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Forced Exodus: Christians in the Middle East

In September, senior clerics from a dozen different Christian denominations all over the Middle East met in Amman, Jordan, for a conference organized by King Abdullah II. The subject was the crisis facing Christianity in the region, and what to do about it. Missing from the meeting were two prominent Arab prelates from Aleppo: Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, the city’s Syriac Orthodox bishop, and Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi, his Greek Orthodox counterpart. Both had been abducted by unidentified gunmen somewhere between Aleppo and Antioch in April, and their whereabouts were still unknown.

The Assad regime and the Syrian rebels predictably blamed each other for the high-profile abduction. But Turkish intelligence sources were quoted as saying that it had been the work of Islamic Chechens who operate in the opposition-held territory in northern Syria. Refugees in Jordan and Turkey have told Christian humanitarian groups that jihadist revolutionaries have declared a caliphate in areas they control and imposed sharia law, with Saudi judges brought in to administer it. (Saudi Arabia and Qatar finance the rebellion in Syria, and the West supports it—but that’s another story.) Non-Muslims are only tolerated if they pay jizya, a heavy tax imposed on dhimmini, or nonbelievers, under Islamic law. Those who refuse to pay have two choices: they can quit their homes and have their property and most of their possessions confiscated, or they can face execution.

Syria today is a country of blurred facts and wild rumors, but the abduction and in some cases murder of Christian clerics is real enough. The Jesuit missionary Paolo Dall’Oglio was kidnapped in July and may have been executed in al-Raqqah, a northern town said to be an al-Qaeda stronghold. Dall’Oglio, had gone to al-Raqqah in an attempt to negotiate the release of Christian hostages, relying—foolishly, as it worked out—on his reputation as an outspoken critic of the Assad regime to guarantee his safety. In June, the Franciscan priest François Murad was killed in a convent in Gassanieh by members of the Syrian jihadist group Nusra Front. The Vatican had initially reported that Father Murad was one of three men shown being beheaded with a kitchen knife in a viral video online, while the crowd chanted “Allahu akbar,” but later issued a correction saying that Murad had actually been shot.

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Today, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, warned in the British House of Lords. “The presence of Christians there is a deep-rooted reality,” the archbishop said. “We are not talking about a foreign body, but about people who would see their history and their destiny bound up with the countries where they live, and bound up in local conversations with the dominant Muslim culture.”

Williams was referring to the fact that Christianity was not brought into the Middle East so much as brought out of it. Its indigenousness is shown by the fact that, according to tradition, St. Mark the Evangelist brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century, and it was the dominant religion from the fourth century to the sixth, when the Arabs arrived and Islam replaced it. But Christianity remained a strong presence in Egypt, mainly in the form of the Coptic Church.

In the history of Christianity, Syria is associated with both the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. The former founded the see of Antioch. St. Paul’s great mission to the gentiles began at Antioch, where the term “Christians” to denote the followers of Christ was heard for the first time (in derision, however). The apostle St. Thomas brought Christianity to Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and the three main Iraqi denominations—Chaldean, Assyrian, and Orthodox—still survive from that early period. The Chaldean and Assyrian churches use Syriac in their respective liturgies, a tongue close to Aramaic, which Jesus is said to have spoken.

In Iraq, Syria, and Egypt today, some of the oldest standing buildings are Christian churches, a testimony to the resilience and continuity of Christianity despite occasional periods of persecution.

But with the Islamist fundamentalist drift of the past two decades, the “conversations” with Christianity have become increasingly hostile. Nor has all the hostility come from the Muslim side. In May, Pope Francis canonized eight hundred martyrs beheaded by the Ottoman Turks outside the walls of Otranto in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. In reality, the new pope had inherited the canonization from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and many regarded the decision to go ahead with it as ill timed and contentious. But it serves as a symbol of what now faces Christians in that turbulent region.

 

Across the Middle East, it is the same narrative of thousands of Christians fleeing their homelands. Almost half of Iraq’s Christians have left since the 2003 invasion, leaving about four hundred thousand, or scarcely three percent of the current population. Once a majority, Lebanon’s million and a half Christians—most of them Maronite Catholics—now account for thirty-five percent of the population. Tens of thousands of Syrian Christians have fled from cities such as Aleppo, Homs, and Qusayr in the face of Islamist rebels. The traditional Christmas market and lights in Qatana, in southern Syria, are now things of the past under pressure from Islamist militias who want no outward shows of Christian life. In Egypt, members of the Catholic and Orthodox Coptic churches make up about ten percent of the country’s total population of eighty-four million. But tens of thousands of Copts have emigrated over the past two years, particularly since the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president and especially since he was deposed.

