In fact, it is wholly dependent on Western leaders becoming vocally outraged at any manifestations of Christian persecution and a determined diplomatic campaign to ensure the rights and safety of the Middle East’s indigenous Christians, including political intervention when necessary.
There is clear historical precedent for such outside intervention in the Arab/Muslim world to protect Christian communities. As Ottoman rule over the Middle East began to wane, the Great Powers of Europe moved into the region, each concluding deals with the Sultanate in Istanbul to provide protection to various imperiled Christian denominations. British envoys arrived to safeguard Protestant interests, France the Lebanese Christians, Russia the Orthodox folds. The Vatican also stepped in to aid certain Eastern sects, producing the unique hybrids of the Maronite and Greek Melkite churches, which are loyal to the papacy but retain many Eastern Orthodox beliefs and practices.
Along with private American initiatives, these Western interlocutors brought with them schools, hospitals and other modern institutions, thus vastly improving the education, health and job opportunities of the local Christians. With this benevolent influx also came advances for all peoples of the region.
Some locals are sure to object to any renewed Western intervention on behalf of Mideast Christians as a form of neocolonialism. But no one has territorial designs here anymore. It is just a matter of plain human decency.
The emerging Islamist regimes must not be coddled! Sanctions should be imposed if necessary to safeguard the rights and even the lives of Christian minorities in the Middle East! Something has to be done to stop the endless bleeding of Eastern Christianity at the hands of radical Islam.
Yet beyond the urgent need for Western diplomatic intervention, there are signs that revival is hitting the Christians of the region. Reports out of Egypt, for instance, maintain that churches there are indeed persecuted but are also thriving. “Our pews are fuller than ever on Sundays,” one Protestant ministry leader stated last year.
A video recently posted on YouTube captured a remarkable scene of some 70,000 Egyptian Christians from Coptic, Catholic and Evangelical backgrounds who had gathered several months ago for an outdoor worship service which lasted all night. Their collective sense of joy and pride in their faith was clearly evident.
At present, the general trend of the Arab Spring is that Islamist factions are sweeping into power across the region, as seen in recent elections in Morocco, Tunisia and now Egypt. These are political parties which declare that Islam is the answer to all the region’s problems. But many Arabs know that Islam will not solve the social, economic and even spiritual ills of the Middle East. They are looking for other answers, and many are turning to Christianity.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org