Urgent action is required to help Arab Christians

  • Written by:

Michael Young
Does the only real hope for Arab Christians lie in democratic societies? Photo: Ahmed Saad / Reuters
The fate of the Middle East’s Christians was again highlighted after the recent abduction of hundreds of Assyrian Christians by ISIL in Syria. Coming months after Chaldeans and Assyrians were forced out of Mosul, the precariousness of the Christian presence in the region is more evident than ever.

The destiny of the Christians is not playing out solely in Iraq and Syria, but also in Lebanon and Egypt.
In Lebanon, where a panoply of Christian sects continue to exist, the president of the republic by tradition comes from the Maronite Catholic community. Maronites retain political power, yet today they account, with other Christian communities, for no more than a third of the population.

The figure is an estimate because Lebanon has not conducted a census since before independence in 1943, precisely to avoid emphasising the decline in Christian numbers. When Greater Lebanon was established by the French in 1920, Christians still held a slight majority, but the addition of Muslim-majority areas ensured that in subsequent decades the demographics would shift to the advantage of Muslims.

In Egypt, the Copts have an ambiguous relationship with the Egyptian state. While the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, has been a supporter of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, discrimination against Copts is widespread in the state administration. There was much tension between the community and the regime of Hosni Mubarak, with Copts accusing the security services of organising attacks against them.

The reason Pope Tawadros has backed Mr El Sisi is that he removed a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government that was deeply unpopular with Copts. However, the pope’s reaction reflects a broader problem of minority behaviour in the region: to protect themselves Arab Christians frequently ally with regimes that come to be resented. As a result, when these regimes are challenged, the safety of Christians is in doubt.

This has been particularly true for the Christians of Syria and Iraq. It is a grave mistake for Arab Christians anywhere to imagine that their salvation is tied in with the survival of dictators. But for as long as the main adversaries of supposedly secular regimes are extremists, this reckless tendency will continue to prevail.

Middle Eastern Christian communities are dwindling amid a sense that their prospects in the region are nil. The vast majority of Arab societies do not have social contracts that take into consideration the anxieties of minorities. Sectarian pluralism is a value Arab regimes have tolerated but rarely promoted.

It is ironic that a reason for this is the Arab nationalist traditions of most of the regimes in countries where Christians are present. Arab nationalism regards sectarian identity as detrimental to Arab unity.

The problem is that this desire not to be defined by one’s sect had the perverse consequence of making Arab nationalist regimes tone deaf when it came to minority concerns. Worse, in countries such as Syria and Iraq, where minority regimes held power, to draw attention away from this fact leaders worked twice as hard to affirm their Arab nationalist credentials.

Arab nationalist regimes, where they still survive, have lost most of their legitimacy in the face of a revitalised Islam. This has made the lot of Christians bleaker. Arab nationalism has brought them nothing, while extremist militancy offers even less. These dynamics are leading towards a further reduction in the Arab Christian population through emigration – bringing with it further marginalisation.

At the end of the First World War, protecting minority rights was a major theme in the post-war settlements. Both the French in Lebanon and Syria and the British in Iraq built up their League of Nation mandates on a foundation of defending minorities. However, as the costs of the mandates rose, this policy was slowly abandoned.

As nationalist opposition rose against the mandates, minority identity was absorbed into a broader national identity. Only in one country, Lebanon, was a social contract agreed creating a power-sharing system that allowed leaders from the different religious sects to play prominent political roles. In most other places a stifling nationalism took hold, overwhelming all impulses or identities that clashed with nationalist dictates.

As a result, nationalism, an ideology that brooked no alternatives, became an essential cornerstone of Arab authoritarianism. Thus, the suffocation of minority identities was frequently a facet of Arab dictatorship. That in some cases it was minority regimes enforcing such uniformity did not make it any less potent.

The only real hope for Arab Christians lies in the emergence of democratic Arab societies where differences are respected and encouraged. Yet so remote are the prospects for this at present that the Christian presence may be a distant memory by the time Arab countries become democratic, if they ever do so.

Muslims have a key role to play in preserving a continued Christian presence, beyond boilerplate. Otherwise, Christians may, before long, become topics for the history books – interesting but irrelevant.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling