Briefing: Why Christians are declining in Mideast
The Iraq war, a declining birth rate, and discrimination are causing Christians to abandon a region they've lived in for two millenniums.
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Sectarian tensions have simmered in Egypt for decades, with periodic eruptions. Earlier this month, Muslims killed six worshipers leaving mass and a security guard – allegedly in revenge for a Christian's rape of a Muslim girl.Skip to next paragraph
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Hilal Khashan, professor of political studies at the American University in Beirut, says that tension has not increased, but that extra attention is given to violence against Christians, both in Egypt and Iraq. "Acts of violence that are driven by personal issues are frequent, but they only make the news when they involve Muslims against Copts," he says.
In Syria, where Christians have fallen to 10 percent, there are fewer tensions, however. President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a religious minority himself, has an interest in keeping sectarian strife at bay, and his regime rigidly cracks down on Islamic extremism. According to Dr. McCallum, many Syrian Christians feel they can participate in state and society, though they complain of discrimination in conversion and interreligious marriage.
Is the rise of political Islam a factor?
In Egypt, where women once wore miniskirts on the street, most women are now veiled. It's one of many signs of the growing role that Islam plays in Egyptians' lives, which can leave Christians feeling uneasy. "You can't totally ignore that there has been a rise in political Islam … and obviously if you're not part of that you will feel a bit different," says McCallum. As Egypt's Christians watch the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian territories or Hezbollah in Lebanon, many are increasingly worried about their place in society.
What effect has the exodus had regionally?
As Christians leave the Middle East, some worry they will leave behind an increasingly polarized society. When members of different religions or sects live side by side, they are more likely to see one another as people, rather than faceless adversaries, says McCallum. The loss of the Christians in the Palestinian territories and Israel, says McGahern, would be particularly tragic. "Diversity necessitates compromise and breeds creativity," she says. "Without Palestinian Christians or Druze or Muslims, or Jews for that matter, society would become more polarized and political options more rigid."