Christians in the Middle East Ever more fearful

ON A crisp Sunday morning, the start of the Muslim week, a burgeoning congregation of Christians files into a church in Ankawa, a suburb of the Iraqi Kurds’ capital, Erbil, to which several thousand Christians have fled in the past decade from the violence of Baghdad. Though physically fairly safe in their new abode, it is hardly a happy haven. Many are struggling to survive. Jobs are scarce, so some make the perilous journey back to the Iraqi capital every week to work. The lot of Iraq’s Christian population is particularly glum. Though a steady trickle had been leaving for decades, the exodus became a flood after the American invasion in 2003, when radical Islamists unleashed a sectarian onslaught against Shia Muslims, Christians and others. The ferocity of attacks such as the one against the church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad in 2010, which left at least 58 Christians dead, speeded the departure of many more. In the past decade as many as two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.5m Christians are thought to have emigrated. The turmoil of the Arab world in the past two years has rattled its 13m or so Christians. Those in Syria, where a civil war rages, are particularly worried. At first, as in other Arab countries, Christians and Muslims joined hands at first to bring down despots, irrespective of religious affiliation. But many Christians, who make up more than 2m of the country’s 23m people, have tended to hedge their bets, wanting to keep out of the conflict; some have thrown in their lot with President Bashar Assad, fearing that the alternative may be worse. The rise of Islamists (and, to a lesser degree, jihadists), along with Mr Assad’s deliberate stoking of sectarian and minority fears, has changed the mood. “We want Christians to stay,” says a Syrian Damascene from the Sunni majority. “Syrians are proud of their mixed society.” But thousands of Christians are now fleeing. Egypt’s new president, Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim Brother, has failed to reassure his Christian compatriots, who make up the largest community of Christians in the Middle East, some 10% of Egypt’s 85m-plus people. In November he caused offence by failing to attend the inauguration of the Copts’ new pope. Most of the Christian delegates on the committee set up last year to draft a new constitution resigned from it, saying the majority chosen by Mr Morsi were bent on producing an unduly Islamist document, whose assignment of power over law-making to the religious establishment of al-Azhar in effect partially disfranchises non-Muslims. In recent weeks there have been instances of Egyptian women refusing to wear the veil having their hair forcibly cut off. Districts and villages that were religiously mixed are becoming segregated because of Christian fears, says Samia Sidhom, an editor at Watani International, a Coptic newspaper in Cairo. Repeated instances of small-scale pogroms against isolated Christian communities, as well as bombings and shootings that have left several dozen dead, have gone strangely unpunished. At the turn of the 20th century, Christians made up a tenth of the region’s population; today it is less than 4%. That is partly because of higher Muslim birth rates and because a higher proportion of Christians, especially richer ones, has had both the chance and the desire to emigrate. But it is also because of new obstacles to religious freedom, as documented by the Pew Forum, a research body in Washington. Christians in Egypt have long found it hard to get permits to build churches. They also make up a tiny proportion of army, police or judicial officers. Cases of Christians prosecuted for blasphemy have become more frequent. In many Arab countries it remains illegal to proselytise or to encourage conversion from Islam. In Saudi Arabia it is still illegal for Christians to worship in public. Some Muslims say that the status of dhimmi given to Christians and Jews—“people of the book”—has protected them since the time of the Caliphate, when they were looked after in return for paying a tax, long since abolished. But a lingering sense of second-class citizenship has been rekindled by the rise of Islamism. Though Christians have held senior positions in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and have led some of the parties under that national umbrella, they have seen their numbers and influence diminish in the territories occupied by Israel. In Gaza, where an Islamist Palestinian group, Hamas, has held sway since 2007, the tiny Christian population has steadily shrunk. Even in Bethlehem, Christians have almost disappeared. Many Christians also point to Israel’s encroachment on their land as their reason for leaving. Jordan, which has a small Christian community, and Lebanon, the only Arab country that once had a Christian majority, remain relatively safe havens for Christians. But there too they are more nervous than before. “The community is fearful, because we look around and realise that the West doesn’t care about protecting us. No one will,” says Adeeb Awad, a church official in Lebanon, where a sectarian political system ensures representation by quota; the country’s non-executive president must, for instance, be a Christian. Some Christians even predict a total exodus from the region. Some members of Iraq’s Chaldean and Assyrian Council say that a separate statelet in northern Iraq is their only chance of survival. Others note more hopefully that their community has survived centuries amid wars and the changing fortunes of empires and dynasties. What is clear, in any event, is that Christians in the Middle East are going through an unusually tricky patch.