Egyptian Copts demonstrated alongside Muslims in Tahrir Square, but from Tunisia to Yemen, one of the unwelcome consequences of the Arab Spring has been more Islamic fervor and less tolerance for non-Muslim communities, with Christians finding themselves on the wrong side of the argument.

In Iraq, Christians were thought too close to Saddam Hussein; the former Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz—now under sentence of death—is a Chaldean Christian, a branch of Eastern rite Catholics in communion with Rome. In Syria, Christians have been close to the Assad regime and enjoy considerable freedom there. Major Christian feast days, such as Easter, are publicly celebrated, with church processions through the streets, and Christians hold key positions in government and business, as well as the Syrian armed forces.

To Egyptian Christians, the election of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood seemed a reversal of the Arab Spring’s promise of greater freedom and a deliberate squeeze on religious pluralism. And as far back as December 2012, Islamists have been accusing Christians of inciting opposition to Morsi. So the presence of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II alongside General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi during the general’s July 3rd televised announcement that Morsi had been removed from office was seen by the Muslim Brotherhood as an indication that the Christians at the very least supported the military takeover, and perhaps even had a role in it. Hard-line Muslim clerics with unprecedented freedom to preach on Egyptian television after the 2011 Arab Spring found in the Christians a convenient substitute target for the military.

The religious channels unleashed a barrage of incendiary rhetoric against Christians, with the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, joining in. The list of Christian churches that have been burned, looted, and in many cases destroyed in Egypt continues to grow. Mobs have also attacked monasteries, schools, businesses, and even the houses of known Christians. In one incident reported in detail in April (that is, while Morsi was still in office), a mob attacked the Coptic cathedral in Cairo following a funeral of four Christians killed in sectarian clashes. In the ensuing pitched battle, the Copts put up a strong defense of the cathedral compound, exchanging gunfire and Molotov cocktails with the attackers and hurling stones prised from the cathedral walls.

In August, the Associated Press interviewed a Franciscan nun in upper Egypt after the Catholic school in the town of Beni Suef where she is the principal was looted by demonstrators who sexually assaulted two female employees, took the school’s computers, and set fire to the building, gutting it. The mob knocked the cross off the street gate and replaced it with what the nun described as a black al-Qaeda–like banner. Then, she said, the mob paraded her and three other nuns “like prisoners of war and hurled abuse at us as they led us from one alley to another without telling us where they were taking us.” A Muslim woman who formerly worked at the school persuaded the assailants to release the nuns and sheltered them in her home.

 

Arab Christians complain of Western indifference to the recent assault on Christian communities in the Middle East. And it is true that there has been little reaction from governments in European capitals, and in Washington it has been the same story. In a commentary on the Coptic Catholic church’s website, Jesuit priest Henri Boulad, director of the Jesuit Cultural Center in Alexandria, called on the West to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood for spreading “terror throughout the population of Egypt,” with “murders, abductions, ransom demands, thefts and rapes.” Instead, the Jesuit wrote, the West is shocked “because the Egyptian army has dared to dislodge the Muslim Brothers. . . . When Egypt decides to react and bring some order to this mess, the West cries out about persecution, injustice, and scandal.”

But in the Arab world, where nothing is ever quite what it seems, there are still neighborhoods, both in Egypt and elsewhere, where Muslims and Christians co-exist. In the summer, Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak of Alexandria, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Catholic community, publicly expressed his thanks to “our honorable Muslim compatriots who have stood by our side, as far as they could, in defending our churches and our institutions.”

However, the Arab countries where Christians are not, in effect, second-class citizens are few. In Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy has long styled itself protector of the six percent (or about three hundred and fifty thousand–strong) Christian minority, and in Lebanon, despite increased antagonism from Hezbollah, the Constitution requires that the head of state be a Christian. Even so, there’s also a model to which Islamist fundamentalists can aspire, and that is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an almost entirely Sunni Muslim country where Islam is not just the official religion, it is the only permitted religion, and freedom of worship is an alien concept. Saudi Arabia includes, of course, the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but the entire country is considered a “grand mosque” where the practice of any other religion, either publicly or—at least in theory—privately is forbidden. Ironically, tens of thousands of Christian Filipino guest workers live in Saudi Arabia, and are indispensible to its economy, and a great many of them find ways to worship on Sundays. Saudi religious police make sure that this considerable activity is not visible. Saudis also like to point out that their country’s Western counterpart is Vatican City, and nobody would be allowed to build a mosque there. But while Christians cannot visit the Islamic holy cities, the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica are at least open to Muslims.

