Mideast Christians are the litmus test of Arab Spring

There must be a determined diplomatic campaign to ensure the rights and safety of the Middle East’s indigenous Christians.

COPTS ATTEND a mass funeral in Cairo R 311  (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)
COPTS ATTEND a mass funeral in Cairo R 311
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)
During last year’s Christmas holiday season, 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, 2010 resulted in the murder of 44 Christian worshipers, two priests and seven Iraqi security personnel. Then, on New Year’s Day 2011, a powerful car bomb targeted a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 25 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 that 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 mass protests.
Still, the vicious slaughter in Alexandria had left the Copts with an uneasy sense that the Mubarak regime was no longer able to protect them. As a result, 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 are poised to take over the new parliament, 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 percent 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 conversions to Islam. This pride goes even to the point that many 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 everyone over the age of 16 to carry an identity card containing their personal details, including their religion.
The card in necessary for employment, education, access to public services, even to be married and buried. Thus, there are good reasons that Copts want to be identified as Christians, but 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.
AS THE Arab Spring runs its course, the litmus test of whether democracy truly is taking root in Egypt and elsewhere in the region will be if the emerging rulers respect the rights of their Christian minorities.
I have serious doubts this will come about naturally.
It is totally dependent on Western leaders expressing their outrage – loudly and clearly – at any manifestation of Christian persecution. There must be 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 historic 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 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 sects, producing the unique hybrids of the Maronite and Greek Melkite churches which are loyal to the papacy but retain some Eastern Orthodox beliefs and practices.
These Western interlocutors all 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 Middle East Christians as a form of neo-colonialism. But no one has territorial designs here anymore. It is just a matter of plain human decency.
No coddling of Islamist regimes! Sanctions if necessary! Someone has to do something to help stop the endless bleeding of Eastern Christianity.
When Christ was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt to protect the child from the maniacal Herod the Great. Today, every warning sign says Egypt is no longer a place of refuge for his humble followers.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.