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As Christmas arrives, crisis for Mideast Christians

While Christians in Iraq have long faced the threat of growing Islamism and violence, now Christians in Egypt – and Syria – are facing new pressures as a year of dramatic change wraps up.

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"Pandora's box has been opened and everything has come out," says scholar and former diplomat Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "In those societies that have been authoritarian there is a big tendency for a tyranny of majority, for a while at least, when they change. Iraq is a very good example – suddenly there's a tendency for [large groups] to grab the initiative and not to be thinking about the rights of others."

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The rise of Islamists

The decline of Christians in the Middle East is a story that is 1,400 years old, as old as Islam itself.

While early Christians established communities across North Africa and east as far as what is today Iraq, by the 15th century the Islamic conquest of the region had pushed Christians into ever-narrower pockets.

In many Muslim empires, extra taxes were levied on Christians, restrictions placed on jobs they could hold – and sometimes even the clothes they could wear – and they were pushed to convert to Islam.

But the region's Christians have endured to this day, and in the middle of the 20th century their presence in the region appeared to be stabilizing. Christians in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere were enthusiastic supporters of Arab nationalism.

In the latter half of the century, however, Islamist politics – particularly as a form of opposition to authoritarian Arab nationalist regimes – became one of the most potent regional political forces. The shift is cultural, too; expressions of piety, such as women wearing the hijab, have grown.

Everywhere there's been fundamental political change in the past few decades, it's been Islamists who have come to power.

Iran's 1979 revolution brought theocratic rule. The Iraq war ushered in an Islamist-led ruling coalition. In Tunisia's elections this fall, the Islamist Al Nahda party got the largest share of votes. And in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme Salafists are on track to win a clear majority in parliament.

Dilemma for Syria's Christians

Now many Christians across the region fear their communities are about to be pushed to the precipice.

Even in Lebanon, where Christians make up one-third of the population – the largest percentage in any Arab country – there are worries.

"We are OK for now in Lebanon because there are many of us and we cannot be persecuted easily," says Rony Attallah, a barber in Beirut. "But I don't think there is a future for Christians in the Middle East. The Muslims don't want us here."

In Syria, the Assad regime has warned of civil war if it should fall. But the Syrian opposition claims that the regime is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by deliberately provoking sectarian hostility to scare minorities – including Christians – into maintaining support for the regime.

The dilemma facing Syrian Christians is that the longer they back the Assad regime, the greater the resentment they will breed among the largely Sunni opposition, which could eventually take power.

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