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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Middle East Christians and the Arab Awakening

The Middle East is where history is measured in millennia. But recently it has become a region where history is measured by the hour — changes are occurring there at a dizzying pace. Though the birthplace of Christianity and the center of the first Christian faith communities, the Middle East has become inhospitable to Christians — emigration has been a reality for more than a century.

From 10 to 24 October 2010, Pope Benedict XVI presided over a Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. The assembly brought together patriarchs and priests, archbishops and religious from the Middle East and beyond to discuss the situation of Christians there.

Orthodox Christians and Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders were invited to address it as well.

The main themes of the assembly were communion among the different Catholic churches of the Middle East; relations between Catholics and Orthodox; relations among Catholics, Muslims and Jews; and the general situation of Christians in the region.

The assumption at the time of the assembly was that these topics could be dealt with in the relatively stable societies of the Middle East.

In Lebanon, Christians form a large and historically powerful community. While their influence has waned, the assembly knew that Christians continued to dominate certain sociopolitical and economic sectors.

In Egypt and Syria, Christians make up about 10 percent of each country’s population; in Egypt, that adds up to some eight million people, while in Syria Christians number some two million. In Egypt, Christians of all denominations — Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical — had for years suffered discrimination from the government despite the fact that the Egyptian Constitution guaranteed equal rights. And random acts of violence directed at Christians — especially in rural areas — were routinely ignored by the police.

Meanwhile in Syria, Christians and other minorities were protected by the Alawi-dominated regime of the al-Assad family, provided they remained politically subservient.

In Jordan, Christians formed up to 6 percent of the population and enjoyed freedom from violence and systemic discrimination.

At the time of the assembly, the situation of Christians in Iraq was already beyond critical. Once protected by the dictatorial Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein, they have become targets of terrible sectarian violence since the advent of “democracy.”

After the U.S.-led invasion and the ensuing chaos, church leaders estimated that at least half of Iraq’s Christians left the country; many had been displaced within the country as well.

Stable societies in the Middle East are increasingly rare in a region now engulfed in violence. Middle East Christians face massive challenges and problems not foreseen by anyone in October 2010.

Since the assembly, the situation of Christians — in fact for all minorities in the region — has dramatically deteriorated.

Just a week after the solemn closing of the Special Assembly in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, gunmen stormed the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad. They interrupted the Divine Liturgy, fired at icons and lights, sprayed the ceiling with bullets and took more than a hundred people hostage. After a four-hour siege, Iraqi security forces rescued some of the hostages, but at least 41 were killed in the melee, including two priests.

The world reacted in horror as televised images captured the bloodstained walls of the desecrated cathedral and its shell-shocked community mourning their dead.

Two months later, just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, Christians were targeted again. During a midnight Divine Liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Sts. Mark and Peter in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, an incendiary device exploded outside the church, killing 23 people and wounding 97 more.

The attack stirred up the country’s Christians, who blamed the government of Hosni Mubarak. They took to the streets in Alexandria and Cairo, often joined by their Muslim neighbors, and clashed with police for more than three days. World leaders, led by Pope Benedict XVI, condemned the attack and appealed for religious freedom and tolerance throughout the Middle East.

Though the Arab world reacted with horror to the events in the cathedral in Baghdad, the New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria rocked it. The latter event occurred in the context of a contagion of anger and resentment spreading through the region, after the actions of one man in Tunisia ripped open the pressure cooker that is the Middle East.

On 17 December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his goods and harassment by local authorities. His act of self-immolation ignited anger and resentment among the populace and culminated in a popular revolution that toppled Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the dictatorial president of Tunisia for 24 years.

Within weeks, demonstrators took to the streets throughout the Middle East, challenging police and governments — unthinkable occurrences for those who had just attended the Holy See’s special assembly for the Middle East.

The movement — coined the “Arab Spring” by the Western media, though Arab commentators preferred the “Arab Renaissance” or “Arab Awakening” — spread to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Authorities elsewhere in the region were affected, too, and made plans to shore up their governments.

Regimes then fell in Egypt and Libya, and a major popular revolt began in Syria.

Movement leaders called for “democracy,” though it is still not clear what they meant by democracy other than “not this government.”

While together Muslims and Christians took to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, called for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s government, faced down the regime’s security forces and demanded a democracy, overt attacks against Christians have increased since the fall of Mubarak.

In Imbaba, a suburb of Cairo, the Church of St. Mina was attacked on 7 May 2011.

This started a series of attacks and violent encounters between Christians and the Salafi, a fundamentalist Muslim movement. Violence spread to Alexandria, where attacks on churches continued. The result was that within months of Mubarak’s fall, three churches and many Christian-owned businesses had been attacked and destroyed. Observers estimated that 15 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured.

