Christians mull future in post Arab Spring

aleqm5i.jpgBy Rita Daou (AFP)
BEIRUT — The rise of Islamist movements in countries swept by the Arab revolutions has sent shudders through the region’s Christians who fear for their survival and question the future make-up of the Middle East.

“Christians are rightly concerned,” said Odon Vallet, a French historian and expert on religion. “Their future in the region is rather bleak… and the current political climate is not in their favour.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, they had a better status,” he added. “You notice that in one generation the situation changed as Islamism became a sort of refuge to counter Western tendencies.”

Although Christians in the mainly Muslim Arab world for decades have felt vulnerable, with each war or crisis prompting a mini exodus, the Arab Spring has revived the debate as to their very existence in the region.

Many point to Iraq where the number of Christians has drastically fallen since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as many fled overseas in the face of deadly persecution by Muslim extremists.

The number of Iraqi Christians currently stands at about 400,000, from an estimated 800,000-1.2 million before the 2003 US-led invasion.

In Egypt, the Christian Coptic community has also been the target of sectarian attacks.

And in Syria there are fears among the Christian minority that Islamic extremists could rise to power should the regime of Bashar al-Assad collapse.

The Christian communities’ fears are fed by the fact that while the Arab revolts that began a year ago initially appeared to be largely secular in character, that has changed as Islamist parties gradually came to the forefront, winning elections in Tunisia and Egypt.

In Libya, the new rulers said the country would make Islamic sharia law the main source of legislation.

Lebanon is the only Arab country where Christians still play a key role in politics.

The community over the years has nonetheless dwindled and currently represents an estimated 34 percent of the population of four million, as opposed to more than half in the 1940s.

“The revolutions in Arab countries have driven the Islamists to power,” said Farzat, a 55-year-old Syrian engineer who asked his last name not be used.

“In 20 years at the utmost there won’t be any Christians left in Syria,” he predicted, reflecting the concerns of many fellow Christians in the region.

Nardine, a Egyptian Copt who works at a bank in Cairo, said her father was considering sending her and her brothers overseas in light of the recent electoral success of Islamist parties.

“He believes there is no future for us in this country with the Islamists,” she said, also asking her last name not be used.

There are between eight and 10 million Coptic Egyptians out of a total mainly Sunni Muslim population of 85 million.

The impact of the Arab revolts on Christian minorities has prompted much debate in Europe and the Middle East with the Vatican expressing concern about their future role in the region.

“The disappearance of Christians would be a catastrophe,” warned Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

“They represent a bridge between the East and the West,” he said.

For Father Raphael Zougheib, a doctoral student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, the main issue today is not whether Christians will remain in the Middle East but how they will adapt to the fundamental changes in the region.

“The Christians have always been a minority in the Middle East, but an active minority,” he said.

“What is worrisome is that they could now become a minority paralysed by fear,” said Zougheib, who is writing a thesis on the challenges facing Christians in the Arab world.

He said while there are victims in all revolutions, Christians must embrace democratic change and seek to be treated as full citizens in the new Middle East rather than a minority that needs protection.

“Fear is understandable but Islamists are not all the same and they don’t all want a religious state,” he said. “I don’t believe the Christians will be uprooted.”