Across the Middle East, Christians Face a Dilemma
WASHINGTON—On the face of it, the overall picture for Christians in the Middle East — the cradle of Christianity — appears grim. In Iraq, of the 2 million Christians living there before 2003, only about 1 million remain. In Syria, the estimated 1 million Christians face greater radicalism and the enforcement of a reductionist Islamist order in areas where state institutions have collapsed.
In Lebanon, the only state in the region with sovereign Christian political expression, the Christian share of the population has fallen to about one-third from almost one-half. In Palestinian communities in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, the Christian presence has dwindled from about 20 percent to 5 percent. In Jordan, the small but influential Christian community remains wary of political and demographic developments that could leave the monarchy and country more vulnerable. And in Egypt, home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East, Christians are being denied equal protection and even equal citizenship. These trends are indeed worrisome.
A Christian exodus from the Middle East continues organically, and the specter of Islamist rule risks ushering in an era of further Christian marginalization. Local Christian leaders have considered at least three different courses to deal with the problem. First, some smaller communities have opted for an orderly migration to more welcoming shores, from Scandinavia to Australia and Canada.
Second, in Iraq, a long-shot effort at creating a Christian region within the federal system has been proposed. With little Western attention being paid to their conditions — some even accuse Western leaders of treating their presence as a nuisance — Christians are finding unlikely allies against Sunni Islamist radicalism.
Thus the brutal Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in Syria and the Shia militant group Hezbollah have been portrayed as valid partners by the likes of former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun in seeking to “secure Christian rights.” It is the third approach that is cause for greatest concern. Aoun’s quest to defend Christians in the one Middle Eastern country where they do not face an existential threat may in fact be self-defeating. He insists on interpreting the communitarian power sharing system in Lebanon as one that restricts the selection of Members of Parliament to voters of their same religious denomination.
This makes each Christian vote equal to two Muslim ones. Supporters of this illiberal and undemocratic proposition seem to gloss over the dangerous precedent that it sets — one that could be replicated in other countries across the region, and in Lebanon itself in the future, to the detriment of Christians. All three aforementioned approaches — emigration, minority alliances, and introverted entrenchment — are likely to empty the Middle East of its Christians, the first through the deliberate act of relocation, the latter two by inciting social and political backlashes. The fate of the Christians in the Middle East is inseparable from the region’s transformation into a viable, prosperous, and progressive home for all of its inhabitants.
In fact, far from being limited to Christians, emigration affects all communities and constitutes a severe drain of human and material resources. Totalitarianism in the name of Islam, whether of the Sunni or Shia variety, is as much of a threat to the Middle East’s Muslim citizens as it is to Christians. The survival of diversity, within which Christian and other expressions of faith and belief can prosper, is a challenge addressed by a growing and increasingly hopeful movement across the region. In Egypt, recent university student elections — once a secure bastion for Islamists — saw the rejection of religion in politics.
Despite the cooption of the “Arab Spring” memes of freedom, empowerment, and dignity by Islamists, these remain the guiding principles of the region’s new political discourse. It is only by joining hands with liberal democratic forces — not sectarian or autocratic ones — that Christians in the Middle East can remain rooted and secure in their homelands.
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.