Can Christianity Survive in the Middle East?
Frida Ghitis, World Politics Review, January 6, 2011
The holiday season has now ended, but not without leaving behind a trail of devastation and a rising sense of anguish among Christian communities in the Middle East. A series of deadly assaults and ominous threats—most dramatically the New Year's church massacre in Alexandria, Egypt, and a threat from al-Qaida in Iraq to "open the doors of destruction and rivers of blood" upon Christians—have raised fears that Christianity may not survive in the region of its birth. The depth of the anxiety comes through in the words of Lebanon's former-President Amin Gemayel, who declared, "What is happening to Christians is genocide."
To be sure, Christians are facing a ruthless onslaught. And history shows that sizable religious minorities can be swept away by the tides of religious and political turmoil. Turkey, for example, was once home to millions of Christians. It is now an almost exclusively Muslim nation. Enormous, once-thriving Jewish communities have disappeared from most of the Middle East. But today's Christian communities in the region, while undoubtedly threatened, are far from inevitably doomed.
Christians living in the mostly Muslim Middle East are caught in the crossfire of an epochal ideological struggle. As the people of the region battle over highly charged choices regarding the direction their societies will take, Christianity has somehow become part of the very battleground.
The situation extends beyond the immediate Middle East to non-Arab countries. In Pakistan, the blasphemy law that imposes an automatic death sentence on anyone found to cause offense to Islam or the Prophet has become a tool used to target Christians. In November, a Christian woman was sentenced to death there after her neighbors, with whom she had had a disagreement, accused her of blasphemy. The governor of Punjab was recently killed by his bodyguard after speaking out against the controversial law.
Perhaps nowhere are Christians enduring more violence than in Iraq. Even while overall violence has declined precipitously in the country, the situation has worsened for Christians. In late-October, a group of militants stormed a church service, taking 100 people hostage. Security forces blasted in and the ensuing battle left some 70 people dead. Though it was the worst attack the community has suffered, it was just one of many that have occurred with brutal frequency. Iraqi Christians have been leaving the country in droves. Of those that have remained, many have fled to the safety of the Kurdish north. Iraqi Christian leaders estimate that perhaps 400,000 of their flock remain from a pre-war total of 1.4 million.
With few exceptions, those targeting Christians are the same people who wish to see a return to a Muslim Caliphate and a radical interpretation of Islam in the Muslim world. In other words, the ultimate fate of Christian communities is closely linked to the struggle over liberalism and modernity in the region.
Christians are particularly vulnerable, not only because they don't share the religion of the majority, or of those using violence to enforce their views. They are also often portrayed by their foes as a potential fifth column of disloyal citizens who might betray the country. That makes them targets and makes governments less inclined to protect them. It also explains why, after the Alexandria massacre, Coptic Christians in Egypt—who make up about 10 percent of the country's 80 million people—clashed with government forces. Nobody thought the government had perpetrated the bombing, but Copts have been complaining bitterly of growing discrimination throughout society and of authorities' stubborn neglect of their troubles.
The attack shocked the nation, and many Muslims seemed frightened by what it could portend. The influential cleric Ahmed al Tayeb of the famed al-Azhar University called for "unity of the cross and the crescent," as many newspapers warned that civil war could break out.
Sectarian civil war has already traumatized the balkanized Arab country of Lebanon, where Christians now maintain an ever-more fragile peace with Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Christians made up about 80 percent of Lebanon's population in the 1920s. Today, the most commonly cited number is 40 percent, but many believe the number is much smaller. Statistics in Lebanon are a matter of war and peace, so taking a census is out of the question. And yet, despite a 15-year civil war that left perhaps 150,000 Lebanese dead in all, Lebanon today has a Christian president. The future, however, remains uncertain for Lebanese Christians, as militant religious parties, particularly Hezbullah, become increasingly powerful and the threat of a new war hangs in the air. As a result, Christians are leaving the country faster than any other group.
In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah made a point of reminding his people that Christians are an integral part of the kingdom. In a message publicized throughout the national media, he sent Christmas greetings and reiterated his commitment to tolerance and religious freedom. Jordan has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing persecution at home. But Jordanian extremists—including the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq—have previously launched attacks against Christians in Iraq and Jordan.
In other parts of the Middle East, Christians live with varying degrees of freedom. Persian Gulf nations are home to millions of foreign workers, many of them Christians. In Saudi Arabia, the law bans them from practicing their religion, so they do it in secret. In Kuwait, large churches adorn the capital, and religious services are held openly. But only a tiny handful of Christians are Kuwaiti citizens.
In the Palestinian Territories, Christians made up 10 percent of the population in the 1920s. Today they total just 1 percent. They have experienced the hardships of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along with the pressures of living in communities where Islamic militancy is on the rise. In Gaza, ruled by the Islamist Hamas, they have seen their churches attacked. In the West Bank, the official stance is one of religious tolerance. Even so, the Christian population in the Palestinian Territories has continued its relentless decline. In Bethlehem, the Christian population has fallen from 20,000 in 1995 to about 7,000.
Perhaps the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has seen strong growth is Israel proper. Their presence has declined as a percentage of the overall population, but the total numbers have increased steadily, from about 34,000 in 1948 to more than 150,000 today. The sharp contrast with the rest of the region points to the role played by the battle for the heart of Islam in the plight of Middle East Christians: The one country in the region without a Muslim majority is the country where the number of Christians is growing.
Christians have become the canary in the coal mine of the Middle East, with their plight providing a measure of the perils emanating from the region's ongoing ideological battle. If those struggling for a forward-looking, modern Middle East succeed, then Christianity will survive in the lands of its birth. If they fail, then the Muslim Middle East could become a region where Christianity exists only in the history books.
Author Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor.