November 11, 2010

Christianity's Place in the Middle East

Overextrapolating from the al-Qaida church attack plays into the hands of radicals wanting to push the clash-of-civilisations myth.

Chris Phillips
November 11, 2010

The brutal attack on a Baghdad church by al-Qaida in Iraq last week, together with subsequent attacks this week, has prompted a renewed interest in the declining numbers of Christians in the Arab world. While some commentators have limited their views to the tragedy unfolding in Iraq, others have generalised about the doomed fate of Christians across the region.

One article in Foreign Policy went so far as to suggest the church attack might spell "the end of Christianity in the Middle East" altogether. Yet such generalisations play into the hands of radicals wanting to perpetuate the clash-of-civilisations myth. Though anti-Christian feeling may be rising on the extreme radical fringe of some Arab societies such as Iraq, this should not obscure the harmony that has long been a characteristic of other parts of the Arab world.

In Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and, most rapidly, Iraq, the Christian community is shrinking and, in places, life is becoming more uncomfortable. Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have risen and many complain of institutional discrimination by the state. Similarly, Christians living in Hamas-ruled Gaza complain of a lack of protection against occasional attacks by extremists.

In this context, the attacks in Baghdad only serve to escalate fears of potential persecution, especially after al-Qaida in Iraq declared Arab Christians a "legitimate target". Indeed, it claimed the attacks were to avenge the imprisonment of two Muslim women it claims are being held by Coptic priests in Egypt, suggesting an internationalisation of its campaign beyond Iraq across the Arab world.

However, as Robert Fisk has suggested, declining Christian numbers could also be largely due to demographics and favourable immigration conditions rather than increased persecution.

First, Christians tend to have smaller families than Muslims – a long-term trend that cannot be linked to recent political events. Second, with the exception of Iraq (where there was a dramatic increase in departures after the 2003 invasion), Christian migration from the Arab world has been a process spanning several generations, rather than a sudden reaction. Migration westward began in the late 19th century and has never really ceased, not even during the era of Christian political dominance in Lebanon from the 1920s to 1950s. Sixty-three per cent of Arab Americans are Christians, which has helped facilitate further immigration to the US, as existing family ties are favoured. While bouts of political instability, such as the Lebanese civil war and the Iraq war, have at times catalysed migration, it must be seen as a long-term trend rather than a gauge of increased anti-Christian feeling.

In fact, large parts of the Arab world remain tolerant and display deep inter-communal harmony. The fact that most of Iraq's displaced Christians have fled not to the west but to other Arab states, notably Syria and Jordan, seems to illustrate this.

In Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy has long styled itself as the protector of the minority 6% who are Christians. Seats are reserved in parliament, Christians make up a significant portion of the business community, and Christian strongholds such as the town of Madaba are central attractions in Jordan's tourist industry.

While Jordan is a religious society, it is important to note that in the University of Maryland's 2010 Arab attitudes survey, only 16% of Jordanians listed Islam as their primary identity, compared with 31% of Egyptians and 61% of Moroccans. In contrast, 58% saw themselves primarily as Jordanian, and a further 19% as Arab, both being identities that don't just tolerate Christians, but see them as equals.

Syria, too, has a strong record protecting Christians. Historically it was a safe haven for Armenian Christians fleeing the Turkish massacres of the first world war. Today, about 10% of Syrians are Christian and, while diminishing in numbers, they retain a privileged position. Christian religious festivals are publicly celebrated, Christians hold key positions in business and government, and the state even provides free electricity and water to churches and offers tax breaks to priests.

Ideologically, the ruling Ba'athists are secular, even though the constitution demands the president be a Muslim, while the ruling elite, themselves from the Alawi sect, see the benefit of supporting another minority. Not surprisingly, most Christians speak positively of the government, seeing it as a protector from radical Islam – a myth that the regime is happy to perpetuate.

Of course, the Syrian and Jordanian regimes fall down on several other counts. Both are dictatorships with poor human rights records. While both regimes offer equality and cultural freedoms to their Christians, they deprive other groups of rights, notably the Kurds in Syria and some Palestinians in Jordan. Yet on the specific issue of religious freedom for Christians they counter the claims that Arab governments are allowing increased discrimination and persecution.

Moreover, at a broader societal level across the region, it seems wholly unjust to suggest Arab Muslims are suddenly turning on their Christian compatriots. A radical fringe in each state may share the extremist views of al-Qaida, but that does not mean they are accepted by mainstream society. Even Islamists such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood expressed their disgust at the Baghdad bombings, and called for Cairo to protect its churches. This issue varies across the region more than generalist commentators are allowing for.

Christian numbers may be diminishing and the radical fringe may sadly be gaining the upper hand in certain pockets such as Iraq, which the international community should rightly condemn. However, the Arab world in general remains a place where Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and look certain to continue doing so. Perhaps we should be celebrating this fact rather than exaggerating the extent to which the whole region is suddenly becoming anti-Christian.