x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A timely reminder as historical Christian communities at risk

In the region where Christianity began, modern Arab Christians face persecution, from Iraq to Palestine to Syria.

As Christmas passes once again, we turn our eyes towards the Christians who have lived in the Middle East for 2,000 years, woven into the very fabric of society. Yet, as Pope Benedict XVI has warned, churches in the Middle East "are threatened in their very existence". Christian communities have faced asphyxiation in Iraq, executions in Iran, decimation in Palestine, suffering and hardship in Egypt, and they share in the daily terrors in Syria.

During his visit to Lebanon earlier this year, Pope Benedict told Christians that they should "fear not because the universal Church walks at your side and is humanly and spiritually close to you".

This is a moment to reflect on whether, in reality, other Christians do walk with their persecuted coreligionists of the Middle East; whether they are - both humanly and spiritually - at the side of their brethren.

Reflecting on a different time of persecution, St Maximilian Kolbe - the Catholic saint who volunteered to die in the place of a stranger at the Auschwitz concentration camp - said: "The most deadly poison of our times is indifference."

We all risk indifference, captivated by the imagery of the New Testament - the babe in the swaddling clothes and the mother and her child - but ignoring those trapped by waves of intimidation and violence, whose faith is their only crime.

Throughout the past year, the crisis for Christians in the Middle East has deepened - and 2013 promises to be no better.

The region's largest Christian population is in Egypt - and during the Arab Spring, Christians joined with Muslim neighbours in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tahrir Square. But they had barely taken their banners home before Salafist groups began to foment sectarian violence against the Copts.

The Egyptian Muslim novelist, Alaa Al Aswany, put it well when he said: "We can expect Islamists to use the democratic system merely as a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away so that no one else can use it."

That is precisely what has happened and why passage of the new constitution in Egypt, which entrenched the Muslim Brotherhood, has seen moderate Muslims, secularists and Christians again in Tahrir Square, demonstrating this time against a new regime.

None of this bodes well for Egypt's Christians. In November, a blindfolded boy pulled one name from a list of three to select Egypt's new Coptic Pope, Bishop Tawadros, as the leader of the region's largest Christian minority. Pope Tawadros will be leading a church that is under systematic attack.

Little wonder that more than 100,000 Copts left Egypt in a recent nine-month period. They were coerced, according to Naguib Gabriel, director of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organisations, "by threats and intimidation of hard-line Salafists, and the lack of protection they are getting from the Egyptian regime".

Paradoxically, 2,000 years ago Mary and Jesus of Bethlehem found a refuge in Egypt after fleeing the violence and mass murder of children by Herod.

And what would they find in Bethlehem today? In 1947, the population was 85 per cent Christian, but is now as low as 15 per cent. There would be few Palestinian Christian families, as Christians now account for only about 50,000 who live in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

In nearby Lebanon, the Christian community has declined from 75 per cent to 32 per cent of the population. In Iraq, the cradle of ancient churches - and now the scene of their annihilation - hundreds of thousands have been part of an exodus of Biblical proportions. In the 1987 census, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq; today, there may be fewer than 150,000.

And what of Damascus? Many Iraqi Christians did, indeed, take the road west, fleeing to what they imagined to be the safety of Syria, only to find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. The charity Aid To The Church In Need has reported about one village where 12,000 people, many of whom are Christians, are trapped without bread and other basic necessities.

That charity recently brought Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo to Britain, where I met him in parliament. He told me about the effect of the civil war in Syria on his diocese of Aleppo, its ancient Christian community and relations between the faiths. Speaking about the suffering of Syrians, he called on the British government to do more to stand up for individuals' rights to choose their faith. Does anyone really believe that Syria's opposition will do this?

How a country treats minorities is a test of its claim to be civilised, and religious freedom has been described as the pinnacle of all other freedoms. Consider that, in the context of the depredations occurring in Syria and across the region.

Bishop Audo paints a dire picture of innocents caught in the crossfire: "Aleppo, the city I love so much and where I have been bishop (for) 20 years, is now devastated." Cultural collaboration and stability have been replaced by fear and anarchy.

Syria had long been regarded as an example of peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Druze. The Christian communities made up about 10 per cent of the population (about 2.6 million), one of the largest minorities in the country. Inevitably, as the violence escalated, many Christians chose to flee. Homs has lost an estimated 80,000 of its Christian inhabitants.

Bishop Audo understands why Christians are leaving Syria, but he is also certain that Christians in the region are a safeguard for Muslims who believe in tolerance and coexistence. Without Christians, the whole region will be poorer. He firmly believes that Arab Christians have a vital contribution to make to Syria and the whole Middle East. It's a pity that western leaders don't believe that too.

 

Lord David Alton is an independent member of Britain's House of Lords and a professor of citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University