The assault by Islamist thugs – with the apparent connivance of Egyptian government security forces – on a funeral at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday may be looked back upon as a grim milestone.
It wasn't just that two people were killed and 90 hospitalized. This wasn't just a violation, by hoodlums and police alike, of the revered center of an ancient religious tradition and community. It was rather that the whole idea of a tolerant, pluralistic Egypt – one that can fully include, honor, and respect its Coptic minority – came under a physical, psychological, and, most importantly, political assault of the first magnitude.
As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East. If the Coptic community of Egypt is thus abused, disparaged, and attacked, what kind of societies are emerging in the Arab world? The regional implications are chilling.
Pluralism will be unattainable if long-standing and traditionally well-regarded Christian communities cannot be respected. Forget about skeptics, agnostics, or atheists. Never mind smaller religious groups like Yezidis, Alawites, Baha'is, and Druze. If ancient, large Christian communities find the Arab world fundamentally inhospitable, Muslims will turn on each other just as readily.
And it won't be just the Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide that is already evident throughout the region. It will be an endless series of ferocious doctrinal inquisitions between various Sunni Muslim orientations and denominations. States will become, at best, merely the geographical battlegrounds and, at worst, the principal weapons of repression between battling groups of intolerant religious fanatics.
This future is by no means certain. It may indeed be apocalyptic, but it is still entirely avoidable. Yet it is hardly beyond imagining, as Sunday's tragedy in Cairo so gruesomely reminded us.
For at least the past hundred years, the Christians of the Middle East have been slowly dwindling. Many of them fled the Ottoman Empire, discrimination, war, conscription, and even famine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the New World. It has been both a blessing and a curse for these communities that, for cultural and religious reasons, it was historically easier for them to immigrate to and assimilate in Western societies than their Muslim compatriots.
But this process has been accelerating in recent decades. Much of the Iraqi Christian community fled the country after the US invasion. In Syria, the Christian community is among the most vulnerable in the entire country, spread out and lacking any organized defenses.
Some of these woes are at least partially self-inflicted. In Lebanon, the Christian community – particularly the Maronites – have both over- and under-played their hand in equally disastrous ways.
First they were seized by an impulse to try to impose national hegemony in a country that stubbornly resists any controlling power. Next, their traditional leadership was beset by bloodthirsty vendetti.
More recently, Lebanese Christians have been roughly evenly divided between the March 8 and March 14 factions. This is basically a split between those more fearful of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran versus those terrified by regional Sunni domination and therefore opting for a bizarre "alliance of minorities." Worse still, this division is driven by megalomaniacs fixated on quixotic and doomed plans to grab the Lebanese presidency for themselves.
The Lebanese Christian community will certainly survive physically. But it is headed for political oblivion, with no one more to blame than itself. The latest example of this self-destructive tendency is the preposterous so-called Orthodox law its own leaders spearheaded which mandates that Lebanese can only vote for candidates of their own officially designated sect. Had anyone else proposed such a law, Lebanese Christians would've risen as one in outrage, denouncing it as an anti-Christian plot (which it would have been). Instead, they brought this calamity on themselves for the most misguided reasons.
Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians can't do too much sneering at each other about the crisis facing the Christians of the "Holy Land." Israel discriminates against all Palestinians equally. The Christian flight from the West Bank is mainly a reaction to the intolerable occupation, despite Israeli propaganda that tries to shift the focus to Palestinian Muslim intolerance. However, such bigotry is all-too-real in Hamas-ruled Gaza, where the small and beleaguered Palestinian Christian community struggles to maintain its identity and freedom under an increasingly abusive fundamentalist theocracy.
The bottom line is this: if the Arab world, and the broader Middle East, cannot accommodate Christians and other minorities, it won't be worth living in for anybody. And if the region emerges from a period of ethnic and sectarian conflict – of mountanish inhumanity when minorities are hounded out of areas in which they have lived for generations and been an integral part of the culture – those societies will one day look back on it as an unprecedented calamity.
But then it will be too late.