The situation for Christians in the Middle East is difficult and increasingly precarious. From Morocco to Egypt and Iraq, they have come under pressure either from governments or from Islamic groups. The latest dramatic event happened this weekend, when a Christian church was attacked in Iraq by a group linked to al-Qaida, killing at least 50 people.
It’s worth reviewing the situation in some of the Middle Eastern states with sizable and historical Christian communities:
Egypt has a large minority of Christians. Between 6 and 10 million Coptic Christians live in the country. This community is one of the oldest in the Christian world, having been established in the 1st century in Alexandria. Officially, the constitution provides for freedom of beliefs and the practice of religious rites in Egypt, but the practice, unfortunately, does not live up to this ideal.
The government, for example, does not recognize conversion from Islam to Christianity and assaults against Christians have become more common place. The latest incident occurred when an angry mob of 4,000 Egyptians attacked the Coptic minority in an eastern town of Egypt.
Iraq Christians are one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. They belong primarily to the Assyrian Church and some still celebrate the mass in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. From seven percent of the population in 1980, their share of the Iraqi population has fallen to around 3 percent. Formerly protected by the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, the recent war in Iraq and the deep religious divides that dominate Iraqi politics and society, forced 200,000 Christians to flee the country.
The government officially guarantees freedom of religious belief, but the current political instability makes for a different reality.
Once the only Christian country of the Middle East, Lebanon is now approximately 40 percent Christian, with most of them members of the Maronites Church. Lebanon’s history has largely been defined by numerous, bloody religious conflicts that pit the Shiia, the Sunni and the Christian minority against each other in a fight for power.
Lebanon is now ruled through a fragile power-sharing agreement between the three main denominations, with a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shiia president of the parliament. Tensions between religious groups remain high and the risk of a new religious conflict is real.
The status of Christians communities in the Middle East is difficult, despite their deep historical roots in the region. The situation has also deteriorated as of late. From a relative peaceful cohabitation with Muslim and Jewish communities under Ottoman rule, Christian communities are increasingly having to fight for their survival in a volatile and uncertain environment.
The Vatican recently organized a synod on the situation of Christianity in the Middle East, but without the political will on the part of Middle Eastern governments to defend their religious diversity, nothing is likely to happen.
More information can be found under ‘Religion’ and the ‘Middle East’ on the ISN site.