CHRISTIANITY’S LAST OUTPOST IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
By Paul Merkley.
The Arab Spring That Wasn’t.
On December18, 2010, a young Tunisian merchant named Mohamad Bouazizi set fire to himself publicly to protest what he imagined was intolerable treatment at the hands of local zoning authorities. Incredibly, this incident opened floodgates of copy-cat complaint against authorities of all kinds and at all levels. Within weeks, a whirlwind of popular protest brought daily life to a halt throughout the entire Arab world.
Deep thinkers in our part of the world rallied behind the slogan that this was long-awaited Arab Spring: democracy would ere long be the foundation of all government in the Arab world. Instead, the crowds eventually wearied, and, having failed to finds ways of uniting around new leaders, were beaten back. Some of the dictators and kings were exchanged for new dictators and kings. The outcome is that there is less democracy, not more, throughout the Arab world.
A New Season of Mass Outrage Against Christians of the Middle East.
Simultaneous with the great anti-government demonstrations that drew all the major new networks of the world to the big cities of greater Arabia were countless acts of mob violence against Christian communities throughout this same world. These inspired a spike in the emigration from the Arab world of Christians that had been going on for decades.
The Arab Spring-That-Wasn’t is long past, but the dedication of Arab Muslims to the liquidation of Christians is greater than ever. Towards this goal, much has been accomplished, and all of it has lowered the reputation of the Arab world.
Nearly eight decades have gone by since the British and French empires in the Middle East retreated to make way for Arab self-rule. Nowhere in that world has the hope for democratic and liberal self-rule been achieved.
The Christian minority has always needed protection from Muslim mobocracy. Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century as Ottoman rule became less respected at home and abroad, the British and the French extended vital protection to Jews and Christians – in part, of course, to provide rationale for their Empires. But the stake that statesmen once believed that they had in protection of the Christians anywhere in the world has since been traded in by their successors, who came to believe that what the West needed most was the petroleum deposits that are found everywhere in Middle Eastern. To support this insight, these same statesmen developed a subsidiary justification for giving up protection of the Jews and Christians. This took the form of the argument that the wealth generated by petroleum production would (somehow) issue in enlightened attitudes among the Arab ruling classes, and that this in turn would trickle down to their subjects, clearing the path to democracy. Instead, prosperity just made the old elites more arrogant and the masses more convinced that Islam was being betrayed.
From time immemorial, the Jews have served both rulers and ruled in the Arab world as convenient and available incarnations of the invisible enemy of the happiness of Arab people. In the years immediately following Israel’s War of Independence (1948-1949) Arab rulers, embarrassed by the defeat of their several armies by the new State of Israel, responded to popular clamour by stripping of their assets the Jews in their midst – roughly 400,00 at the time. Incredibly, most spokesmen for the Christian populations of the Arab lands joined in the chorus of abuse against the perfidious Jews in the futile hope that they should remain immune from the fate of the Jews.
But the existence of Christians and of Christianity as a phenomenon apart from Jews and Judaism makes no sense to Muslims. Thus we find that the determination to liquidate the Christians of the Arab world has taken on the same priority that the removal of the Jews had in 1949.
Christianity in the Arab World.
It is not true that Islam is the foundational religion of the Middle East (as most journalists seem to assume.) For that matter, neither is it true that Arabs are the indigenous locals. The people who were found in place by the conquering Arab armies in the Seventh century belonged to Christian communities that had come into existence half a millennium earlier, in the very earliest years of the dissemination of the Gospel.
The basic missionary method of the conquering Muslims was that prescribed in the Qur’an — violent force. What is truly amazing about this story is that a viable minority of the conquered Christians bravely resisted conversion, thus undertaking the status of dhimmis, second-class people. In 1900, such people made up about 13% of the population of the ME. Today, the figure is one percent – and falling rapidly.
Until the last few years, two main factors accounted for the falling population: emigration and declining birth rate. But today these factors are eclipsed by a thorough-going liquidation campaign being conducted throughout the Middle East.
Remnants of Christianity in the Arab World.
