No Arab Spring for Christians

Christianity first emerged in the Orient. But today, Christians living in the Islamic world are marginalised and threatened with persecution. A problematic issue addressed at a conference organised by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Report by Bettina Marx

By Bettina Marx

Christians in the Islamic world – at best tolerated, more often than not discriminated against and in the worst cases even persecuted. In Arab nations above all their numbers are shrinking at a worrying rate.

Iraq, for example: Before the US invasion in 2003, Iraq was home to 1.5 million Christians. Now their population is estimated at 400,000.

In the Palestinian territories, it is estimated that 49,000 Christians still live in the cradle of Christianity, amounting to around 1.2 percent of the population. Around half of these live in the district of Bethlehem. There are only around 6,500 Christians still living in the birthplace of Christ itself.

The dominance of Hezbollah

In Lebanon too, where a century ago Christians still represented the majority, they are now in the minority due to emigration and the high Muslim birth rate. Only between 30 and 35 percent of the population are Christians.

Threatened marginalisation of Christianity in the Arab world: Göttingen theologian Martin Tamcke

​​In the view of historian Abdel Raouf Sinno from Beirut, this is first and foremost due to the economic and political situation since the end of the civil war. Addressing a conference held by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin, Germany, Sinno said that the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in year 1989 withdrew many privileges from the Christians.

The emergence of Hezbollah, the movement that has dominated political life in Lebanon since 2006, triggered fears among Christians in Lebanon of a burgeoning Shiite fundamentalism, said Sinno.

"Many Christians and also Sunnis feel threatened by the extreme ideology of Hezbollah," he continued. The "Party of God" perceives the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, as the religious and political leader of the Islamic world.

Sinno went on to say that it is not only Lebanon's Shiite majority population that represents a danger. He explained that the Christian community is also unsettled by an escalation of violence triggered by the uprising in neighbouring Syria. "Following the prolongation of the Syrian revolution Christians fear that Lebanon will be transformed into an Islamic state. They fear a coalition between Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis, which would mean a further marginalization of Christian presence," he said.

Forced to consider emigration

Meanwhile, emigration is an increasing consideration for many Christians, not just in Lebanon, but also in the Arab Spring states. Against a backdrop of growing Islamisation, they no longer see a future for themselves in the nations where they, based on their own understanding, represent what could be described as the original inhabitants.

Hopes for tolerance in his homeland: Bishop Anba Damian, head of the Coptic Church in Germany

​​The General Bishop of the Christian Copts in Germany, Anba Damian, told the conference that hopes for a pluralist society with far-reaching civil liberties that accompanied the demonstrations a year ago have in the meantime faded away. The Coptic Church is the largest Christian community in Egypt. If they were previously only tolerated at best, attacks on members of this faith group have increased since the revolution.

"During the Mubarak era we were not afforded any protection by the law," Damian recalled. "Presidential goodwill granted us a portion of our rights. But today, we no longer have a partner for dialogue and there is no goodwill." On the contrary, many Copts now feel defenceless in their home nation.

Coptic girls and women who don't cover their heads find themselves increasingly subjected to harassment. Churches have been set on fire and Christians threatened. Bishop Damian expressed hopes that the tolerance he experiences in Germany will also find adherents in Islamic nations. For example, the Salafists were not prevented from distributing copies of the Koran to passers-by in German cities. A freedom that Christians in the Arab world can only dream of, he said.

Communities facing demise

Professor Martin Tamcke from the University of Göttingen said he observed the development of Christian communities in Islamic countries with regret and concern. His specialist focus area is the religions of the Orient.

"This was once the centre of the Christian world," he said. A world where the fundamental doctrine of Christianity that shaped European culture was defined, he continued. But in the meantime, many communities are facing their demise. While there may have been Christian presidents or prime ministers aplenty in the MENA region in the second half of the 20th century, before long this could be an unimaginable prospect, said Professor Tamcke.

Bettina Marx

© Deutsche Welle/ 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon editor: Lewis Gropp