Attacked by mobs and terrorists, repressed by the growing popularity of fundamentalist Islamic law and cut off from crucial business ties, Christians are fleeing the Middle East in an unprecedented exodus.
More than half of Iraqi Christians — an estimated 400,000 people — have left that country over the last decade as power has fallen in the hands of increasingly hostile Shi'a Islamic leaders.
In Egypt, home to at least 8 million Copt Christians — a number that exceeds the populations of Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia — at least 95,000 Christians have emigrated since March 2011. The number could reach 250,000 by the end of this year, reports the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights.
"At the present rate, the Middle East's 12 million Christians will likely drop to 6 million in the year 2020. With time, Christians will effectively disappear from the region as a cultural and political force," reports Daniel Pipes, a leading scholar of the Middle East.
The most popular destination for fleeing Christians was the United States, which took in an estimated 42,000 of the Egyptian Copts. Other destinations included Canada, Australia and western Europe.
The situation threatens to worsen as the Arab Spring removes dictators who, paradoxically, shielded Christian communities. The parties that are gaining power in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries tend to be offshoots of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
In Libya on Sunday, transitional government leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil laid out a vision for the post-Gadhafi future with an Islamist tint, saying Islamic Sharia law would be the "basic source" of legislation and existing laws that contradict the teachings of Islam would be nullified.
In Egypt, where Christians make up about 10 percent of the population, Coptic Christians have been subjected to a series of attacks. On New Year’s Day, 21 Coptics were killed leaving Saints Church in Alexandria, and dozens more killed in clashes that followed, all leading up to the Oct. 9 demonstration killed at least 24 Christians, many run over by military vehicles, and injured hundreds more.
In an attack on a Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church in October of 2010, 58 Syriac Catholic worshippers were killed and 78 wounded. The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the massacre.
On Sunday, in a speech that stirred fears among some Middle East observiers, Jalil called for all laws to conform to Islam. The myriad of practices that declaration covers is widespread and includes charging interest on loans, which Abdel Jalil promised will be abolished.
“We are an Islamic state,” he declared to a cheering crowd in Benghazi Sunday.
While Iraq was not part of the Arab Spring, the toppling of Saddam Husseim in 2003 by the U.S. military created its own vacuum and hundreds of thousands Christians have fled the country due to sectarian strife. In Syria, where Christians make up about 10 percent of the population, a similar fate is feared should President Bashar al-Assad be toppled.
“Virtually the entire region now experiencing the convulsion of the Arab Spring lived inside the very large tent of the Ottoman Empire until World War I,” James Traub wrote in Foreign Policy.
“Ottoman rulers welcomed the Jews who fled the Inquisition. In great Ottoman capitals like Aleppo, in modern Syria, Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Sunni Muslims lived in the same neighborhoods.”
However, the fellow of the Center for International Cooperation and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine noted that the pluralism once found in the region was destroyed by those stoking nationalism to consolidate power.
“Populist rulers can accommodate diversity, as they have largely done in today's Turkey, or they can unleash the forces of sectarianism, as they have in Iraq, where Shiites and Sunnis kill one another and both kill Christians. Older Iraqis will tell you that no one ever spoke of ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shiite’ when they were young; but whether in Bosnia or Iraq, sectarianism, once provoked, has a very long half-life. There is no more volatile substance in the modern nation-state.”
Christian Syrians have clung to the government of Assad, fearing what might follow should it fall, having seen what has happened in neighboring countries. Indeed many Christians who have fled sectarian strife in countries such as Iraq have ended up in Syria.
Traub wrote that while violence against Egyptian Copts does not approach what has occurred in Iraq, it has been growing in recent years.
“There's no wishing away the anti-Coptic attitudes, or prejudices, of ordinary Egyptians. But Copts have lived with that for a long time,” he wrote. “The big question is whether it will get worse — and how much worse. And that will be a matter of political choices and political leadership.”
Traub concluded that the situation could go either way.
“Egypt's new military rulers, like the military ruler they replaced, have proved all too willing to exploit street-level resentment. Power-sharing cannot wait until a new president is elected in mid-2013 or so. Egypt's democratic forces say that they are determined not to allow themselves to be divided against one another. Let's hope so. In Egypt, and all across the former Ottoman outposts of the southern Mediterranean — Tunisia, Libya, Syria — it is not just democracy but also pluralism that is at stake. It would be a terrible thing, and a deeply unnecessary one, if the rise of the former meant the end of the latter.”
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