In December of 2010, we witnessed the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring.” Many watched with hopeful expectation as governments fell in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, with major uprisings also occurring in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Sudan and most recently Syria. Most voices in the media, along with the Obama administration, celebrated these movements as paving the way for increased democracy, overthrowing dictators like Mubarik and Gaddafi.
More cautious voices raised serious concerns over the vacuums that would be left by these revolutions and just which groups would rush in to fill them. The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a case in point. The reality of Islamic extremist support of the rebels in Syria is another. And today, at the time of this writing, we are shocked by the killing of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, along with three other Americans in what appears to have been a coordinated attack by Islamic extremists with possible links to al-Qaeda. Protests are spreading across northern Africa and the Middle East, ostensibly motivated by a controversial video portraying the Prophet Mohammed in an unfavorable light.
The de-stabilization of the Muslim world across northern Africa and the Middle East leaves much uncertainty as to the nature of those regimes that may replace former dictatorships. The fears of many appear to be coming to pass.
One group, in particular, that has already suffered greatly as a result of changing regimes is the indigenous Christian population in countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The birthplace of Christianity 2,000 years ago has, for centuries, seen a steady decline in Christian populations. Beginning with the rise of Islam in the 7th century and continuing to the present day the Christian population in the Middle East has continued to shrink dramatically with conversions, emigrations, low birthrates compared to Muslim neighbors, and persecution by extremists. A century ago, Christians made up roughly 1 out of 5 Middle Eastern peoples. Today, that figure is perhaps 1 in 20.
Since 2003, two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.5 million Christians have fled, mostly to Syria and some to Jordan, amidst reports of abduction, torture and killings. In Egypt, there have been numerous reports of persecution of Coptic Christians, including reports of torture, beheadings and even crucifixions. The same is true of countries like Tunisia, Mali, Libya and now Syria.
Reuters has reported that Syria’s civil war has resulted in hundreds of Christian families fleeing to Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus or Egypt. Syria’s Christian population, amounting to less than 10 percent of the population, is comprised of Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite and Melkite Christians. Few Christians have been supportive of the revolt, fearful of their future should Sunni Islamists seize power from Assad. Many Christians fear reprisals should the Islamists take over, due to their perceived support of Assad.
One Syrian Christian now living in the U.S., with whom I recently spoke, described Christians in Syria as living “between a rock and a hard place.” He said what the so-called Arab Spring has predictably revealed is, in his words, that “the devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t.” While most Christians throughout the Middle East may not have fully supported ruthless dictators like Mubarak in Egypt or Assad in Syria, there was, nevertheless, a degree of stability for the Christian populations in those countries, given their secular nature. With the overthrow of these secular regimes, persecution of Christians at the hands of Islamists has increased dramatically.
A Coptic Egyptian Christian now living in Los Angeles, with family members still in Egypt, told me that his family describes increasing persecution of the Coptic community, with thousands fleeing to other countries. He expressed dismay that there has been very little media attention to the plight of the Christian minorities throughout the Middle East and northern Africa and that he believes the West is fearfully attempting to appease the Islamists. (The events of the past week and the Obama administration’s response to these events raise many questions about the U.S. policy of “disengagement.”)
Christianity was born in the Middle East, moving outward from Jerusalem to the ancient cities of Damascus and Antioch and from there westward throughout the Roman Empire. The heirs of the most ancient expressions of Christian faith are now being threatened, persecuted and forced to flee their ancient homelands. That there has been no significant public outcry is, perhaps, indicative of how biased the West has become with regard to Christianity. While many naively embrace the “Arab Spring” and the hopeful emergence of democracy – even in the face of angry Islamist mobs throughout 20 countries intent on destroying the U.S. and Israel – we seem to turn a blind eye to those who are caught in the crossfire. What a tragedy it will be if those places where the Christian faith was born were to become void of a Christian presence.
David Henderson, a former Episcopal priest of 20 years, is currently preparing for ordination to the priesthood in the Greek Orthodox Church. He lives with his wife and their four daughters in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.