Merry Christmas for Christians of Middle East? Hardly everywhere

Pope and patriarch have recently condemned Middle East persecution of Christians. If you look at processes that we are witnessing in the Middle East region how important is the question of preserving Christian communities in the region, do you agree that they are under some increased pressure or not, and why? Read few comments.

Jeffrey VanDenBergChair, Political Science & Geography Department, Professor of Political Science, Director of Middle East Studies, Drury University

Religious minorities of all kinds, including Christians, are in an increasingly vulnerable position in the Arab world. The rise of ISIS and militant salafism poses a serious threat. These groups reject the tolerance that characterizes mainstream Islam, forgetting, for example, that Christians and Jews are to be respected in Islam as fellow “people of the book.”

Most certainly the international community should specifically address the increased pressure against Middle East religious minorities. The challenge is how to do this in a productive and consistent way. Unfortunately, many in the Arab world interpret Western calls for greater democracy, protection of women’s and minority rights, and greater civil liberties as hollow justifications for pressing outside interests. Witness the US unlocking its $1.3 billion in annual military assistance this week to Egypt at the same time the Sisi regime makes a mockery of press freedoms, freedoms of association, and rule of law.

Ultimately, rights are contested and protected (or not protected) within the framework of sovereign states. When states neglect or abuse rights, extremism takes root. Iraq is an example of this. It is very unlikely that ISIS could have gained such power in Iraq had the Shia-dominant government of Nuri al-Malaki not been so abusive of the Arab Sunni minority.

So, the international community needs to be consistently vocal in insisting on the protection of minority rights, and use its influence with governments to insist upon such protection (even when it puts other “interests” at risk).

Paul Rowe, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Political and International Studies, Trinity Western University

Christian communities are under unprecedented pressure at the moment. We are at a point where the indigenous Christian communities of Iraq and Syria are nearing extinction and other communities are in trouble. However, at the same time ecumenical and civil initiatives among Christians remain relevant and Christians are seeking to do all that they can to create communities of purpose for themselves in the Middle East. Christian communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as among the Palestinians, remain alive and in many cases they are well. Preserving these communities through civil action that benefits all the people of their societies should be a high priority for those who are concerned.

David Mack, Middle East Institute Scholar and former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates

The Christian communities in the Middle East have been under severe pressure for several decades now, and their numbers are much reduced from just a few years ago due to persecution, discrimination and emigration. These communities, mostly Orthodox or Catholic, are some of the most ancient in Christianity, dating back some 2000 years. Along with being very central to the development of the Christian faith, they have also been an important part of the web of history, culture and economic life that has been a part of countries in which they have been minorities that made valuable contributions for centuries. Events targeting Christians in parts of Iraq and Syria are the most recent and scandalous examples of repression. Taking a longer term view, Christian communities in the Middle East have suffered as a result of religiously based Islamist and Zionist radical movements that discriminate against minorities.

James Gelvin, Professor, Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Your first question is not easy to answer. While arguments can be made that it is important to preserve Christian communities in the Middle East, if for no other reason than the fact that they link us to an earlier time and their extinction would diminish the vibrancy of cultures in the region, I think what is more important than the preservation of Christian communities in the region is the preservation of the lives of Christians, both those who choose to stay and those who choose to leave. Here in southern California, for example, we are enriched by dynamic Armenian and Coptic communities, most of whom trace their roots to the Middle East and many of whom are alive today because they or their ancestors decided to emigrate to the United States. Cultures are not static, and Christian cultures in the Middle East and in the United States have been defined both by their traditions and by their environments. What this means is that so long as Christians from the region and their descendants live on, even thousands of miles away from their ancestral homes, they will be preserving some of their traditions while reinventing others–and who is to say that is a bad thing?

As for your second question, there are a number of reasons that Christian communities in the region are endangered. First, the Arab uprisings brought about the downfall of secular autocrats such as Husni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine Abadine Ben Ali in Tunisia. While despots, both waged war on the principal persecutors of Christians in the region, Islamist radicals. Second, there is the growth of sectarianism in the region unleashed by the uprisings. As a result, boundaries separating different religious communities which had been living together for millennia hardened. Communities which had shared spaces–markets, public transportation, schools–withdrew into the safety of their segregated neighborhoods, raising suspicions of those who didn’t belong to those communities. Third, there is the growth of a radical fringe within the Islamist movement that seeks to create “Islamic spaces” and “purify” them. Finally, many Christians are just trapped between various contending forces as some states in the region–Syria, Iraq, etc.–head toward anarchy or chaos. (Syria presents a different story. There, Christians are identified with the regime, in part because they actually do believe the regime is the only thing that stands between them and radical Islamists. As a result, their villages are attacked. Similarly, in Egypt the Sisi regime has cracked down hard on every variety of Islamist from al-Qaeda types to the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result Copts, too, are identified with the regime which has polarized politics into two camps: Islamist and anti-Islamist.)


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