The exodus of Christians is a loss for all in the Middle East

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Attacks on minorities force them into the arms of dictators and strongmen
David Gardner
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Egypian women walk past a church’s paraphernalia shop displaying crucifixes and images of Christ and Coptic Orthodox religious figures in Cairo © AFP
by: David Gardner

Isis has spattered Pope Francis’s visit to Egypt this week with a bloody prelude. On Palm Sunday its suicide bombers exploded outside a Coptic Christian cathedral in Alexandria and at the altar of a church in Tanta, in the Nile Delta, killing 47 people. Last week Isis hit St Catherine’s, the majestic Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai. Police repelled this assault on a jewel of eastern Christendom. It would otherwise probably have met the fate of the also 14 centuries-old Mar Elias Assyrian Christian monastery near Mosul, which Isis blew up after taking the Iraqi city in 2014.
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Isis has lost half the territory of its proto-state in Iraq and Syria since then. Facing territorial defeat, it is stepping up what it did in both countries: sowing despair and sectarian discord. Its venomous contempt for any and everyone of different beliefs is motivation enough. But attacks on Christians work as a multiplier for jihadis that divides their enemies.

Iraq, cradle of the golden age of Islam under the Abbasid dynasty from the eighth to the 13th century, is also by tradition the land of Abraham. The US-led invasion of 2003 almost emptied it of Christians, tarred as complicit with the west and caught in the crossfire of ethno-sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Their numbers plummeted from about 1.2m to around 300,000. When the Iraqi forerunner of Isis was reincarnated by Syria’s similarly sectarian conflict and captured Mosul in June 2014, the city lost its last Christians as the jihadis daubed the letter ‘N’ for Nazarenes on their homes.

The jihadis are savage but they are not stupid. Attacking Christians and other minorities forces them to take refuge with dictators and strongmen, often stirring the antagonism of the Sunni Muslim majority. Europe and the west’s tendency to spring to the defence of Christians stirs more hostility and rancorous memories of western meddling. That includes alliances between Christian hierarchs and local tyrants; and the Ottoman-era “Capitulations”, a hated regime under which European powers claimed the right to protect their co-religionists. That cast them — the Armenians and Assyrian Christians — as fifth columnists who were then exterminated by Young Turk leaders in Anatolia during the first world war.
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Christians are being targeted; but their leaders, in the near east and in the west, need to make sure they are not helping to pin the targets. The jihadis have long been on to this. Their narrative about western “Crusaders” may sound weirdly archaic to many but it resonates with their target audiences.

Against this background of fear in the eastern Mediterranean and populist Islamophobia in the west, Pope Francis is being billed as an almost supernaturally gifted bridge-builder. The Catholic pontiff captures the imagination of people of other faiths and of no faith. But it needs a lot more than bridges to dry up the rivers of sectarian poison that have coursed through the region since Iraq and then Syria.

How to staunch the exodus of Arab Christians and protect those who remain is obviously a papal priority. But the Vatican needs to clarify its policy on the Levant — where Christians face a bleak future if their leaders continue to see freedom and religious pluralism in opposition to each other, even siding with the savage dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, as a supposed bulwark against jihadi extremists.

Bechara al-Rai, patriarch of the Rome-allied Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian minority, early in the conflict described Syria as “the closest thing to democracy” in the Arab world. This pitted highly relative religious tolerance, enforced by Syria under the Assads, against democracy. It also overlooked the way Damascus used sectarianism as a lethal weapon. Too many local prelates stood with a minority-based despotism against Syria’s Sunni majority, in what started as a civic uprising against tyranny. The spectre of Islamism determines their judgment in much the same way the spectre of Bolshevism pushed some of their 20th century counterparts into alliances with fascism.

The survival of a two-millennia-old tradition of Arab Christianity, in the lands of its birth, is important not just for Christians. Over the past century, Christians’ share of the Arab population has fallen two-thirds to about 5 per cent, often because a missionary-provided education gave them a passport abroad. But still they provide interstitial tissue to society. The beneficiaries of the Christian-inspired schools and universities set up in the 19th century Levant are now, for example, overwhelmingly Muslim. Amin Maalouf, the Franco-Lebanese writer, has a phrase about minorities being “the yeast in society”. That is still true of Christians in the near east — for now.