Arab Spring is 'threat to Christians' says UK archbishop

Archbishop of Canterbury, head of Anglican church, warns of extremism risk and says vacuum left by ousted regimes has led to 'anxious times' with some Christian groups subject to 'ethnic cleansing'.
Women cry in Saint Mary Church, in Cairo, which was set on fire last month during clashes between Muslims and Christians. Mohamed Abd El-Ghany / Reuters
Women cry in Saint Mary Church, in Cairo, which was set on fire last month during clashes between Muslims and Christians. Mohamed Abd El-Ghany / Reuters

LONDON // The Arab Spring is posing a threat to Christian communities throughout the Middle East, the spiritual head of the Anglican Church has warned.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said extremists were filling vacuums left by the ousting of autocratic regimes, leading to Copts being targeted in Egypt. In Syria, Archbishop Williams warned, tensions between Christian communities and Muslim majorities were reaching breaking point. In northern Iraq, Christians had been subjected to a form of "ethnic cleansing", he said.

The archbishop made his comments in an interview with BBC radio on Tuesday in which he said that even in Bethlehem, Christ's birthplace, the once-majority Christian population had now become a "marginalised minority".

In Egypt, Archbishop Williams blamed much of the anti-Christian violence on outside elements, perhaps influenced by al Qa'eda, from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

"There is no doubt at all that it is a very anxious time for Christian communities. There have been extremist atrocities already, especially in Egypt," he told BBC Radio 4.

"It is a fairly consistent pattern over a number of months. Although at leadership level in the Muslim community in Egypt there is clear condemnation of this, it's evident that there are other forces at work, which, of course, may not be native Egyptian."

The archbishop said that the situation in northern Iraq was even worse, with life becoming "unsustainable" for many Christians, a situation that he said justified the description "ethnic cleansing".

He added: "The level of violence has been extreme. More and more there is the talk of an 'enclave solution' to the problem in Iraq, that is, a sort of safe territory for Christians, which Christians and their leaders don't particularly want, but many would think is the only practical outcome now."

Archbishop Williams said that there had been more killings of Egyptian Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the country's 80 million population, and more burnings of churches than most people were aware of.

He said that he was "guardedly optimistic" that the upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa would bring greater democracy to the region. "In the long term, of course, a real participatory democracy in the region is bound to be in the interests of minorities because good democracies look after minorities," he said.

But he added that, in the short term, extremists were using the chaos as an excuse to attack Christian minorities, especially in Egypt.

Sreeram Chaulia, the vice dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, agreed that "the future of minority communities is delicately poised" as the Arab Spring turned to summer.

"Since Mubarak was overthrown through a multi-religious coalition representing all segments of Egyptian society, the status of the Copts in the new emerging order remains in limbo," he wrote in the Asia Times on Tuesday.

"Egyptian Christians were big sufferers under their self-appointed former guardian Mubarak, but the prospect of a democracy dominated by Sunni Islamists has left them extremely wary of what lies ahead.

"The absence of a viable 'national unity' party or umbrella coalition in the elections scheduled for the end of 2011 is a frightening one for the Copts, who fear retributive politics from a hardline, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government."

Mr Chaulia said that an even more complex situation would be bound to arise in Syria, pitting the Sunni majority against the dominant Shiite Alawis.

"Alawis have been selectively chosen to occupy all critical posts in the state structure by both Hafez and his son, President Bashar al Assad," he said.

"As with Egypt under Mubarak or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bashar's self-justification includes the claim that he is the only secular force that can prevent Alawi minorities from being subjugated by Sunni majoritarianism if democracy were to be allowed.

"From their present perch as an 'advantaged minority' [a phrase employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], Alawis have every reason to believe in a backlash against them if Bashar also falls the way Mubarak and former secular strongmen like Ben Ali of Tunisia and, presumably, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen have.

"Syria also has a sizeable Christian minority of its own, which too watches gingerly as the mass unrest shakes Assad and triggers massacres."

Mr Chaulia argued that planners of non-violent, democratic change in the Middle East have to consider how minorities can be accommodated into the mainstream.

"Due to historical colonial design, most states of the Middle East are multi-ethnic," he said.

"If Arab democracy activists and their leaders, hailing mostly from majority ethnic backgrounds, are not mindful of the threats of continued discrimination against minority groups after the fall of the ancien regime, they risk chaos and undesirable external interventions, which could snuff out the dream of freedom altogether."

Published: June 16, 2011 04:00 AM


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