December 27, 2012

Christianity and Freedom in the Contemporary Middle East

Syrian Christians

(Photo credit: Syrian Christians for Democracy)

By Rick Plasterer

Tenuous religious freedom for Christians in the Middle East is now complicated by enormous social unrest, panelists seemed to agree at an afternoon session of the inaugural symposium on Christianity and Freedom, sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

The first panelist, Kurt Werthmuller of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, observed that Christians in the Middle East are especially vulnerable in times of political or social stress. “Christian minorities have always been at their most vulnerable” when the “social fabric” begins to unravel. Werthmuller provided examples of this from very different periods of history. The famous caliph Saladin strictly enforced laws against non-Muslims when he began the re-conquest of the Holy Land from the Crusaders in the 1170s. Turkish mass killings in World War I prompted the flight of Armenians from their homeland, while their descendants have recently fled the Syrian city of Aleppo due to the current civil war. Also in our day, Iraq had one and a half million Christians before the Iraq War; this number has been cut by half to two thirds in the wake of the Iraq War, and especially in connection with church bombings which occurred in 2007. Similarly, Egypt has seen attacks on Christian buildings and persons in the wake of the 2011 revolution. But Werthmuller said that while much of the account of the persecution of Christians and proposals to address it focus on Muslim oppression, Christians must realize that there is “no scenario in which Christians of the Middle East have a future without the cooperation of their Muslim neighbors.” While people are rightly concerned about the lack of religious freedom in the Middle East, there “is also an issue of broader civil rights.”

In a subsequent presentation, Yvonne Haddad of Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, discussed how Muslims in the Middle East see Christians and their activities. She said that the “situation has been deteriorating for a long time.” Prior to 1967, pan-Arab identity was paramount in the Middle East, but since the 1967 war with Israel, that ideal has given way to Muslim identity. American support for Israel and western intervention in the Middle East have caused the indigenous Christians to be seen as agents of the West. The western pre-occupation with the ideal of freedom is not necessarily seen as positive in the Middle East. Haddad noted that while the Crusades are seen by Muslims as an attempt to Christianize the Middle East, there is also a perception that the “Crusaders came to liberate.” The activities of western missionaries have generally been viewed negatively by both Christians and Muslims, with such activities “not seen by older churches as freedom,” while missionary activity was seen by Muslims as advancing secularization (to separate Muslims from Islam). The “Islamism” which has developed as an ideology in recent years is seen by Muslims as a “firewall against takeover of the Muslim world” by the West. But among Islamists a difference exists between the older Muslim Brotherhood (favoring an “Islamic state” which has a place for Christians under sharia law), and the more recent Salafis (favoring a “religious state” with no place for Christians).

Speaking specifically to the situation in Egypt, Mariz Tadros, of the Institute for Development Studies in the United Kingdom, said the 2011 revolution in Egypt was the first time that Egypt’s Coptic Christians participated fully in a major political movement since 1919 (at which time they had been part of a national effort to expel the British from Egypt). Tadros claimed that there is a direct correlation between the contemporary rise of Islamist movements in Egypt and sectarian conflict, but this is difficult to criticize because any criticism of the Islamists is rejected as “Islamaphobia.” But the increasing persecution can be documented in terms of the number of attacks on Copts that are occurring annually in recent years, up from 33 (in 2008) to 90 (for 2012, as of late in the year). The suppression of the Copts involves both religious and political cleansing, and Tadros said that the term Islamists use for their objective is, in fact, “cleansing.” It involves the expulsion of Copts from both villages and various urban areas. Also disturbing is the fact the Muslims participating in focus groups concerned with the contemporary situation commonly said that their “first priority is to get rid of Christians.” Christians now face tremendous violence, and it is important to “deconstruct Islamaphobia” in order to be able to properly criticize the violence.

In general, panelists seemed to indicate that both prudence and courage would be needed to help existing Christian communities survive and, ultimately, flourish.

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