Arab Spring inflicts chill on Mideast Christians

36574291.jpgBy: John Longhurst
Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press Klaus Klostermaier is passing on his collection of sacred texts and commentaries to local Hindus. The collection will be housed at the Hindu Temple at 999 St. Anne�s Rd, as part of the Dr. Dakshinamurti Academy of Hindu Studies.
Will the Arab Spring lead to a Christian winter?

That’s the question being asked by a number of observers following successful revolutions and regime changes in the Middle East.

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Amr Nabil / The Associated PressPope Shenouda III, the leader of Egypt�s Coptic Church, supported Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak right up until his fall.Amr Nabil / The Associated Press Pope Shenouda III, the leader of Egypt�s Coptic Church, supported Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak right up until his fall. (CP)
In late October, the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation–an organization supported by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops — called on Christians in the U.S. and Canada to pray and advocate for Christians in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

In a statement titled On the Plight of Churches in the Middle East, they noted that the Arab Spring has been “devastating” for the region’s Christians.

“We are concerned for our fellow Christians who, in the face of daunting challenges, struggle to maintain a necessary witness to Christ in their homelands,” the statement says.

“United with them in prayer and solidarity, we ask our fellow Christians living in the West to take time to develop a more realistic appreciation of their predicament.”

The statement also encourages western politicians to “exert more pressure where it can to protect these churches, many of which have survived centuries of hardship but now stand on the verge of disappearing completely.”

The greatest fear is that what happened to Christians in Iraq will be repeated in other Middle Eastern countries. According to the Wall Street Journal, at least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and over 900 Christians killed since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled; a new report from Minority Rights Group International said that only 500,000 Christians remain in that country, down from an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2003.

“It’s a hemorrhage,” Archbishop Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Sulimaniya told the Journal. “Iraq could be emptied of Christians.”

A main focus of concern for many today is Egypt; with between eight to 10 million Christians, it is home to the largest Christian community in the region.

At first, there were hopeful signs that Muslims and Christians would find creative and peaceful ways to live together. I wrote about some of them back in May, noting how Muslims had formed human shields outside churches to protect them from terror attacks, and also provided a protective cordon around Christians in Tahrir Square as they celebrated mass.

Since then, the rise of Islamist political parties has prompted new worries for Egyptian Christians. The recent electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the more conservative Al Noor Salafi movement — a party that supports a strict application of Islamic law — is raising the level of fear and concern even higher.

One of the ironies of life in the Middle East is that while most people welcomed the toppling of authoritarian regimes, many Christians who live there weren’t so sure it was a good thing. Those same leaders, who ruled their countries as dictators, also provided protection for their Christian minorities.

In Egypt, for example, Hosni Mubarak was sympathetic to the Christian community, making Christmas a national holiday and loosening restrictions on building new churches. For this reason Pope Shenouda III, the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church, supported the Egyptian leader right up until his fall.

Something similar is happening in Syria, where many of that country’s 2.5 million Christians support the Assad regime. Despite its brutality, they prefer a terrible dictator who guarantees the rights of religious minorities to the uncertain future that Assad’s departure would bring.

Right now, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood says it will not sacrifice personal freedoms if it comes to power. In an interview with The Associated Press, Essam el-Erian, the deputy head of its political wing, confirmed that it intends to abide by the tenets of Shariah law, but that it plans to be a “moderate and fair party… we want to apply the basics of Shariah law in a fair way that respects human rights and personal rights.”

Christians in Egypt hope he’s right, but many aren’t waiting to see if that’s how things turn out; the New York Times reports that more than 100,000 Christian families have already left the country.

For Princeton historian Christian Sahner, who studies relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, how Christians are treated in these newly liberated countries will offer a clue to the real direction of the Arab Spring.

“Will revolutionary movements give rise to democratic governments that uphold universal equality before the law, or to unstable, mercurial regimes that obey the whims of extremists?” he asks. “These are the signal questions facing Christians in the Arab Spring.”

Right now, he adds, “the new season’s forecast looks uncertain.”