When Muslims “care to send the very best” message of hatred and intolerance to the kuffar, quoting chapter and verse serves to remind that Islam holds that these words came from the mouth of Allah himself. And those who submit to the Qur’an’s deity will act accordingly. “Christians in the Middle East: Harder to Bear,” by David Gardner for the Financial Times, April 23:
In a square in Nazareth, right below the Basilica of the Annunciation, a Koranic verse warns that “whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers”. Yet it is the spectre of losing in the here-and-now that most haunts the dwindling number of adherents to Christianity in the land of its birthplace.
In the hometown of Jesus, where it all began two millennia ago, Christians feel under siege. This fear is not limited to Nazareth or the Holy Land. Across the Arab world, Christians ask whether they are an endangered species: threatened by Islamist radicals; forced by limited opportunities at home to seek new lives abroad; accused of complicity in the schemes of foreign predators; and now menaced by the wave of revolution ripping through the region — which some fear could uncover the submerged hard-wiring of sectarianism.
Two massacres, at the church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad last October and at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s day, have reinforced this sense of a modern persecution aimed at emptying Arab lands of Christians, who number perhaps 15m among 300m Muslims.
“We are in a new era of persecution of Christians,” says Rifa’t Bader, a Jordanian Catholic priest whose congregation is now mainly made up of refugees from jihadist savagery in Iraq. “We are victims of things we are not responsible for, whether the Israeli occupation [of Palestinian land] or American policy in the Middle East, especially [the occupation of] Iraq”.
Iraq is a case apart. Following the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, indigenous Assyrian Christians, mostly Chaldean, have endured a backlash that has reduced their numbers from close to 1m to about 400,000. One refugee in Amman, a 66-year-old chemistry professor who gives his name as Abu Sinan, says: “In my country, 1,400 years of co-existence and common endeavour with Muslims disintegrated in just five years.” To Arab Christians around the region, this was a tragedy foretold.
Riah Abu el-Assal, a Palestinian and former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, says one month before the invasion he personally warned Tony Blair, British prime minister of the time, that “you will be responsible for emptying Iraq, the homeland of Abraham, of Christians”. After almost 2,000 years, Iraqi Christians now openly contemplate extinction. Some of their prelates even counsel flight.
Maher, 24, used to guard churches from attack in his formerly mixed Baghdad neighbourhood of al-Jadriya, where he says only five Christian families remain. He is now waiting in Amman to join the survivors from his family in the US. “Eventually my choice became simple: whether or not to stay alive,” he says.
But if Iraqi Christians scent apocalypse, their Arab co-religionists elsewhere have started to feel vulnerable in the lands of their forefathers — even if some are exhilarated by the current chain of uprisings bringing a fresh vision of freedom and democracy.
In Egypt, the resolutely anti-sectarian Tahrir Square revolution was followed by riots between Copts (reckoned to amount to about 10 per cent of Egyptians) and Muslims, raising suspicions that elements from the deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak were trying to widen a cleft between the two communities.
To say nothing of the Islamic elements cut loose in society in the aftermath of the revolution.
In Jordan, the Christian minority has prospered under the protective wing of the Hashemite monarchy, owning or running about one-third of the economy although they form less than 3 per cent of the population. Gathering resentment against corruption and economic hardship could threaten its position, as well as that of King Abdullah.
In Syria, where Christians make up some 10 per cent of the population, they are closely aligned with the regime of Bashar al-Assad — essentially rule by the Alawite minority exercised from behind the facade of the Ba’ath party. “Their fear is that if the regime falls to the Sunni majority, they will be put up against the same wall as the Alawites,” says one close observer of Syria in Beirut.
The Assad regime has enforced religious tolerance. Syrians, having seen sectarian demons uncaged in Iraq and before that Lebanon, worry about a new Balkans-in-the-sands now the regime faces unprecedented dissent. Raymond Moussalli, a Syrian and Chaldean priest in Amman, whispering through a sung mass in Aramaic — the language of Christ still spoken by a few Syrians — says: “If sectarianism enters into the Syrian equation the whole region will explode, especially Jordan and Lebanon.”…
The worst-case scenario for Christians could also be a “be careful what you wish for” moment for the region’s Muslims:
Christians — as well as Jews — helped the rise of Islamic civilisation by plugging it into the Hellenist legacy. In its decline, they were custodians of this heritage and of the Arabic language. It was Christians who disproportionately drove the “Arab awakening” of the 19th and 20th centuries, not just through a new Arabist politics but in education, publishing, medicine and science. […]
… [The] spectre of an eastern Mediterranean empty of Christians is still haunting for many, not just because it would uproot a 2,000-year-old heritage but because it would burn the bridges between east and west.
“The beauty of this land is that it is a mosaic,” says Bishop Abu el-Assal in Nazareth. “If the Christians leave, what will be left of that? The Middle East represents the intermingling of civilisation and the three Abrahamic faiths. If that finally goes, this will cease to be Terra Santa; it will be a museum.”
And it will only be a “museum” until someone comes along to shatter the remaining evidence of jahiliyya and sweep up the shards.