Fate of Arab Christians in the region hangs in the balance

Christians in the Middle East are facing a fraught time, except for a few countries – including the UAE – where tolerance still hold sway.

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In the face of growing insecurity, Christians throughout the region will soon be celebrating Christmas. While the conditions they encounter today are frightening, there are bright spots, as well, that point the way forward.

Two thousand years ago, Palestine was under harsh Roman rule. Jews were allowed to worship at their Temple in Jerusalem, but owing to the hardships they faced under occupation, many had abandoned their homeland. When the new faith of the Christians first took root, it too faced persecution from an intolerant establishment in Jerusalem who saw Christianity as a challenge to its authority and from Roman rulers who were concerned that they would be a destabilising force.

Through the ages, Christian communities have survived across the Middle East, facing down war, persecution and foreign rule. And they remain a presence up to the present day. Indigenous Christians are organised into churches whose diverse rites reflect the complex history of this region. Throughout the liturgical year, these churches celebrate their ancient rites in all the places memorialised in the Bible – in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Antioch, Sidon and Tyre, in Egypt and Iraq, and sites further east.

This year, however, as Arab Christians gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the promised “peace on earth, goodwill to men” will appear, at best, as a remote dream. Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, remains under Israeli occupation with its residents cut off from their lands by an oppressive 30-foot-high concrete barrier. The resultant loss of freedom, land and opportunity has taken a very real toll on the fabled “little town”. Christians can pray, but they cannot freely move about, engage in commerce or provide for their families. An immediate impact of these policies has been the crippling of Bethlehem’s industries. A further result has been the exodus of many of the town’s young.

If all is not well for Christians in the birthplace of Jesus, they are immeasurably worse in several other countries. Continuing sectarian conflict in Iraq, and now in Syria, have placed the ancient Christian churches in those countries at risk.

The US invasion of Iraq led to a breakdown of order leading to insurgency and ultimately to sectarian conflict. As armed groups cleansed communities of their rivals, defenceless Christians were deliberately targeted by extremists, who bombed their churches and businesses. During the first five years of the American occupation, more than a half of Iraq’s Christians were forced into exile. Those who remained lived in fear.

Syria was once known for its openness and religious diversity. The country, which had provided a refuge for Christians fleeing Iraq, is now in the throes of a long struggle. The Syrian conflict began as a movement demanding reform, but over time it has taken on a sectarian dimension. Caught, as one Syrian has termed it, “between the anvil of the regime and the hammer of violent extremists,” the country’s Christians have paid a dear price. Scores of churches have been destroyed and two bishops have been kidnapped by extremists. The famed ancient Aramaic-speaking town of Maaloula has been overrun by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group. Almost half of Syria’s Christians have joined their Muslim compatriots as refugees.

Egypt is home to the region’s largest Christian community – the Coptic Church – which represents between eight to 10 per cent of the country’s population. Owing to its size and influence, this community has thrived despite problems with discrimination, intolerance and violence. Beginning with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, the situation for Christians worsened. Following the July 3 removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government, there was an unprecedented acceleration of violence against Coptic churches, businesses and communities.

For the time being, the Christians of Lebanon appear to be secure.

Because Christians constitute more than a third of Lebanon’s population and because they have built strong institutional ties in all areas of governance, they have so far been insulated from the region’s storms. While Lebanon has received the largest number of Syrian refugees, the war has not yet spread across its border.

Jordan, despite housing huge numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, has also so far remained stable owing to the country’s wise leadership and its tolerant culture. It is the one bright spot in the Levant. King Abdullah II has championed interfaith dialogue and sponsored programmes calling for mutual respect among different communities.

If Jordan is a model of religious harmony, so are some of the smaller Gulf countries. This Christmas, for example, Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi Christians living in the UAE will all pray openly in an environment free from fear. Last Christmas, I was in Abu Dhabi teaching at NYU. The churches in that city host services in all of the different languages spoken by those who work in the country. And on Christmas Day, the country’s Muslim leaders even go to church as a mark of respect for their Christian Arab neighbours.

The current situation for Christians in the Middle East may be worrisome, but it can change. Many other countries and regions of the world (including my own) have lived through bloody civil wars and known periods of religious-motivated intolerance. And, as Jordan and the UAE make clear, the problems facing Arab Christians today do not come from Islam. Rather they spring from war, occupation and the extremist ideologies that originate in war. What the region needs, therefore, is an end to conflict and repressive violence. It also needs wise leadership that will hold up the value of mutual respect among religions and the benefits that accrue from diversity – both are essential features of Islamic history.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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