The catastrophe faced by Iraq’s Christians, which preceded those of the rest, has gained more attention as one of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War. Iraq also demonstrated that when it comes to sectarian violence, the Middle East can be evenhanded. Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis displayed as much brutality in fighting each other as Muslim fundamentalists did in persecuting Iraqi Christians. In 2003, following the invasion, Iraq’s Shiites, who make up about sixty percent of the Iraqi population and had not exactly been Saddam Hussein’s favorite people, began targeting Chaldean Christians, who had. It was enough that Chaldeans controlled Iraq’s liquor business, and Shiites wanted alcohol banned.

In the decade that followed, Christians across Iraq have continued to be systematically targeted. Three years ago, fundamentalists hurled grenades into Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic cathedral during a service, killing more than fifty worshippers and maiming scores of others. Also in 2010, car bombs damaged several passing buses carrying thirteen hundred Christian students on their way to university in the major city of Mosul, seriously injuring more than two hundred of them. Christians in Mosul, once home to the second-largest Chaldean population, have been the target of some horrific acts. For example, the city’s archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was one of several clerics who was tortured and killed, his body quartered and left in a container outside a church door.

In recent years, the Arab media have shifted blame for the attacks from the Iraqi Shiites to al-Qaeda, a Sunni organization. It is true that the group Islamic State of Iraq, said to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, declared on its website that “all Christian centers, organizations, and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets of the mujahedin [holy warriors].” But at the same time, Iraq’s government is Shiite-dominated, which hardly encourages the generally timid local press to point the finger at Shiite militants. Furthermore, the trials and tribulations facing the dwindling Christian minority have become a subtext for the larger Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict that has brought the country to the verge of civil war. To be fair, US authorities in Iraq offered Iraqi Christians protection in 2004 and 2005, as attacks on Christians started, but were turned down. For better or worse, the Christians argued that if American troops and tanks formed a protective barrier around their churches, shrines, and schools, the Christians would be identified with the increasingly unpopular US occupation, and become an even bigger target. Unlike their Egyptian co-religionists, who seem prepared to put up a fight, the beleaguered Iraqi Christians have a record of offering little resistance.

Church leaders did little more than offer consolation and urge the faithful to stay put. In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI issued a document with the Latin title Ecclesia in Medio Oriente in which he, in effect, called for a united front by the different Christian denominations in the region, and asked them to be part of the process of “democracy building” in their respective countries because, the pope noted, “God dislikes timidity.” In March of this year, the new Chaldean patriarch, Louis Raphael I Sako, urged Iraqi Christians, “Do not isolate yourselves and do not emigrate, whatever the pressures you are under. This is your land and the contribution you can make does not depend on your number, but on your attitude.”

Bold words, but the reality is that the Christian population in the Middle East is shrinking at a faster rate than ever before, through emigration and wholesale killings, as well as a lower birthrate than its Muslim counterpart’s. The depletion, while dramatic, doesn’t quite spell the end of Christianity in the region, but it clearly diminishes its impact on society as a whole in its respective countries, and makes those countries the poorer for it. This is especially true in Egypt, where the Copts still number in the millions and are in every social stratum, from the very rich to the underclass. The wealthiest Egyptian is a Coptic entrepreneur named Naguib Sawiris. Migrants can come back, of course, but rarely do. Sixty-three percent of Arab Americans are descended from Christian immigrants.

Christians see themselves as between a rock and a hard place. Arab fundamentalists increasingly see them as pawns of the West, while the West actually ignores their plight. It is small consolation that what they now face would be déjà vu to Jews of Middle Eastern origin who were victims of earlier expulsion drives. History usually doesn’t repeat itself, but as the British writer Robin Harris remarked in the Spectator, “The ‘Sunday’ people are now following the ‘Saturday’ people out of the Middle East.”

Roland Flamini is a freelance journalist and former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

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