Christian communities under threat to everyone’s detriment
Christianity, which started in a Bethlehem stable, has been an integral part of the Middle East for 2,000 years. At its best it has contributed greatly, along with Islam and Judaism, to the culture and life of the region; at its worst it has been a source of conflict.
Today, the destiny of the region’s Christian communities is umbilically linked to the future of the countries in which they live – and to the ideologies competing for power. Ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to Lebanon this week, it is timely to look at the circumstances of Christian communities in the region.
The cruellest paradox is that Christian minorities – and others – are criticised for not embracing the ideologies and acts of those who seek to annihilate them.
The situation has varied from country to country, but in the heady days of the Arab Spring talk revolved around democracy, human rights, accountability, equal citizenship, and an end to the culture of impunity and repressive, corrupt forms of government.
In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Muslims and Copts joined together in their demands. But they had barely taken down their banners before Salafi groups began to foment violence against the Copts. The Egyptian Muslim novelist, Alaa Al Aswany, put it well: “We can expect Islamists to use the democratic system merely as a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away, so that no one else can use it.”
More than 100,000 Coptic Christians left Egypt in a nine-month period last year. They were coerced into flight, according to the European Union of Human Rights Organisations, “by threats and intimidation [by] hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection … from the Egyptian regime”.
There has also been an exodus from Iraq, the cradle of ancient churches, but now the scene of their disappearance. Iraq’s 1987 census reported 1.4 million Christians, but today there may be fewer than 150,000. As one Christian in Iraq commented: “The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It’s as if we have been swallowed up by the night.”
Many of them fled to Syria where, as the bloodshed continues, the talk is no longer about the ideals of the Arab Spring but rather of sectarianism, enclaves, violence and growing fear. Following the catastrophe in Homs, 120,000 Christians fled the city. Now the ancient Christian communities in Damascus and Aleppo are terrified, as fundamentalist groups increasingly target them.
In the Middle East, as elsewhere, the principles of security and tolerance are essential to human dignity – and survival. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states, in part: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes … freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
As Amnesty International says: “Restrictions on religious freedoms can often lead to other human rights violations.” Concern for Christian communities in the Middle East is, therefore, inextricably connected to concern for the well-being of society as a whole.
This is not relevant to the Arab world alone, of course. Hundreds of Christians languish in Iran’s jails, as a result of the increasing persecution of religious minorities there.
Further afield, Pakistan’s Christian minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was murdered in March 2011, two months after the slaying of Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab and a Muslim. Taseer had been a courageous critic of the rise of intolerance and of the capricious use of apostasy and blasphemy laws to suppress and intimidate.
Taseer was not the only Muslim who has been a target for the extremists, as one can see from the acts of Al Qaeda – and its many mutations and imitators – in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere.
And Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which says its interim goal is “to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country” is little different in essence from Al Shabab, which maintained a reign of terror in Somalia.
The extremists are not the majority. Many Muslims do much to promote tolerance and interfaith understanding. They and I would agree in criticising and condemning the acts of those extremists who distort and pervert the message of Islam in an attempt to justify their brutality.
Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, has emphasised the importance of mutuality and reciprocity: “Churches in the UAE have been part of our tolerant landscape for many years, even before the formation of the state. Given that we welcome so many non-Muslims to reside in our country, surely we must provide them with places of worship,” Dr Gargash wrote on this page last month.
The UAE’s 40 churches, including the magnificent new Coptic cathedral in Abu Dhabi and the new Anglican church in Ras Al Khaimah, are evidence of the UAE Government’s view that the beliefs of some are not a threat to the beliefs of others.
People of faith need to go back to their holy Scriptures and consider how to counter visceral hatred, to promote coexistence, and to insist on authentic citizenship – not second-class “dhimmi” status – for all.
In particular, the rights of religious minorities must be protected, and those who incite violence or who preach hatred against them must be denounced and prosecuted.
Believers in any, and all, religious faiths who wish to live up to their ideals must promote coexistence and respect: living, not killing. Only then can the hopes of the Arab Spring be achieved.