Christians - The forgotten victims of the Arab Spring

The world is increasingly realising that the Arab Spring also has a dark under-belly. And Christians are emerging as significant victims

Christians in the Middle East - a declining demographic
Ghaffar Hussain
On 12 December 2012 15:44

The world is increasingly realising that the Arab Spring also has a dark under-belly. As well as ushering in nascent and fragile democracies, popular uprisings in the MENA (Middle East, Europe, North Africa) region have unleashed previously suppressed reactionary forces. This has resulted in more jihadist intimidation, sectarian strife, and political in-fighting. It has also resulted in the systematic persecution of one of the region's oldest minority communities.

In the early part of the 20th century, 20 percent of the Middle East was Christian. That number now stands at around 5 percent and is dwindling fast. The steady rise of Islamism and reactionary forces in general has made life tougher for Christians and many decided to move to Christian majority countries. However, that process has been accelerated dramatically since the Arab Spring, and life for the ordinary Arab Christian in countries affected by the recent uprisings is getting worse and worse.

This shouldn't come as a surprise to the prudent observer. Iraq was a precursor in that it illustrated what happens in the Middle East when a tyrannical dictator is overthrown and a power vacuum is created. In Iraq we saw the emergence of jihadism, sectarian strife, and political in-fighting: three problems that are often inter-connected and feed off one another.

The result, as far as the country's Christians are concerned, was an increase in abductions, torture, bombings, killings, and forced conversions. A number of senior Christian priests were also abducted and beheaded. Since the fall of Saddam, over 300,000 Iraqi Christians have fled the country, many into neighbouring Syria.

But the Christians of Syria, as well as those of Egypt, are now suffering a similar fate.

Former British hostage Terry Waite, writing for the Guardian, made a recent trip to Lebanon and found that it is now the only place in the Middle East with a sizeable Christian presence and perhaps the only place where they can feel safe. Many Lebanese towns, like al-Qaa, now host Syrian Christians fleeing persecution as jihadist elements target them alongside Assad's forces in the country's bitter civil war.

And things aren't much better in Egypt. Al-Qaeda issued an open declaration of war on Egypt's Coptic Christians earlier this year and, with a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime, Egypt's Copts are more fearful than ever. The past two years have seen a steady rise in violent attacks against Copts and fire-bombings of Coptic churches.

Arab Ba'athism, it seems, was better for social cohesion and the region's minorities than the current potent cocktail of Islamism and reactionary nationalism. Yes, Saddam was brutal, as is Assad, but they also provided a degree of protection for minorities and relative freedom to practise religion.

The persecution of Arab Christians is a phenomenon that no-one wants to prioritise. It just doesn't fit neatly into anyone's political narrative. As the outside world focuses on the movements of al-Qaeda-linked groups and the jostling for executive political power between Islamists, nationalists, and liberals, the plight of the Middle East's Christians will continue to be ignored.  

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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