The Future of Middle Eastern Christians

The Middle East is known to be the both the birthplace of Christianity and the current home to some of the world's most ancient Christian communities. But Christianity’s rich history in this region is not enough to secure its future. In the past decades, a combination of low birth rates, extensive emigration and growing persecution has contributed to the decline in both the size and visibility of Middle Eastern Christian communities.

In this context, the arrival of the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of Islamist movements in the region may threaten the already precarious equilibrium between Christian minorities and their host nations. Some worried observers have noted that the political ascent of more radical streams of Islamism—like the Salafist movement—might have a negative impact on the region's capacity to deal with its own sectarian and religious minorities. What's more, with the post–regime-change phase being a time of internal instability and volatility, preexisting cleavages within society are likely to be heightened, increasing the potential for internal violence against minorities.

Setbacks in Iraq, Syria and Egypt - Iraq is the best example of the relation between postconflict stabilization and violence against minorities. Since 2003, the Iraqi Christian community—whose presence dates as far back as the second century A.D.—increasingly has became the target of violent attacks, resulting in a dramatic decline, allegedly from a population between seven hundred thousand and 1.4 million to one as low as four hundred thousand. An October 2010 massacre at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church that left fifty-eight people dead raised the issue of the Iraqi Christian community’s safety in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.

Syrian Catholic and Orthodox communities also face an uneasy predicament: they fear being targeted by both pro- and antiregime forces and are unsure of what a post-Assad Syria would mean for them. And if postconflict transitions embody a potential threat to sectarian and religious minorities in general, the post–Arab Spring period will see specific challenges to the region's Christian communities. One such prominent challenge is the rise of Islamist parties.

Yoel Guzansky is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.

Benedetta Berti is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University (TAU), a lecturer at TAU and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group. She is the author of "Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

The above article was published in nationalinterest.org on May 15th, 2012.

Continue reading