In 1947, 4.7 million Iraqi Christians represented about 12% of the population; by 2003 they were reduced to about a million and a half, representing about 6% of the population. That was before the U.S. – led invasion. The moment that Saddam Hussein fell, and well before ISIS got into the game, Muslim mobs, acting on the advice of their religious teachers, began wiping out the Christians and their churches and appropriating their properties. By 2013 the number of Iraqi Christians had dropped to perhaps 450,000.
Meanwhile, nearly a third of Syria’s Christians, about 600,000, have fled that country. Tens of thousands have joined the Muslim swarm that is now beating down the borders between European countries. ISIS has executed more than 11,000 of these people in Iraq and Syria. Many thousands of those who survived now languish in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.
Realistically, there are only two spots within the Middle East where Christianity has any prospect of survival. One is Israel, to which Christians are fleeing in growing numbers from all corners of the Middle East and also from Africa. The Christian proportion of the population in Israelis is today virtually the same as in 1948, despite the manifold multiplication of Jewish numbers/ .
The other corner where we find decent prospect of survival of Christians is Egypt.
Most Egyptian Christians are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose origins go back to within a generation of the Apostolic mission that is described in the New Testament Book of Acts. The Copts are the indigenous Egyptian people (“Copt” is corruption of the Greek egyptos). They have survived until this day as a hated minority among Muslims because they had gifts that endeared them to Arab rulers, who were themselves Muslims, but who were alert to the advantages of co-opting their wealth, their learning, their professional skills and their prestige in the outer world in support of the Egyptian regime — that is, the Egyptian monarchy until 1949, and since then, a sequence of military dictators.
Saving the Remnant of Christianity in Egypt.
The Copts are not an exception to the general story of massive emigration of Christians from the Arab world to a growing diaspora. The proportion of Christians to Muslims in Egypt was about 10% when the Arab Spring began – but that could also be said of Christians in Iraq and Syria – now reduced to about 1%. But the remnant in Egypt is still significant enough to give hope that Christianity can be saved in Egypt – but only if the elected leaders of Western nations will make a determined effort on their behalf – as they have not done at any time in the past.
One advantage that Egypt has over Iraq and over Syria is that Egypt has a government. By contrast, intervention of the American alliance in Iraq, and now the intervention of Russia in Syria, intended to bolster elements capable of governing, has left the region teetering into anarchy.
The painful reality is that the Copts, like Christian minorities elsewhere in Middle East, have been safe only so long as democracy has been kept at arm’s length. The darkest moment so far for the Copts followed the moment of democracy’s triumph: Morsi’s election as President, June 2012. In the year that followed, Egyptian government and police authorities collaborated with Muslim zealots to press forward with the mission given by Allah in the Qur’an – the liquidation of Christianity. A military coup in June 2013, overtly endorsed by the leaders of the Coptic community, ended with President Morsi in jail and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ruling as dictator. Even so, persecution, vandalism and terrorism of Christians has gone on at an accelerating rate since then, as Egypt’s Islamists have sought absolute revenge.
***Prospects for Better Days for the Copts.
The government of the United States under President Obama followed the example of European governments in deliberately minimizing the significance of Islamic faith as a factor in the sequence of assaults upon the world’s peace that began in September 11, 2001. Obama himself has denounced as “racist” voices calling for speedy and wholesale asylum in the United States of persecuted Christians.
Copts, at home in Egypt and abroad, are pinning their hopes for rescue upon two other Presidents –President Sisi and President Trump. The former was frequently singled out for praise by candidate Trump during his campaign and he is one of only two heads of state with whom Trump actually visited during the campaign. Sisi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his election.
President Sisi has demonstrated courage in publicly recognizing the loss that the Copts have suffered. When the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral church in Cairo suffered a suicide-bomber attack, in December, resulting in at lest 25 deaths and many injuries, Sisi boldly declared official Egyptian sympathy by cancelling celebrations marking the prophet’s birthday. He visited the Cathedral at that time, and then again when the Coptic Church celebrated Christmas (January 8.) On that latter occasion, he announced the building of a larger church — the largest Christian church in Egypt – something bound to inflame the hearts and minds of many Muslims.
All of this explains why the most senior Coptic clergy here in Canada have publicly and repeatedly saluted Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “Our Beloved President.”