The Christian Winter in the Middle East

The line about the American general meeting the Arab Christian isn't as familiar as it should be. "When did your family convert?" the general asked. "About 2,000 years ago," the Arab answered wryly.

The general's ignorance is widely shared. Take but one example from closer to home. Over-zealous teachers in London have recently been pulling Syrian Orthodox refugees out of school assemblies in London, on the basis that Arab children must by definition be Muslims. The truth, of course, is that Christianity is an import from the Middle East, not an export to it. Christians have formed part of successive civilisations in the region for many centuries – they were, as Rowan Williams has pointed out, a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, an active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a long-suffering element within the Ottoman empire and, more recently, "a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism".

Today, though, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the Arab spring gives way to Christian winter. Ignorant western assumptions about cultural uniformity are mirrored by Islamists bent on purging other faith groups from their lands. Such intolerance has grown steeply since 9/11 of course, but its roots long predate the disastrous policies of George W Bush.

In Egypt, large numbers of Coptic Christians have moved abroad in response to a tide of discrimination and outright oppression. Though still numbering at least 5.1 million of an 80 million-strong population(according to government estimates disputed by the Coptic church), Copts face many professional glass ceilings, and scores of their churches have been attacked by Salafist extremists. About 600,000 Copts – more than the entire population of Manchester – have left their homeland since the early 1980s. If Mohamed Morsi's new constitution is implemented, the second-class status of Christians will be set in stone. Egypt will stagnate still further in consequence.

The catastrophe faced by Iraq's Christians is more widely recognised in the west, partly because of the media spotlight on individual tragedies, such as the storming of Baghdad's Syrian Catholic cathedral two years ago. More than 50 people were killed, and scores of others maimed, when al-Qaida-linked militants hurled grenades into the building before shooting worshippers at random. In 1990 there were between 1.2 and 1.4 million Christians in the country. Today, it is estimated that fewer than 500,000 remain.

The current conflict in Syria has placed Christians in the eye of yet another storm. Despite its brutality, the Assad regime guaranteed freedom of worship to minorities before the outbreak of civil war. This year, though, tens of thousands of Christians have fled from cities such as Homs and Qusayr in the face of Islamist rebels....

Even in notionally progressive Middle Eastern societies such as Turkey, anti-Christian discrimination is extensive, and "apostates" – former Muslim converts to Christianity or other faiths – face heavy penalties. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, this problem is yet more severe. The apostate is at real risk of death in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Yemen, apostates risk punishments including the loss of property and the annulment of a marriage, "honour" killings by family members, detentions, imprisonment, torture and physical intimidation.
In the Middle East Israel is the only place where it is really safe to be a Christian.   One reason so little is known about the abuses of Christians by the Muslim majority is that the Muslims themselves have been professional victims.  The Palestinian Muslims in particular have been playing the victim card routinely for decades.  Christians don't tend to do that.

Another reason so little is done about is because the US government is unwilling to go to bat for the Christians for fear of alienating Muslims.I think this is a mistake.  Standing up for freedom of worship should be a universal principle   Certainly Muslims don't have any problem standing up for that principle in this country.  They should support reciprocity in the Middle East.


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