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.

By , Staff writer , Correspondent

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    Parishioners greeted one another before early morning mass at The Virgin Mary Church in Zamalek, an upscale district of the Egyptian capital, in February.
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This fall, a group of Iraqi-American Christians ramped up pressure on the Obama administration, warning that their ancient community in Iraq – already hobbled by eight years of war – could be pushed over the brink entirely after US forces withdraw by year's end.

Recently, Vice President Joe Biden responded.

"Basically, we got a letter back saying: Iraq is undergoing a great democratic process and we should take advantage of that," says Robert Dekeileta, a lawyer who volunteers with the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America. "It doesn't take into account that democracy for us is a little bit frightening because a lot of forces in society are opposed to non-Islamic entities like ours."

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This year of dramatic political change in the Arab world – with dictators falling in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; a violent uprising threatening Bashar al-Assad's grip on Syria; and popular agitation for democracy in Yemen and elsewhere – has opened up the real possibility that entrenched autocracy and despotism will be replaced by governments more responsive to their people.

But the experience of political change for Iraq's Christians is a reminder that democracy is one thing, but protecting against the tyranny of the majority is something else again.

Now, the largest Christian community in the region – the Copts of Egypt – fear that their position, status, and ultimate security in a country where they are in many ways already second-class citizens is about to erode further due to democratic change.

In Syria, too, where Christians make up about 8 percent of the population, there is fear the uprising will lead to an Islamist government more hostile to Christians than Mr. Assad's regime was. They're well aware of the risks of sectarian conflict and persecution, having witnessed Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and, more recently, the Iraq war, which spurred tens of thousands of Christians to flee to Syria.

At least half a million Iraqi Christians have fled Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, diminishing their community – estimated at 1 million to 1.4 million before the war – to a mere 500,000 under the pressure of sectarian killings, church attacks, and an increasingly Islamist political culture.

"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."

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.

Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 81 million citizens, are unlikely to face the kind of violence Iraqi Christians saw after the removal of Saddam Hussein. But attacks on Copts have sharply increased in the past year and many are terrified of the rise of Islamists – those who want Islam to play a greater role in politics. Egypt's Copts fear that Islamists will make the already onerous church-permitting process harder, worsen the lack of responsiveness of security forces to their concerns, and expand mob violence.

"Unfortunately it's very likely in the short term that there will be continuing [e]migrations, as well as capital flight. Christians are disproportionately transferring their money out of the country," says Ms. Dunne. She says it will be up to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party to prove it's willing to enshrine protections for Egypt's Christians – as it has sometimes promised – in the Constitution to put them at ease.

Tough road ahead for Egypt's Copts

Early results from Egypt's staggered parliamentary election, which will run through January, indicate that between the dominant Muslim Brotherhood and the far more religiously extreme and intolerant Salafi parties, the next Egyptian parliament could be 50 percent or more Islamist.

Peter Zarief, for one, is planning an escape route. The Coptic Egyptian has obtained a US visa and plans to visit a friend in North Carolina for Christmas to scope out possibilities. He has also applied for a green card, though he says he hasn't fully decided to leave.

"We all think it's going to be tough for Christians in Egypt," says Mr. Zarief, a marketer at mobile phone operator Mobinil. "Every time clashes break out, they're discussing it. With the elections, they're talking about it even more."

In November, Michael Posner, of the US State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told the congressional hearing "From Arab Spring to Coptic Winter" that sectarian attacks tell a "disturbing story."

Dina Guirgis, a Copt and member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, told the hearing that there have been 33 sectarian attacks in Egypt this year, with 97 killed and more than 400 injured – a sixfold increase over 2010, she said.

"While it may be alluring to blame the revolution for this serious escalation and praise the relative stability of the Mubarak days," she told Congress, "I submit that the same societal ills and perhaps more sig-nificantly the insidious state role in inciting sectarian violence plague Egypt more than ever today, and that responsibility lies in no small measure squarely at the foot of the military dictatorship [that is now running Egypt.]"

How many Copts have left this year? No one knows yet. But while some pastors urge their congregations to stay, Zarief says his mother sometimes voices worry that Egypt could become like Iraq. "I think there will be a time when you're not able to stand against the religious wave," he says.

Nicholas Blanford contributed reporting from Beirut.

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