After the recent presidential elections in Egypt, new hope has arisen for the future. But the entire region remains a crisis spot, and many Christians are feeling the impact. Volker Niggewöhner discussed this with Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East Section of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Since the results of the presidential elections in Egypt were announced, it has been very quiet there. Is this also the case for the Christians?
Like all Egyptians, the Christians also want changes. And they are courageous enough to say so. Many remain full of hope that their conditions of life will improve and that democratic change will come. We need to help them to make sure that these hopes come true - for example by praying for them, telling others about them, and thus giving them a voice. The Christians in Egypt must be made aware that they are not alone!
What does this mean for the Christians in concrete terms?
In the Mubarak period it was already difficult for them to build a church or a convent. In those days, the President's personal signature was always required. After the fall of Mubarak, many hoped that the lives of the Christians could be made much easier.
Have these hopes been fulfil led?
In some places, Christians and Muslims are now getting together to solve social and economic difficulties. But overall, the power vacuum that has existed since the revolution of last year has made the situation even more difficult for the Christians. And one must also bear in mind the conditions under which Egyptian Christians have had to live for decades: they have been constantly subjected to Islamic propaganda, aggressive prayers and sermons, disseminated five times a day through giant loudspeakers.
The Christians feel excluded and marginalised. The unemployment quota in Egypt is high, but even higher among Christians because of the discrimination they suffer when seeking jobs. Christian girls are pressurised to wear headscarves. If they don't do it, they are subjected to insults.
Many Christians have left the country on account of this discrimination ...
Yes, and this applies to the whole region. In the last thirty years, 50% of the Christians have left the Middle East. And it means that they have left their homeland for good, and will never return. But it is difficult to give exact numbers. Probably some 16 million Christians still live in the Middle East - between eight and ten million of them in Egypt. The Copts themselves speak of twelve million Christians, while the government in Cairo reckons with only six million.
What role does the West play here?
Western governments are not really interested in the fate of Christians in the Middle East. They pursue their own political goals to the exclusion of everything else. It even seems as if they see the Christians as a problem. I sometimes have the impression that many Western politicians would prefer it if the Christians were to leave the Middle East entirely in the hands of the Muslims.
If Christians cannot depend on support from the politicians, what future do they have in the Middle East?
The Christians are suffering because, in Islamic countries, they are caught in the crossfire. It is often said that Christians are the Islamists' main enemy. But that is not the case. Islam itself is divided, and the various groupings combat one another: Shiites against Sunnis, Sunnis against Shiites. A growing number of Muslims want to return to the ideology of the era of Mohammed, i.e., back to the seventh century.
These Islamists fight against their co-religionists because, in their eyes, they are not true Muslims. The situation for the Christians is summed up very appropriately in an African proverb: "Where two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers". But we should not forget that Christians have experienced difficult times for centuries. Our Church there has grown strong on the blood of martyrs. Therefore I am convinced that the Christians will not only survive their persecution, but will emerge strengthened.
Apart from Egypt, which other countries currently give you cause for concern?
Currently, everyone is holding their breath because of Syria. That is a dangerous flashpoint which could impact on other countries - especially Lebanon, where the Christians have relatively good conditions of life. There is political and economic progress there. The religions have good relations with one another. Christians are valued and respected, despite being in a minority. But if the situation in Syria continues to escalate, the Christians in Lebanon will be directly affected.
How do you assess the situa tion in the Arabian Peninsula?
Nowadays, some 2.5 million Christians live there who have come into the region for work, e.g., from India, the Philippines or Sri Lanka. When we speak of the Christians in the region, we must not forget the fate of those in the Arabian Peninsula. Their sufferings are unbelievable. They are not allowed to practise their faith. They are denied the most elementary basic rights. Their list of complaints is long: they are not paid; they are punished for crimes that they did not commit; and they are expelled without reason.