Egyptian Christians greeted the election of Muhammad Morsi — a member of the Islamic Brotherhood who resigned from the organization when elected president — with ambiguity. On the one hand, his pledge to be “president of all Egyptians” and his promise to appoint Christians to government positions were signs of a positive development. On the other hand, his earlier membership in the Islamic Brotherhood, often described as Islamist and fundamentalist, concerned and still concern many Christians about the nation’s future.

At the time of the assembly, Syrian Christians lived in security. Damascus was the home of three patriarchs, Antiochene Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic. Christians throughout Syria lived reasonably well, practiced their faith freely and pursued ecumenical and interreligious conversations.

Now, Syria is at war with itself. Fighting has reached Damascus while Aleppo, once the center of the largest Christian community in the Middle East, is under siege. All reports indicate that no one — Muslim or Christian — feels safe. Christians have fled to the Wadi al Nasarah, the Valley of Christians, near the Lebanese border, or to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. While there are reports from Syria that Christians have not been targeted yet, their position is nonetheless fragile.

Christians fear the fall of al-Assad could result in indiscriminate violence against all protected religious minorities, including Christians. They are painfully aware of what happened to their fellow Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many of whom have fled and now live in camps or tenements in Aleppo and Damascus.

As of this writing, Syrian Christians face a lose-lose situation: Support the al-Assad regime that protects them and run the risk of reprisals or even massacres when the regime falls, or support the revolt and prepare for problems as in Iraq or Egypt where Christians fared worse after the fall of the authoritarian regime. The special assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops was unable to foresee this situation and, hence, unable to offer guidelines or advice to Christians.

Today, the greatest challenge facing Christians in the Middle East is how to respond to the events of the Arab Awakening and its aftermath.

Though Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s al-Assad family were fiercely hostile to each other, both belonged to the Ba’ath Party. The party, one of whose founders was Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, is built on the philosophy of a secular, non-sectarian state. Ba’athist Christians in Iraq and Syria were able to attain powerful government positions, such as Iraq’s Tariq Aziz. While the situation for Christians in Mubarak’s Egypt was never good, the Hussein era now represents “the good old days” for many Iraqi Christians.

A similar situation may now exist in Syria. Syrian Sunni Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro regularly invited Catholic priests such as CNEWA’s former president, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, to preach at his mosque in Damascus during Friday services. There, he spoke of Jews, Christians and Muslims as children of Abraham. While Muslim and Christian communities may have known little about each other’s faith firsthand, it was unanimous on both sides that relations were friendly and good. Today, there are already mixed signals coming from Christians in Syria.

Archbishop Mario Zenari, the Holy See’s apostolic nuncio to Syria, recently stated that the situation for Christians was bad but no worse than that of Muslims in Syria. However, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III has said Christian leaders have been targeted as supporters of foreign powers who support the regime of al-Assad and, therefore, opponents of regime change.

Middle East Christians face a dilemma that would perplex Solomon. On the one hand, they are aware that they have suffered more in Iraq and Egypt since the onset of the Arab Awakening. They fear — not without reason — new governments in the region will be “fundamentalist” and hence hostile to Christians. On the other hand, if Christians are perceived as supporters of oppressive regimes that have fallen or will most likely fall, their fears — again not without reason — will be justified.

If the topic of Christian emigration from the Middle East was an important one to the participants of the special assembly for the Middle East in 2010, it will certainly become even greater as regional events unfold. Christians in the Middle East are now facing unprecedented changes that may or may not in the long run be to their advantage.

In the short run, those changes will almost certainly not be to their advantage. The churches have almost no control over the forces at work. There will be and already are massive pastoral challenges, such as the care and resettlement of refugees, which involve not only costly humanitarian assistance, but considerable political dexterity.

Christian institutions of learning in the Middle East, though increasingly strapped for resources, can provide the region with the intellectual framework for political systems in which all people enjoy the same civil rights and responsibilities.

Lastly, the Catholic Church needs to mobilize its considerable resources worldwide to enable Middle East Christian refugees to maintain and adapt their ancient traditions in their new home countries.

No matter how one looks at the crises in which the Christians of the Middle East now find themselves embroiled, the tasks are daunting and the challenges greater than they were just two years ago.

Rev. Dr. Elias Mallon is CNEWA’s education and interreligious affairs officer. A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, he holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Languages and a Licentiate Degree in Old Testament Studies from the Catholic University of America. He currently serves as a member of the U.N. Israel-Palestine Working Group and chairs the Catholic-Muslim Dialogue of the Archdiocese of New York. He regularly addresses audiences at the Council on Foreign Relations and the United States Institute for Peace.

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