Christians in Egypt, Iraq feel vulnerable, filmmaker says

himel1.jpgSheldon Kirshner, Filmmaker Martin Himel in Baghdad
TORONTO — Christians in Egypt and Iraq are an endangered minority and are emigrating in droves, says Canadian journalist and broadcaster Martin Himel.

Himel, a freelance filmmaker and CTV’s former correspondent in Israel, reached this sombre conclusion after paying visits to these countries recently.

His documentary, Persecuted Christians, will be broadcast by Vision TV in its world première on March 14 at 10 p.m.

In an interview, Himel said, “Most Iraqi Christians will tell you there is no future for Christians in Iraq.”

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, half of its Christians have fled. Some have gone to Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, others have settled in neighbouring lands, while still others have left the Mideast.

In Egypt, where the Coptic Christian minority comprises 10 per cent of its population, Christians have emigrated en masse.

Christians in Egypt and Iraq have been subjected to bombings, murder and rape, said Himel, who is based in Israel.

He travelled to Cairo and Baghdad with Majed El Shafie, a Cairo-born Muslim who converted to Christianity and now lives in Canada. A human rights activist, he was tortured before leaving Egypt.

According to Himel, Copts in Egypt are gradually being driven out of high government and military positions and consider themselves second-class citizens. “We don’t feel we have rights,” says one Christian. “We feel persecution.”

Egyptian Copts regard the rise of Islamic political parties since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year as a threat to their existence. But a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman told Himel they have nothing to fear. Copts who intend to remain in post-Mubarak Egypt want the government to enact a bill of rights to guarantee their equality.

As Himel discovered, Christians in Iraq feel threatened and intimidated. On a visit to Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad, he glances at blood-spattered and pockmarked walls. In one of the bloodiest incidents since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the church was attacked by terrorists.

Himel, who described Iraq as a “very dangerous” destination where visitors require armed protection, accompanied El Shafie to meetings with two of Iraq’s leading politicians.

Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani claims the church rejected an offer for protection. Vice-President Tariq el Hashimi maintains his Christian “brothers” are equal under the law.

Himel suggests that the treatment of Christians will be an acid test of Iraq’s compatibility with democracy.

For now, however, Iraqi Christians face “extinction” due to the ethnic chaos ravaging the country. With the United States out of the picture since the withdrawal of its troops and Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites struggling for power, Christians are caught in the middle and are vulnerable, Himel says.

By his estimate, 50 per cent of Iraq’s 900,000 to one million Christians have already left, bound for various destinations, including Canada. In a brief appearance, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says Canada has accepted more Iraqi refugees per capita than any other country.

Himel, who spent a week in Iraq, said that Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics reminded him of Jews. “They pray in an Aramaic dialect that would be recognizable to any student of the Talmud. It’s the same language Jews spoke at the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”

In Egypt, Christians are under siege, too.

“Under Mubarak, Christians had a benevolent second-class status. They could thrive in business and commerce, but the gateway to political power was closed. If they did not make political waves, life was good. If they questioned too much, prison and torture was a possibility. “

Today, Egyptian Christians face a very uncertain future in what may become a theocratic state, he observed.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to promote tolerance for Christians, but Salafists [radical Islamists] are far less tolerant. Christians fear more firebombings, attacks against their churches and rapes.”

Syria is the next big question mark insofar as far as Christians are concerned. As Himel put it, “There are a couple of million Christians in Syria, and most have been loyal to President Bashar Assad’s regime. But with Assad’s imminent demise, Christians feel quite vulnerable.”