Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Australian FM right to raise concerns about the plight of Mideast Christians

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Yesterday, Greg Sheridan noted in the Australian that Foreign Minister Bob Carr "expresses concern about the treatment of Christians and other minorities in the region", and said "The Foreign Minister is right to make this point and it is a sad commentary about political correctness in much of the West that almost no one raises a voice in defence of the increasingly beleaguered Christians of the Middle East."

Both Carr and Sheridan are correct. The sad reality is that Christians across the Middle East face an uncertain future, and their situation seems to be deteroriating rapidly given recent regional upheaval, which has seen breakdown in law and order in many areas, along with the rise of numerous - generally highly intolerant and often violent - Islamist movements and groups. Furthermore, there is too little attention paid to the plight of Christians - perhaps out of fear of setting up a dichotomy between the "Christian West" and the "Muslim Middle East".

In the early 20th century Christians comprised around 20% of the Middle East's population, but today they amount to less than 5%. According to Leonard Leo, Chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), "The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented and it's increasing year by year", and he also warned that Christians might disappear altogether from Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. Similarly, a study by think tank Civitas has warned that Christians suffer greater hostility across the world than any other religious group, and the most common threat to Christians abroad is "militant Islam." The report estimates that 200 million Christians, or 10% of Christians worldwide, are "socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs."

Diminishing Christian populations can be due to variety of factors that include low birth rate, immigration, as well as the phenomena of Islamisation - that extends not only to the Middle East but also to parts of Africa and Asia. As Yossi Shain explained in Ynet:

"If not so long ago the Christians considered themselves an integral part of the Arab nation (as did many Arab leaders), things have changed dramatically over the past few decades. The Christians were proud of their loyalty to the Arab nation and of the fact that Christian Arabs played a key role in shaping the Arab national identity, which is free of religious preferences. But the Arab-national vision that includes the Christians does not exist anymore - not even in theory. In traditional Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the Christians have lost their place entirely. But their situation has deteriorated in other countries as well. Hardly any Christians remain in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, where in the past they were almost the majority."

The situation is critical in Syria and in Egypt.

Syrian Christians are faced with a terrible dilemma - loyalty to the Assad regime who had protected them for decades, adopt the injunction of the Greek Catholic Church or Greek Orthodox Church not to join the rebels and preserve neutrality, or support for the rebellion, while knowing that many Islamists in the Syrian opposition want to ‘cleanse' Syria of Christians. According to reports, "The Alawites to the grave, the Christians to Beirut," is a slogan painted by Islamists on the walls of public buildings, in a town where in the 1990s Christians constituted a quarter of the population.

Since the rebellion began, more than 300,000 Christians have left Syria fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Europe. There are fears that fate of Syria's Christians will be similar to that of the Christians in Iraq, half of whom emigrated, fled or were killed. According to Haaretz, Christian refugees also decline to register with the offices of the refugee welfare agencies in Lebanon "so as not to be labeled rebels, in case the Assad regime survives and they wish to return to their homeland. Christians who fled to Egypt or Jordan tell of harassment, fictitious marriage proposals designed to traffic their daughters, and curses and beatings for being Christians."

Egypt is another cause for alarm. Coptic Christians are around 10% of Egypt's 85 million people, and predate the Muslim conquest by six centuries. But since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, around 100,000 Christian Copts have left Egypt, fearing persecution by an Islamist-controlled government as well a stagnant economy. Since the fall the Mubarak, there have been a number of reports of attacks on Coptic Christians. As the New York Times noted in an article "Christians uneasy in Morsi's Egypt":

"In October 2011, for example, following the burning of a Coptic church in Upper Egypt, security forces clashed with Christian protesters: 28 people, mostly Copts, were killed. Last month, Muslim extremists laid siege to Egypt's main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. The assault, which according to witnesses and video footage the police did little to prevent, followed a funeral for five men who died days earlier, in Khusus, a small town north of Cairo, in clashes with militants.
Critics blame President Mohamed Morsi and his government for failing to quell the violence. In an editorial last month, the state-owned Al-Ahram Weekly called the killings at Khusus ‘a symptom of irresponsibility in high places, of indifference that can lead the state to the verge of collapse,' while the Copts' spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II, accused Mr. Morsi of ‘delinquency' and ‘misjudgments.'"

