Christian lambs left to slaughter Paul McGeough ANALYSIS

alexandria-420×01.jpgWorshippers in Alexandria shout around the exploded car in Alexandria. Photo: AP
Is Salman Taseer in his grave because some Christian-owned goats strayed into Muslim fields in the Punjab region of Pakistan? Did close to 100 churchgoers in Iraq and Egypt die because two abused Coptic Christian wives opted to convert to Islam in an attempt to sidestep their creed’s ban on divorce?

These seemingly absurd sparks ignited two of the higher-octane bonfires in a new wave in the persecution of minority Christians across the Islamic world in recent days.

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An Egyptian Muslim in the Shobra district of Cairo protests on New Year's Day against a bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria.n Egyptian Muslim in the Shobra district of Cairo protests on New Year’s Day against a bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria. Photo: Reuters
But look closely and it emerges that what is claimed to have been done in the name of Allah is more often about raw political power and social control, either exercised by autocratic regimes or sought by extremist and fundamentalist breakouts – like Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and its imitators.

Taseer, the provincial governor in Punjab, was gunned down on Tuesday, allegedly by one of his own security detail, because of his outspoken defence of Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of five who was charged under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws because of the terms in which she is alleged to have spoken about the prophet Muhammad amidst argument with her Muslim neighbours over her wandering goats.

Last October, 58 Christian Chaldeans died and 67 were injured when Our Lady of Salvation church was besieged in Baghdad. On New Year’s Day, 23 Coptic Christians died and 79 were injured when Al-Qiddissin Church in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria was bombed.

The travails of Wafaa Constantine, 53, and Camilla Shehata, 25, were the pretext for these two attacks.

Both married to Coptic Christian priests in remote rural areas, the women are said to have been arrested by Egyptian police and handed over to Coptic authorities as they set about converting to Islam, so that they might use its acceptance of divorce to rid themselves of their abusive and bad-tempered husbands.

Coptic mouthpieces accused Muslims of abducting the women. Muslims countered with claims that the two women – both of whom disappeared from the public eye – were being held against their will by the Coptic church.

Citing this seemingly distant dispute in Egypt, the gunmen went to work in Baghdad … just as others threatened to respond to the threat last year by a Christian pastor in Florida to mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the US by burning the Koran.

The regime of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has done a consistent line in contempt for Washington’s pro-forma calls for reform – and calls by Coptic churches in the US for America’s multibillion-dollar annual aid cheque to Cairo to be conditional on better rights and protection for Coptic Christians have fallen on deaf ears.

It is the same in Pakistan – despite pouring in billions of aid dollars, Washington has been able to extract little by way of satisfaction of its insistent security demands, much less its polite calls for social and judicial reform.

Pakistan’s blasphemy law was put on the statute books in the 1980s by a regime that opted for Islam as a binding national force – and it soon became a tool for settling vendettas and prosecuting minorities.

Explaining the country’s economic, political and social crises in the absence of sure-footed national leadership and at a time of bold extremism, the analyst Ahmed Rashid in Lahore offered this explanation: “We have a very, very severe polarisation in the country – we have a small minority of extremists and a small number of liberals speaking out, but the very large silent majority are people who are not extremists in any way, but are not speaking out”.

In such parlous times it is hardly surprising that Taseer’s murder might be an effective brake on others who would have contemplated joining his reform campaign. And no one was shocked when even his most loyal followers spoke only in vague generalities as they condemned his killing.

That Christians are an easy target is best explained by the circumstances of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

In the first years of the new order, the violence was Muslim on Muslim – Sunni v Shiite. But facing a public backlash for the bloody awfulness they were creating and exposing themselves to well-armed counterattacks, the insurgents and terrorists turned their sights on the minority Christians who were without militias or the political clout to call in defenders.

Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group says Christians sometimes become targets not strictly because of their religion so much as a perception that they are surrogates for the Western countries deemed by extremist groups to be enemies.

Yet, more than 50 dead Christians in the sanctuary of a Baghdad church is a powerful signal to the world that the new Iraqi government was not in control of its turf. That signal becomes even more powerful because of claims in the Arab and Christian media that US military forces have abandoned the Christians of Iraq to their very uncertain fate.

In the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, the commentator May Akl wrote: “After surviving millennia of religious and cultural persecution in its own cradle, Christianity in the Middle East could face demise at the hands of the Christian West. In fact, political alliances sought by Western states and, most importantly, by the US leverage existential threats against the remaining Christian minorities in the Middle East. Rescue is not high on the agenda.”

The church massacre in Baghdad in October was the standout in a series of attacks that include the beheading and mutilation of a priest in 2006 – despite the payment of a ransom; the abduction of an archbishop in 2008; and the laying of a daisy chain of bombs outside nine churches and more recently at the homes of 14 Christian families.

By some estimates more than half of Iraq’s 1 million-plus Christians have fled since the fall of Saddam – if not into exile in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, then to the relative safety of the Kurdish north of Iraq.

In an observation that must have provoked discomfort in Washington, Father Rony Hanna of the Iraqi Chaldean Archdiocese harked back to the Saddam years: “Security forces were sent to our religious celebrations to provide us with protection and they did. This is what we miss most now – being protected.”

But the Christian decline is not confined to Iraq.

A century ago, they accounted for 20 per cent of the population in the Middle East – today the Vatican estimates that proportion to be 5 per cent and falling in a region in which most regimes impose limits and restrictions on Christian rituals.

Iran has recently been rounding up Christian missionaries and deadly Christian-Muslim violence has erupted again in Nigeria.

“If this phenomenon continues, Christianity in the Middle East will disappear,” the Reverend Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit in Beirut, told reporters on the eve of a Vatican conference that discussed the crisis last year. “This is not an unreal hypothesis – Turkey went from 20 per cent Christian in the early 20th century to 0.2 per cent now. [And the flight from Iraq] could bleed the Church in Iraq dry.”

In the early 1950s, 20 per cent of Egyptians were Christian – today, at just 10 per cent of the population, they are the region’s biggest Christian community but they hold just three of the 508 seats in the parliament.

There was advance warning of the attack on the Alexandria church on an Islamic website, which Cairo initially blamed on al-Qaeda but which some Egyptian political analysts speculated might be the work of locals frustrated by an absence of substantive reform in Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

What emerges from the experience of the latest hot spots is that what is perceived to be a solution often creates a greater problem – that is, trying to deal with the crisis as a security challenge that can be dealt with in the short term.

A bare-knuckled crackdown on those who thrive amid the collapse of their social and political institutions, as in Pakistan, or the marginalisation and oppression of voices for reform, as in Egypt, tends to gloss over the reality that the root cause of the problem is elsewhere.

Papers prepared for last year’s Vatican conference were telling in their avoidance of the George Bush ”they hate our liberty” credo. Instead they urged wide-ranging social reform to bring about democratic secular states, co-operation between churches and a break on the expansion of political Islam.

Urging a thorough examination of the concept of laicity – or secularism – to help “eliminate the theocratic character of government and allow for greater equality among citizens of different religions”, the documents blamed the Christian exodus on political tension in the region – particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ”menacing social situation in Iraq”.