Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Harsh reality for Middle East religious minorities

As the dust partially settles over the Middle East and new governments try to move past the turmoil of the last few years, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is still exposing deep and raw ethnic tensions. People of all stripes are attempting to find their feet. And with political movement tending to come from Islamic camps, it is very easy to overlook the plight of the Middle East’s minorities.

Among them are the Coptic Christians. Not only have they fled in large numbers - 2 million Christians called Iraq home before 2003 while only 1 million live there now - those who remain are experiencing increased persecution. Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and others have all changed in some way during the recent unrest and once stable regimes are radically different.

Those fallen regimes in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and - soon perhaps – Syria, were for many minorities comparatively benign in comparison to today’s states. The strongmen dictators of Gadhafi and Mubarak at least ruled their countries completely giving some stunted implicit protection to these groups. Now, as once maligned Sunni Islamic groups rise into the halls of power, those minorities are feeling less welcome in their own homes and cities.

Courtesy -
Old tensions between Egypt and Libya are also heating once again while Coptic Christians are stuck in the middle. Four Christians were arrested in Libya earlier in March for proselytising, while a few days earlier an Egyptian Coptic Church was torched in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. A prisoner exchange is being proposed, but the incident highlights the disturbing new reality of the Middle East.

Under Gadhafi for instance, the regime maintained strict control offering some protection for Christians in Libya. Because of the heavy state control, Muslims and Christians lived in only a wispy husk of peace. Today about 1 percent of Libyans are Christian, however many of them are immigrants. But as Libyan law forbids promoting any other religion beside Islam, the largely unbridled militia groups still roaming the cities have arrested many Christians accused of proselytising. The husk has blown away in the winds of change.

Many other Coptic Christians in the Middle East have already felt the deadly tensions, heeding the warnings. Some departed to explore distant, friendly places such as Scandinavia, Australia or Canada in painful favour of their deteriorating home countries. Others are receiving stilted assistance from new state governments, in Iraq for example, to artificially carve out safer ethnic communities where they might enjoy relative peace.

Still others are being co-opted into the bloody wars of independence in Syria and elsewhere as “natural” allies against spreading Sunni Islamism and rebellion. These fair-weather-friends, of the militant Hezbollah and Alawite types, are unlikely to allot Coptic Christians any political spoils if they eventually defend Syria, so the alliances of convenience will probably be detrimental to the Middle East’s Christian minorities in the long run.

It appears while much has changed on the face, thousands of years of ethnic history and religious feuding is, unsurprisingly, still unable to be purged. The problem is compounded in Libya where state control is weak and unregulated militias without constructive employment release their frustration on Christian minorities. And because most Christians in Libya are Egyptian immigrants, the political tensions between Tripoli and Cairo could be set to rise.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi remains involved in dealing with Libyan apprehension of Coptic Christians. After all, Mr Morsi needs to avoid more upheaval inside Egypt from yet another disaffected minority group. Even though Egyptian Coptic Christians are not known for militancy or retribution, their numbers still make up over 11 percent of the Egyptian population. They could become a nasty headache for Cairo.

Mr Morsi is struggling to effectively lead Egypt, constantly receiving political challenges from all sides. Christians have faced steadily diminishing protection from Cairo since Dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted. And while it is politically wise to defend the Egyptian Christians today, ultimately the hard-line Islamist groups are the key to continued rule for Mr Morsi’s government.

The central story running through the Middle East is of Islamist groups who feel more emboldened by the sweeping success of the Arab Spring. Without dictators to protect minority groups, many of the larger Islamist political movements are taking the opportunity to begin the latest phase of religious warfare with the passion that comes from years of simmering tension.

Political leaders from Egypt to Syria will be of little help for persecuted Coptic Christians. If pressured to choose between ethnic groups, the new governments are more likely to associate with powerful Islamist groups, leaving Christians at the mercy of religious vigilantism and militancy.

In this light, it is no wonder Coptic Christians are leaving the Middle East in droves. 

But it will be the Middle East as a region which ultimately suffers. Many of these people leave with human capital - education and ideas - along with real material goods. Once the dust truly settles in this broken part of the world, it might be a far less dynamic culturally. It certainly will not be a progressive and prosperous home to a melting pot of communities.

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