Middle East expert Raymond Ibrahim has also outlined the flight and/or oppression of Christians due to Islamist forces in other countries:

"In 2003, Iraq's Christian population was at least one million. Today fewer than 400,000 remain - the result of an anti-Christian campaign that began with the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when countless Christian churches were bombed and countless Christians killed, including by crucifixion and beheading. The 2010 Baghdad church attack, which saw nearly 60 Christian worshippers slaughtered, is the tip of a decade-long iceberg.

... In Mali, after a 2012 Islamic coup, as many as 200,000 Christians fled. According to reports, ‘the church in Mali faces being eradicated,' especially in the north ‘where rebels want to establish an independent Islamist state and drive Christians out... there have been house to house searches for Christians who might be in hiding, church and Christian property has been looted or destroyed, and people tortured into revealing any Christian relatives.' At least one pastor was beheaded.

Even in European Bosnia, Christians are leaving en mass ‘amid mounting discrimination and Islamization.' Only 440,000 Catholics remain in the Balkan nation, half the prewar figure. Problems cited are typical: ‘while dozens of mosques were built in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, no building permissions were given for Christian churches.'

... In Ethiopia, after a Christian was accused of desecrating a Koran, thousands of Christians were forced to flee their homes when ‘Muslim extremists set fire to roughly 50 churches and dozens of Christian homes.'

In the Ivory Coast-where Christians have been crucified-Islamic rebels "massacred hundreds and displaced tens of thousands" of Christians.

In Libya, Islamic rebels forced several Christian nun orders serving the sick and needy since 1921 to flee.

In Muslim-majority northern Nigeria, where nary a Sunday passes without a church bombing, Christians are fleeing by the thousands; one region has been emptied of 95% of its Christian population.

In Pakistan, after a Christian child was falsely accused of desecrating a Koran and Muslims went on an anti-Christian rampage, an entire Christian village-men, women, and children-was forced to flee into the nearby woods, where they built a church, permanently resided there.'

In Somali, where Christianity is completely outlawed, Muslim converts to Christianity are fleeing to neighboring nations, including Kenya and Ethiopia, sometimes to be tracked down and executed.

In Sudan, over half a million people, mostly Christian, have been stripped of citizenship in response to the South's secession, and forced to relocate."

Of course that list is far from complete. In the Telegraph Edward Malnick also discussed the persecution and/or discrimination of Christians in China, India and Burma. There is also the case of Lebanon where Christians have lost their status due to the rise of Hezbollah, and there has been a flight of Christians from the West Bank and Gaza - as Israel's Ambassador to the US Micahel Oren, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year:

"Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, half the Christian community has fled. Christmas decorations and public displays of crucifixes are forbidden. In a December 2010 broadcast, Hamas officials exhorted Muslims to slaughter their Christian neighbors. Rami Ayad, owner of Gaza's only Christian bookstore, was murdered, his store reduced to ash. This is the same Hamas with which the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank recently signed a unity pact.

Little wonder, then, that the West Bank is also hemorrhaging Christians. Once 15% of the population, they now make up less than 2%. Some have attributed the flight to Israeli policies that allegedly deny Christians economic opportunities, stunt demographic growth, and impede access to the holy sites of Jerusalem. In fact, most West Bank Christians live in cities such as Nablus, Jericho and Ramallah, which are under Palestinian Authority control. All those cities have experienced marked economic growth and sharp population increase-among Muslims."

Meanwhile, Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing. Since Israel's founding in 1948, its Christian communities (including Russian and Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Armenians and Protestants) have expanded by more than 1,000%. According to a statistical breakdown of the Christian population by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in December 2012, there are currently 158,000 Christians living in Israel, representing 2% of the total population, with a growth rate of 1.3%. Christians are also doing well economically in Israel. According to the CBS, Christian education is notable, with 64% of Christian high school students earning a high school diploma, compared to 59% for Jewish Israelis and 48% for Muslims. The report also noted that 10.2% of Arab Christians study for degrees in medical fields, compared to 4.6% of the general student population.

Sharyn Mittelman

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