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MIDDLE EAST: Can the region's Christians survive the 21st Century?

LA Times, 1/10/2011

As the 21st Century enters its second decade, two millennia of Christian presence in the Middle East might be eclipsed by the end of the century.

The new decade began in the Middle East with a car bomb that went off minutes after midnight outside an Egyptian church and left more than 20 people dead. This bombing came just a few weeks after radical Islamic gunmen killed dozens of people in a church in Iraq. The rise of Al Qaeda and the spread of radical Islamic movements have made the difficult situation of the Middle East’s Christian minorities far worse.

Comprising 20% of the region’s population at the beginning of the 20th Century, the remaining 10 to 12 million people make up only 5% of the population today. Though Christians played prominent roles in the cultural, nationalist, leftist and anti-colonial movements of earlier decades, they are excluded from the Islamist politics of recent years.

Since 2001, they have also borne some of the brunt of the confrontation between radical Islam and the (Christian) West.

In Iraq, almost half a million Christians have fled the country since the American-led invasion of 2003. With no safe haven or protective militia, the historic Christian communities of Iraq have been caught in Arab-Kurdish and Sunni-Shiite confrontations, as well as direct attacks from Al Qaeda, and now number less than 3% of the population. In Egypt, the Christian Coptic community, which makes up about 10% of the population, suffers from state discrimination and open hostility from radical Muslim movements.

In Sudan, the northern government has been at war with its largely Christian south for decades -- a war that might end in secession in the coming days. Christians in the Palestinian territories have dropped from 15% of the Arab population in 1950 to about 1% today, pushed out by the conditions of occupation and the rise of Hamas and militant Islam. In Syria, the country’s 10% Christian population has been protected under the Assad regime, although its numbers are also gradually dwindling.

Lebanon used to be the only Arab country with a Christian majority, and as such had a Christian-dominated government from 1920 until 1990. The demographic majority became a minority in the 1950s, and a long civil war from 1975 to 1990 led many Christians to move abroad and ended with the Christian president being stripped of most of his powers.

Protecting that presence will not be easy, as the risks are numerous. The dramatic exodus from Iraq shows that state-provided stability and security, imperfect as it is, is still far preferable to chaos and state failure. But governments must be much more proactive in providing inclusion and security for all minorities. Egypt, for instance, can and should do much more to include and protect the Coptic community.

International pressure will be necessary. The Sudanese government, for example, should be warned against seeking revenge on groups of southern Christians who might be left behind in northern Sudan after secession. In some cases -- and Iraq might be one of them -- setting up safe havens, as was done for the Kurds, might also be an option.

Muslims and Christians have a lot at stake in preserving moderation and tolerant societies in the Middle East. But it will take much concerted regional action and international attention to make sure that the 21st century is not the last century of Christian-Muslim coexistence in the birthplace of both religions.

-- Paul Salem in Beirut

Editor’s Note: The post is from an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

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