The final outcome of the Arab Spring will not be known for years, perhaps decades, but in the meantime Christian communities across the Middle East continue to wither.
The latest to face a possible exodus are Syrian Christians, many of whom are on the ‘wrong’ side of the deepening civil war there.
The birthplace of Christianity has held populations of denominations that predate Islam: Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean and Assyrian Christian.
But theses churches have never stopped shrinking, in early times because of conversions to Islam to escape discrimination or worse, and more recently from emigration, low birth rates compared to their Muslim neighbors and violence by extremists among them.
A century ago, Christians made up perhaps 1 in 5 of Middle East peoples. Today it’s not even 1 in 20.
Though criticized for their human-rights records, some authoritarian and secular regimes, such Syria’s Assads, ironhandedly crushed most religious strife.
But the toppling of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt exposed a tragic result: resurgent Muslim radicals making life harder on the Christians of those lands.
Iraq is the most extreme example; two-thirds of its original 1.5 million Christians have fled homes and churches since U.S. forces invaded nine years ago. In Tunisia, a mob in June beheaded a convert to Christianity. A recent news story reported: “Dozens of Gaza Christians staged a rare public protest … claiming two congregants were forcibly converted to Islam and were being held against their will.”
The Syrian Christians may regret allying with President Bashar Assad against the majority Sunni Muslims. Assad belongs to the ruling Alawite minority, a sect out of mainstream Islam seen by fundamentalist Sunnis as heretical. Alawites make up about 12 percent of the Syrian population, same as Christians.
Some Christians have refused to take sides or have already fled to Lebanon. In Wadi al-Nasara, or the Valley of the Christians, west of Homs, some are fighting beside Alawite loyalists.
“Many Christians in Syria believe that there’s no alternative to the Bashar Assad regime,” Jesuit Father Paulo Dall’Oglio told the Wall Street Journal after being expelled by the government in June. Retribution is expected from the rebel groups supported by radical Wahhabist Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
“We have been leading a life that has been the envy of many,” said Isadore Battikha, who until 2010 served as the Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Homs, Hama and Yabroud. “But today fear is a reality.”
A shift in Egypt
Cairo’s once-crowded Coptic quarter is now home to fewer than 50 of their families.
“We know many Christians have left,” said Mounir Ramsis, speaking not only about his quarter but about all of Egypt. “But we love this country and will stay until death.”
An estimated 8 million Christians live among more than 70 million Muslims, but not easily.
Under Mubarak, special presidential permission was needed for churches to be built. That kind of discrimination led Christians to demonstrate alongside Muslims.
The first free elections handed power not to moderates, however, but to Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafi candidates, who won nearly 70 percent of seats in the parliament and left near-panic in ancient Christian communities.
“If people try to rule the country with the Qur’an, with Shariah law, that means they look to us as second-class people,” said Mina Bouls, a Copt who has fled to America.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks a nation run on Qur’anic law, has said Egypt would respect the rights of religious minorities. The Salafis, Muslim fundamentalists who want a complete application of Shariah law — seen as generally denying equal rights to women and minorities, also assure Copts of their safety.
Coptic Church Bishop Pachomius criticized President Mohammed Mursi, who had pledged to include Copts but swore in a Cabinet with only one. The bishop characterized that woman’s portfolio, scientific research, as a “semi-ministry.”
“In the past, there were fewer ministries,” he said, “and there were two or three Christian ministers.”
He also accused security forces of “standing with their arms crossed” while Muslims attacked Christians outside Cairo. Last year, when Copts protested the failure to investigate the fatal New Year’s Day bombing of an Alexandria church, security forces ran down the Cairo demonstrators with military vehicles, killing 17 more, Human Rights Watch said.
About 13 million Christians account for 4 percent of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, the smallest share of its population that is Christian of any other major geographic region, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Only in Lebanon, where Christians were once dominant, do they retain considerable political power. After a civil war from 1975-89 largely along religious lines, relations amid the patchwork of religious communities remain delicate. The constitution dictates that the president is always Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker Shia Muslim.
In Jordan, nine of the 110 parliamentary seats are reserved for Christians, who have slipped to just 3 percent of the population.
A hundred yards or so from taxiing airliners, Iraqi archaeologist Ali al-Fatli shows a visitor around the delicately carved remains of a Christian church that may date back 1,700 years.
The church, a monastery and other ruins emerging from the sand with the expansion of the Najaf airport has excited scholars who think it may be Hira, a legendary Arab Christian center.
“This is the oldest sign of Christianity in Iraq,” said al-Fatli, pointing to the ancient tablets with designs of grapes that litter the sand next to intricately carved monastery walls. The site’s stone crosses and larger artifacts have been moved to the National Museum in Baghdad.
Historians believe Hira was founded around A.D. 270. It grew into a major force in Mesopotamia centuries before the advent of Islam, and it reputedly was a cradle of Arabic script.
A professor of early Christianity at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Erica Hunter, spoke of evidence that by the early third century, the faith was well established in what is now southern Iraq by the Lakhmid dynasty, an Arab kingdom whose final ruler converted to Christianity.
For centuries Hira was an important center of the Church of the East, sometimes known as the Nestorian church, whose modern offshoot is the Assyrian Church of the East.
It’s clear that Christianity at Hira continued to thrive alongside Islam until at least the 11th century. “In fact, Muslim historians talk of 40 monasteries in the vicinity,” Hunter said.
Eventually the region’s Muslim rulers began persecuting the Christians, and Hira’s churches were abandoned.
History seems to be repeating itself. Many of the people now struggling in Iraq’s Kurdish north came in the wake of a 2010 suicide attack at Our Lady of Salvation Church. That atrocity left 50 worshipers and two priests dead and turned the church into a graveyard of scorched pews and shattered stained glass.
Christian families in Baghdad grabbed clothing, cash and a few other provisions and headed north for the Christian communities along the Nineveh plain and Kurdistan’s three provinces. They joined tens of thousands of other Christians from the capital, Mosul and other cities who traced similar arcs after earlier attacks and assassination campaigns.
“They traded everything for security,” said the Rev. Gabriel Tooma, who leads the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in the Christian town of Qosh, which took in dozens of families.
“We were in the worst of times,” says Younadam Kanna, a Christian in Iraq’s parliament.
(kansascity The Star)