Hussein Ibish

Fate of Christians will define the Arab future

Attacks on Coptic Egyptians portend ill

egyptian copts

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.


Coptic Egyptians mourn the deaths of four Christians killed in Al-Khusus earlier this week. (AFP photo)

"States will become, at best, merely the geographical battlegrounds and, at worst, the principal weapons of repression between battling groups of intolerant religious fanatics."

  • galen.olson.5

    Mr. Ibish, You are right that the decline of the Christian presence is sad and undesirable. However, you state that a Middle East that cannot accommodate Christians and other minorities will not be worth living in for anybody. I disagree with this and point to Turkey as one example. Here is a country that that lost its large Christian minority at the beginning of the 20th c. through a series of awful events. But now, though it displays a Turkish Muslimhood nationalism, it is increasingly democratised, and Kurds are experiencing more space for expressing their Kurdish identity. My point is that your statement "it won't be worth living in for anybody" clashes with "then it will be too late". It may not be worth living in now, due to intolerance, but norms change, and the Arab world eventually will become a place worth living in, regardless of whether or not a Christian presence remains.

    April 15, 2013

  • astaris

    "The Christian flight from the West Bank is mainly a reaction to the intolerable occupation" - what nonsense! It only began after the Oslo agreements and the creation of the Palestinian Authority which now rules them, not Israel. Israeli Christian Arabs in Israel-proper are doing just fine, thriving in fact. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where they are.

    April 15, 2013

  • commonsense

    May each human being living on this earth today (our era) find tolerance and peace and acceptance of others values .History proved that each denomination conquered and ruled the world for sometime and has been overuled ; so let us all be respectful of our brother and sister believes. May God help each one of us and lets put the effort to put an end to these nonsense discussion of all medias,

    April 14, 2013

  • danblox.roblox

    Revolutions don't work out the first time, Egypt is on it's way. After the French revolution came a chaotic battle between radicals and conservatives then came Emperor Napoleon, democracy didn't come straight away. It just takes time.

    April 11, 2013

  • may.sefin

    amazing AMAZING article! Every word is true. It seems like there is no real solution to this problem in the near future, may God find one.

    April 10, 2013

  • Enough nonsense

    this is a fundamental christian muslim realtionship why you insinuate the israely palestinian conflict,in the middle east,israel is the only country where the christian community is growing ,and what happening openly in Gaza is happening quietly in west bank ,so the exodus of the christians,they dont have a future in a muslim majority ,the arab jews understood it 50 years ago and left the arabs lands .

    April 10, 2013

  • williaminsyria

    They overthrew the sectarian dictator in the first place, but they will then be killed by the democratic new regime. What a paradox! Why did they not think twice before they joined the so-called revolutionaries to overthrew Mubariq?Everybody has to be responsible for what he has done.

    April 9, 2013

  • may.sefin

    well the modern muslims seeking democracy did not think things would take such a turn. Ofcourse they are a minority. Christians also protested against Mubarak hoping for a better regime to take its place. You cant really say they deserved their fate.

    April 10, 2013

  • Enough nonsense

    non sense the victims are never responsible for the barbarism around them

    April 10, 2013