“First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people” has been an adage in the Muslim world envisioning the extermination of the Jews followed by the Christians. As violence sweeps through the Middle East, transforming the Arab Spring into an Islamic Winter, the order has been reversed (few Jews live in the Arab World anymore) and Muslim anger and bigotry is now directed at the small Christian communities across the region - notably in Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Syria. These ancient communities are facing existential threats to their survival that if left unchecked could drive away the remnants of Christianity in the Middle East. The only thriving Christian community in the region is in Israel, where the Christian community is protected, respected and growing.
The inferior status – dhimmitude - of Christians in lands under Islamic rule has been reinforced for centuries by systematic discrimination; however, even their status as “People of the Book,” has not protected them from the outburst of Islamist violence across the region.
In Egypt, where Coptic Christians are the largest minority group and account for approximately 10 percent of the population, they have been the target of frenzied assaults by Muslim Brotherhood loyalists since the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The Maspero Youth Union (MYU), a Coptic rights group, estimated that more than five dozen churches were looted, vandalized or completely destroyed across at least nine Egyptian governorates and a number of Copts were killed from July to August 2013. In October 2013, suspected Islamic militants on a motorcycle sprayed a Coptic family wedding party with automatic weapons fire, killing four - including two children. In a brief statement, an umbrella group of Islamist parties, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, also condemned the attack.
In Syria, where Christians also account for roughly 10 percent of the population, the bloody civil war pitting the regime of Bashar Assad against a host of Islamist and non-Islamist rebels has left the Christian community caught in the middle. In Homs, Latakia and other areas, both rebel and government forces have killed Christians and burned churches. Vladimir Bulygin, head of the Constitutional Legislation Committee of Russia’s Federation Council, noted in late August 2013 that “Syria’s Christians are in serious danger, as the world ignores crimes committed against them.”
In Saudi Arabia, Christians are barred from becoming citizens and laws make it illegal to import, print or own Christian religious materials. In Lebanon, the only Muslim country in the Middle East where Christians once formed a majority of the population, the steady radicalization of the government and the growth of Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah Shiite terror have led to a large-scale exodus of Christians over the years. Christians have also been the target of Islamists in Gaza since the violent coup that brought Hamas to power in 2007. The small remnant of Christians in Gaza has tried to flee, but many have been unable to leave and now suffer regular persecution. In Iraq and the PLO-controlled West Bank, Arab Christians have also been targets of discrimination and sometimes violence that has prompted many to leave. Cities with rich Christian history, such as Bethlehem, are now under control of a Muslim majority and almost completely devoid of Christians.
The only place in the Middle East where Christians faces no restrictions on the practice of their faith is Israel. Christians comprise a little more than two percent of Israel’s population, but the country assures them freedom of worship, grants them unfettered access to their holy sites and allows the Christian community to legislate their own religious affairs, such as marriage and divorce.
Shockingly the world appears indifferent to Christian suffering in the Middle East. Groups such as the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Sabeel and the American Friends Service Committee are so obsessed with the behavior of Israeli Jews that they can’t muster even a modicum of indignation over the mistreatment of their brethren in Muslim countries. Arab-American organizations have no difficulty denouncing any alleged Israeli discrimination against Christians but are silent when Muslims persecute and kill them. Similarly, successive Popes have had a lot to say about the importance of Middle East peace but have been silent while Christians are abused and compelled to flee their homelands in the Arab world.
The Christian position in the Middle East is increasingly precarious; the old adage may yet come to fruition, and soon. In the words of Palestinian Christian journalist Samir Qumsiyeh, “If the situation continues, [Christians] won’t be here anymore in twenty years.”
Sources: New York Times (August 20, 2013); Human Rights Watch (August 22, 2013); Los Angeles Times (August 20, 2013); Gatestone Institute (August 21, 2013); Al-Ahram (August 15, 2013); The Tablet (August 23, 2013); NPR (August 25, 2013); BBC News (October 11, 2011); Jerusalem Post (October 28, 2005); Telegraph (September 9, 2005); Times of Israel (October 22, 2013)