The Sad Plight of Christians in the Middle East

At this time of uncertainty and political vacuum in the Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, more light should be shined on the disturbing and deteriorating situation of Christians in those countries.  It is unfortunate that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, created in 1998 to advise the president and Congress on the plight of persecuted religious groups, is being closed.  The president is now therefore unable to be given such advice and to take specific action, such as economic or other sanctions, travel bans on government officials, and limits put on foreign aid, against countries designated by the Commission as of "particular concern" because of religious persecution in their territory.

Christians are not an exogenous entity intruding into a homogeneous Arab Muslim world; they have been present in these countries for two millennia.

Christian communities and individuals have played a vital role in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, as of other religions.  Pope Benedict XVI, speaking in Castelgandolfo on September 2, 2007, is not alone in warning that "[c]hurches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence."

The outlook for Christians is indeed bleak.  The Arab countries have not abided by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) of December 1948, which states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion."  Discrimination against non-Muslims has always been present in the Arab Muslim world.  In the Ottoman Empire, as elsewhere, Christians were second-class subjects, except for a short period after 1856 when the sultan conceded the principle of equality of the law to all subjects.

No reliable census has been available in Arab countries for many years, but the estimate of Christians in the Middle East numbers about 12 million.  Accused of identification with Western colonialism and imperialism, they are now facing aggravating hostility and persecution of various kinds.  The Christians and their institutions, in a context of internecine wars in the area, a falling birth rate in the midst of an increase in the number of Muslims, and the political rise of extreme Islamist groups, face physical brutality; destruction of their churches; discrimination in basic rights as well as in employment opportunities; boycotts of their businesses; and malignity in many forms of popular culture, television programs, and school textbooks.  They are unable to practice or have difficulty in practicing their faith and fear prosecution by law for offences of apostasy and blasphemy, devices intended to intimidate or prevent critical speech.

Even those regimes and ideas, such as Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, and Arab nationalism, which in the past exemplified to some extent moderation in religious matters regarding Christians, now play a less significant role.

Increasing violence and brutality against Christians is now evident in almost all the Arab countries, except Jordan under the relatively benign King Abdullah.  Even there, those Muslims who converted to Christianity face severe discrimination.

In Egypt, the Christian Copts, members of a church dating from 451 A.D. and doctrinally similar to the Eastern Orthodox Church, constitute about ten percent of the 84 million population.  In the past they have been active in political and cultural affairs.  They suffer from attacks individually -- in recent years, over 200 have been killed -- and from assaults on their churches.  Among the most egregious attacks were the murder of Copts in January 2011; the slaughter on New Year's Day in the church in Alexandria, the worst outbreak in a decade, which resulted in 21 dead and 79 injured; and the brutal police action against Christians protesting in central Cairo, in which 27 were killed and over 300 injured.  Other churches have been burned as in the Aswan area, or have been cordoned off.  In a country which is now witnessing the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (Freedom and Justice Party) and the more extreme Salafis (al-Nour Party), a bloc that won 60 percent of the votes in 2011, the Copts fear that they are a endangered species.

In Iraq, violence against Christians, who have been present there since the second century, continues with killings and kidnappings.  In the last five years, eighteen priests and two bishops have been kidnapped.  The archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and killed in 2008.  Since 2004, over 70 churches, 42 of them in Baghdad, have been subjected to some form of attack.  A recent notorious instance was the slaughter of 58 Christians during evening mass at the Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad in October 2010.  Churches have been bombed in Baghdad and Mosul, seven on one day in July 2009 in Baghdad.  The Christian population in Iraq, once a million and a half, is now less than 150,000.

The intolerant theocracy in Iran, the constitution of which states that all laws must be based on the Islamic sharia, has in the past year arrested over 300 Christians, some of whom remain in prison.  Christians, about 100,000 in 1979, are now almost nonexistent in the country's population of 75 million.

Saudi Arabia, the fount of Wahhabism, is probably the most repressive country because of the total ban on religious practice by non-Muslims and even the prohibition on bringing a Bible into the country.  School textbooks promote religious intolerance in general, as well as anti-Semitism.  This bigotry is made even more unacceptable when one witnesses the large sums spent by Saudi Arabia in building and sponsoring mosques and madrassahs abroad.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians feel safe.  It is only in Israel that Christians, of all denominations, are able to practice their religion as they wish.  They not only have full legal rights and religious freedom.  They also play a role in political and social affairs and in academe: Israeli Christians include a justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, members of Parliament, diplomatic representatives, and the recipient of the Israeli prize for literature.  Moreover, contrary to the experience in the Arab countries, the Christian population in Israel, about 10 percent of Israeli Arabs, has increased fourfold in the last fifty years.

To escape persecution in Arab countries, some Christians have converted to Islam; reports are that a considerable number of university graduates in Egypt have done so.  Many have supported and influenced secular political groups in the hope of being protected, but these efforts have been unsuccessful.  Above all, Christians have emigrated from those countries -- some voluntarily, but most because of the violence, threats, inability to practice their religion, and intimidation.  The Arab countries are almost judenrein; now they are becoming devoid of Christians.

The fate of those Christians will be an important litmus test as to the consequences, agreeable or not, of the events that began in the Arab Spring.  Will the winds of change in the fluid politics of the Middle East allow the existence of a cultural and religious mosaic there, and a religious and political pluralism in which Arab Muslims can recognize the authentic status of citizenship and equal rights for non-Muslims?  The West, especially the United States, should not be complacent or indifferent regarding the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

Michael Curtis is distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University.