Analysis from LIGNET.com
According to a report in Al Arabiya last week, eight Coptic Christian families have been evicted from their homes and summarily expelled from Sharbat, a village in northern Egypt, by the Muslims who govern the area. It is the latest assault on the freedom of the country’s persecuted Coptic minority, who represent 11 percent of Egypt’s population.
The expulsion was triggered by unproven allegations that a Coptic man who owns a business in the village had a romantic relationship with a Muslim woman. Relationships between those of different religious faiths are not tolerated by fundamentalist Islamic communities in the Middle East.
The mere rumor of such a relationship in Sharbat whipped many of its Muslim residents into avenging rage. Sensing the danger he was in, the accused Coptic man sought police protection, a move that may have saved his life, because soon after, the Muslim mob attacked his shop and home. He and other endangered Coptic families were then expelled from the village for their own safety.
Given such “religious cleansing,” it is easy to see why Christian Copts supported the Mubarak regime and why their leader, Pope Shenouda III, backed him even at the height of the Tahrir Square uprising in early 2011. Mubarak offered Copts protection and they were willing to overlook the ugly, indefensible aspect of his regime to obtain it.
In Syria, Christians share the defensive mindset of Egypt’s Copts: Their priority is surviving in a life-threatening environment. While they reject the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s government, they welcome the protection his regime provides them from Muslim extremists. The decision to put their lives before their religious principles is hardly praiseworthy, but it is understandable.
The difficult choice Syria’s Christians have had to make is no more apparent than in the nation’s largest city of Aleppo, home to about 250,000 Christians. Their religious leader, Archbishiop Ibrahim, highlighted the fears among his flock about a future government dominated by vengeful Islamists when he said recently, “After Bashar, we don’t know who’s coming. Therefore we support the president.”
When Russia and China recently used their veto at the United Nations to block a resolution that would have required Assad to step down, the country’s Christians celebrated because, as one woman told the Global Post, “Look what has happened in Iraq and now in Egypt. Assad in power means that won’t happen here.”
While the preservation of their lives is what matters most to Syria’s Christians, they support the Assad regime for other self-interested reasons. Many of them work in government jobs and in the civil service, beneficiaries of a “spoils system” built upon loyalty to Assad.
In many ways it is a natural alliance between parts that fit together well. Assad’s government is dominated by Alawite (Shiite) Muslims, who are more modern in their cultural outlook than Muslim fundamentalists. They drink alcohol and wear western style dress, for example. The nation’s Christian community is also liberal minded and modern.
AnalysisWhile authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East were tolerated rather than welcomed by the democratically minded West prior to the Arab Spring, they did come with a silver lining. Respected and feared, these governments kept the region stable, their populations orderly and afforded their vulnerable Christian communities a reasonable measure of safety from persecution by Muslim fundamentalists.Mubarak’s government in Egypt once shielded Coptic Christians from violence, but now, with Islamist political parties holding 75 percent of the seats in parliament, religious discrimination and worse could be on the horizon.
The Egyptian military, which currently governs the nation, is scheduled to give full power to the Islamist parties in June. If this goes forward as planned, Coptic Christians will likely be the victims of violence as the remaining restraints on the nation’s Muslim fundamentalists are removed.
In Syria, Christians are in even great danger. Unlike Egypt, that nation has descended into a bloody civil war and if it ends with Assad removed from power (this seems increasingly likely) then friends and allies of Assad will inevitably be targets of violent reprisals. Once Assad goes, the West will celebrate, but it will be a dark day in Syria for the Christians and Alawites in that nation who have refused to oppose the regime.
Persecution of Christians in the Muslim world will likely continue long into the future. The Christians’ plight is roughly analogous to the persecution that African-Americans experienced in the South after the Civil War. Abandoned by the national government in Washington when Reconstruction ended in 1876, they were denied their constitutional rights and risked being lynched if they protested the injustice. With authoritarian regimes falling in the Middle East, history is repeating itself and Christians across the region are now vulnerable to similar horrors.
The Arab Spring has made Christians throughout the Middle East fear for their lives as the protection that authoritarian regimes in the region once offered them has evaporated. In Egypt and Syria, the largest Arab nations, persecution against them is likely to worsen in the months ahead.
If the transfer of power in June from Egypt’s military to its Islamist parliament occurs as planned, it will embolden Muslim fundamentalists in that nation to step up their assaults against Coptic Christians. If Syria’s Assad falls from power, as seems likely, Christians in that country will face the prospect of violent reprisals for their support of his regime. Given this trend of events, LIGNET believes that Christians might be forced to flee both Egypt and Syria in the future, potentially creating a refugee problem for neighboring states and a humanitarian crisis for the international community.