Middle East Christians face a precarious future

Middle East Christians face a precarious future

Robin Harris

The Middle East is sometimes called the 'cradle of Christianity'. But from the time of Herod that cradle has been desecrated, violated and soaked in the blood of innocents. In former times, though, the reaction of Christians was different to our own.

The Crusaders' methods may have been questionable and their motives decidedly mixed, but from when Christianity became a minority religion in the Holy Land, the rest of Christendom was touchily, even violently, sensitive to its fate. This concern focused upon, but also radiated beyond, the Holy Places.

Here there is an obvious paradox. The predominantly Christian Western powers have never wielded such dominance as they do today. Even the rise of Russia, however otherwise unsettling, shifts the balance of global influence in favour of the Christian world. Yet Christian powers exert no significant protection for vulnerable Christians in Muslim states. Nor is it a serious priority.

Not all of the Muslim world hates Christianity. But it is a fair assumption that most Muslims are contemptuous of modern Christians. Such contempt is understandable when one reflects on how tolerant we moderns are of blasphemy and how willing we are to downplay our faith; but it is also dangerous.

The contempt is built upon old foundations. Regularisation of the position of Christians within the Ottoman Empire depended upon their acceptance of an inferior dhimmi status, involving a range of discriminatory prohibitions and obligations.

Yet until modern times, and apart from the occasional outbreak of murderous violence, Christians in the Middle East applied their talents so successfully that they were integrated into the system and often flourished. Within recent decades, these advantages and the security they brought have been lost and a systematic Islamist persecution has been unleashed.

We hear from day to day in Iraq of the most revolting acts of violence. Not just the murder of the 65- year-old Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul in March, but the shooting of other priests and deacons, the burning of 40 churches, the unspeakable torture and slaughter of children.

In Iraq the Assyrian population - the original inhabitants of the region - is vulnerable because it lacks its own militias, is largely ignored by the government, and receives no protection even from the Americans. But it is their allegiance to Christianity that constitutes these people's main offence in the eyes of the Islamist fanatics. Those who can leave are leaving, first of all from mixed zones where they feel most vulnerable, then whenever possible leaving Iraq itself.

The UN Commissioner for Refugees reports that 40 per cent of refugees are Christian: over half the Iraqi Christian community has already left. This is what really connects the horrors of Iraq with the lower level, largely unreported, persecution which Christians face throughout the Middle East. Here the bald statistics tell their own tale.

Some 12 million Christians probably still live in the region, with about half in Egypt and the strongest concentration in Lebanon. But more or less forced emigration, differential birth rates, and pressures to convert are rapidly diminishing that already greatly diminished tally.

The Holy Land

Within the Holy Land itself, the proportion of Christians has fallen over the last 40 years from 20 per cent to just over one per cent. Bethlehem, once a largely Christian town, but now less than 20 per cent Christian, is being throttled by Israel's security wall and other restrictions. This hits disproportionately the Christian population, dependent on pilgrims.

In the Gaza Strip, run by Hamas, extreme Islamists are free to target the Greek Orthodox. In Jerusalem, age-old guarantees underpinning the Christian and Armenian quarters are being subverted by well- funded and well-advised Jewish fundamentalists.

In Lebanon, disorder and divisions, encouraged by both Hezbollah and Israel, are accelerating emigration. In Egypt, the large Coptic minority, though enjoying a measure of protection by the courts, is subject to localised terrorism from Islamist fanatics, restrictions on church- building, systematic discrimination and - as elsewhere in the Middle East - pressures to convert.

In Saudi Arabia, it is a serious offence to practise the Christian religion, and proselytism and conversion are both punishable by death. The Saudi case demonstrates the danger of conflating current Western geopolitical interests in the region with the interests of Christianity.

Conversely, the oppressive Syrian regime, which continues to make trouble in Lebanon, has, like Jordan, provided safe haven for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians. Indeed, secular authoritarian regimes may in such countries be preferable to weak, more open governments that allow Islamic extremists to flourish.

Fortunately, such judgments are not primarily what is required of Western Christians today. The biggest obstacle to a recalibrated foreign policy that takes Christian interests into account is simply ignorance:

* Ignorance about who the scattered Christians of these faraway lands are, and why their Calvary is also ours.

* Ignorance about the malice and cunning of the forces purging Christianity from where it first took root.

* Ignorance about the practical possibilities to stop and reverse what is happening.

Christians must learn once more to give public vent to Christian indignation. 'Be angry, but do not sin,' says St Paul (Eph 4:26). It is time, though, and more than time, to get very angry.

Robin Harris is consultant director of Politeia and a former member of Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Policy Unit. His article, here shortened, first appeared in the London Catholic Herald and is reprinted with permission.

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