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Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?

UN Photo/John Isaac
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As violence and political instability grows, the future right now seems bleak for Christians in the Middle East. They need our help.

Democracy is at stake in three large Arab countries: Syria, where it is violently denied by Assad; Iraq, which is unable to manage the coexistence between Shiites and Sunnis; and Egypt, where it is being reexamined in light of the military coup that prevented the state’s seizure by the Muslim Brotherhood. Democracy seems incapable of managing the stratified pluralism of Arab societies; there are different sorts of Muslims (Shia and Sunni, secular, spiritual, and fundamentalists), ethnic differences (such as the Kurds), and Christian minorities. The life of Christians is in fact a true litmus test of the turbulence of Muslim societies.

2014 will be the centennial anniversary of the first great slaughter of the 20th century: the Armenians killed along with many other Christians by the Ottoman Empire. This massacre, which was the desire of neither the Turkish people nor Muslims in general, was supported by the nationalistic ‘Young Turks,’ who used it as a means of mobilizing hatred and fanaticism. After the First World War, the Maronites (Catholics) obtained Lebanon, where Christians were the majority. They gave voice to the Christian concern of not being safe under Muslim dominance. Thus, a fragile democracy was born in Lebanon – a small yet novel experiment in the Arab world that would later undergo many sorrows. Other Christians, meanwhile, placed their hopes in the illusion of security from Europe.

For many, the only way to assure safety for themselves was to express belief in Arab nationalism, as did the Orthodox in Syria (among which is Paul Yagizi, Bishop of Aleppo, who was kidnapped by unknown assailants along with Syrian Bishop Mar Gregorios). Many dictators have come from the womb of Arab nationalism, to which Christians pledged their loyalty in order to secure themselves from Muslim majority. And while they hoped for a secularization of Islam, fundamentalism took hold instead. Saddam Hussein represented safety for the Chaldeans (Catholics) in Iraq. The Christians of Syria saw the end of Assad as a leap into darkness (Fr. Dall’Oglio – whom we soon hope will be freed – thinks otherwise, siding with the Syrian opposition).

These dictators have been a source of security for Christians, although they were often a double-edged sword: it was Mubarak who commanded the terrible attack on the Coptic Church of Alexandria in early 2011, fueling tensions within the population. It is true that during the Egyptian “Spring,” Muslims and Christians were asking for freedom together. But the bishops were puzzled: would democracy not bring the rule of the Islamic majority? It is no coincidence that the Coptic Patriarch Tawadros has clearly supported the coup d’état of Al Sisi – a risky position for a minority, leaving open the threat of great fear in the future.

In Iraq, there have been countless attacks on Christians, who have been easy targets for the Muslims. Their future is rather uncertain: should they stay in Baghdad and live amongst Muslims, or relocate to a more Christian region, such as the plains of Nineveh? Amid these uncertainties, Christians emigrate. In Iraq, there remains much less than half the number of Christians present at the start of the war against Saddam. At the beginning of the 20th century, 25 percent of the Iraqi population was Christian; today, that figure stands at 1 percent. In 1960, Syria had a Christian population of 15 percent, which today is about 6 percent. In Egypt, about 10 percent of the population remains Christian. But even here the future is dark; Western countries can do little to ameliorate the situation; in fact, their “protection” has often created difficulties for Eastern Christians with local governments and public opinion. Perhaps the world’s Christians can do more than foreign governments, not only by their solidarity (which must grow), but by developing a vision.

This Christian vision is missing in a period where such clairvoyance is rare in politics, as seen by the American uncertainty on Egypt, as well as the European impotence. During the Cold War, in the face of the severe situation faced by Catholics in Eastern Europe, the Holy See first expressed​ a strenuous opposition; then, under the direction of John XXIII, the Vatican engaged in dialogue with the Soviet bloc – a policy that became known as Ostpolitik. These choices were indeed the fruit of a clear vision. In the Arab world, it is quite another story – one that will require a concentration of ideas and relationships. Perhaps a reunion of the great leaders of the Christian Churches is called for – this, too, is ecumenism. Christian minorities need our help if they are to avoid remaining hostage to impossible situations. Emigration or the search for dictatorial protectors cannot be the only choices for Christians. They have no future. In Egypt, at Tayyib, the Great Imam of Al-Azhar (who unfortunately is in bad relations with the Vatican), launched a national reconciliation, which now is not easily feasible.

But this is a space for Christians. Their future will not be easy in the Arab world. Will the 21st century see the end of the Christians of the Middle East? One does not hope so, for it would be the end of a two-thousand year history. It would be a great loss to the Arab-Muslim world, because Christians are a mainstay of pluralism and a guarantee against totalitarianism in these societies.

Originally published in "Corriere della Sera" on August 18, 2013.

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