x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Christianity is essential to the region’s fabric

The Christian faith started in the Middle East and first flourished here. There is a long tradition of mutual learning between Islam and Christianity and the Middle East must hold on to that legacy

A gesture can sometimes speak more loudly than actions. Witness the meetings this week between Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and two Christian leaders. The sight of the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X Al Yazigi, at the Sea Palace, spoke volumes about the openness and respect in this country for Christians.

Such openness is in marked contrast to the experience of Christians elsewhere in the region. Arab Christians in the Middle East belong chiefly to the Coptic and Orthodox branches of the faith, with large numbers of Indians and Filipinos being Catholic. The upheaval of the past few years has not been easy for them.

In Egypt, Syria and Iraq, Christians are sometimes targeted merely for their faith. An Israeli newspaper this week bravely admitted that Christians in Palestine are better treated than Arab Christians in Israel. Given that Palestinian Christians suffer all the woes of the occupation, that is quite a statement. The Roman Catholic Pope, Francis, will visit Jordan, Israel and Palestine this month for the first time, with these thoughts very much on his mind.

The treatment of Christians across the Middle East is part and parcel of two issues. The first is the general upheaval of the societies: the invasion and occupation of Iraq meant Iraqis of all faiths were affected, as were the Egyptians during the revolution, as are all Syrians caught in its civil war.

The second is the rise of sectarian rhetoric, which has led to attacks on Sunnis, Shia and Christians merely for their religion. This has been the case in every country of the Arab Spring, but it has been exacerbated by irresponsible political actors.

In Egypt, especially, during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, nakedly sectarian rhetoric was often employed. Even with Mohammed Morsi gone, acolytes of the Brotherhood, such as the Qatar-based preacher Yusuf Al Qaradawi, still employ such divisive language.

That is a tragedy. Christians are an essential part of the Middle East. It is here that the faith started, here that it flourished and here that all branches of it have been protected in predominantly Muslim societies. There is a long history of cooperation and mutual learning between the two biggest faiths in the world. Sheikh Mohammed’s welcoming of these leaders was part of a long tradition that the Middle East must fight to maintain.