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Citizens or Martyrs? The Uncertain Fate of Christians in the Arab Spring

Daniel Philpott

November 4, 2011

A tense subplot of the Arab Spring is the increasing endangerment of the region’s Christians. In Egypt, Coptic Christians, 10% of the population, have been attacked repeatedly by Salafist Muslims unleashed – many literally released from prison -- by the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. No wonder that Christians in Syria now fear their fate at the hands of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority should President Bashar al-Assad’s government fall.

The experience of Christians in Iraq is hardly encouraging, either. The kidnapping and murder of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho by Muslim militants in early 2008 is emblematic of what Iraq’s Christian community has suffered since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The population of Iraqi Christians has declined from around two million to around 400,000 since the Gulf War of 1991, which weakened Hussein’s rule. Under the dictatorships of Mubarak, Assad, and even Hussein and Qaddafi, all of them unsavory to be sure, Christians enjoyed relative security, though it was sometimes bloodily interrupted and usually attended by pervasive social discrimination. Arab authoritarianism was a leaky shelter but it was nevertheless a roof over their heads.

But however dangerous Arab Christians’ fate now may be, going back to the good old days of dictatorships is not an option. The surge of democracy-demanding youth, popular impatience with corruption and economic stagnation, and a religious reawakening over the past generation all serve to block such a backslide. Of course, for other minorities and for Muslims at odds with their regimes, the good old days were not good at all. They were not good for the residents of Hama, Syria, 10,000 of whose inhabitants were murdered by the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad; and they are not good for protesters of the son’s dictatorship, over 2900 of whom the regime has killed by now. They were not good for democracy activists or traditional Muslims in Egypt, over 20,000 of whom Mubarak held in his jails. Arab authoritarianism was a model that could not last. Apart from suppressing the dynamism of democracy and the free market, such regimes were repressively secular, creating legions of religious discontents and radicalizing traditional Muslims, often in the direction of violence. Ultimately this shelter for Christians proved to be not only leaky but rotten at its foundations.

The position of today’s Arab Christians is indeed precarious. Among the possible outcomes, Islamist regimes that afford Christians little freedom to practice their faith or participate in politics are entirely plausible. But this outcome is far from inevitable, no more inevitable than was the persistence of dictatorship. Only this past week, elections in Tunisia, the country that ignited the Arab Spring, gave a plurality of votes to an Islamic party, but one that is relatively liberal and that will rule in coalition with non-religious liberal parties. In Egypt, too, the possibilities are more complex than secularist safety and Salafist violence. When Christians are attacked it is not always at the hands of Muslims. The shooting of Christian demonstrators in Cairo this past October 9th was carried out by the army. When Muslims have attacked Christians, far more have defended them. Just after Muslim terrorists slaughtered 25 Coptic worshippers and injured some 100 others in Alexandria on New Year’s Day of this year, thousands of Muslims across the country gathered in candlelight vigils and formed human chains around Coptic churches during worship. Today, Egyptian Muslim office-seekers are divided among proponents of a strongly Islamic state and supporters of liberal rights, including religious freedom for Christians. The scenario of religious freedom, then, is plausible, too.

What can be done on behalf of Arab Christians to make this rosier scenario more likely? For its part, the U.S. government ought to use its power of economic aid and diplomatic recognition far more assertively to protect vulnerable Christians. To his credit, President Obama made religious freedom a tenet of his June 2009 speech in Cairo in which he sought to reorient U.S. relations with the Muslim world. But the response of his State Department to actual attacks on Christians has been tepid. The case for more vigorous U.S. support for Christians is in part one of human rights. But it runs wider. Protecting Christians is a matter of religious freedom, and religious freedom – for Christians as well as all minorities, including dissident Muslims – is an indispensable plank of stable, democratic regimes, a key goal of U.S. foreign policy in the region. In this highly religious part of the world, the attempts of secular dictators to suppress religion have bred violence and encouraged extremism, just as Islamist dictatorships would do were they to emerge. The middle possibility is the sort of democracy that invites the participation of religious communities and channels it in a civic direction. The protection of Christian minorities can be seen as a litmus test for such religious-friendly democracy.

For their part, Christians around the world could do far more to speak out on behalf of their beleaguered brethren. The lesson of Eastern Europe during the Cold War is that dissidents are emboldened and empowered by the support of outsiders. Christians, like the U.S. government, should realize that protection for fellow believers lies not merely in solidarity with the persecuted but in the kind of regime that protects religious freedom for all. Towards this end, Christians within the region as well as without ought to build alliances of friendship with Muslims who share the same goal. An example of such an ally is the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, who, following the New Year’s bombing in Alexandria of 2011, strongly condemned the attacks in a blog on the Contending Modernities site of the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame. Two months later he defended religious freedom in a blog on the same site. “The sectarian issue is like an iceberg that is sure to melt down with the sunshine of freedom in our beloved country,” he wrote.

As for Christians in the Middle East, it is understandable that they have allied with secular dictators: a pragmatism of survival. But the strategy is no longer reliable. While the present period’s flux creates danger, its complex and shifting factions also beget opportunity. “Christians could be among the most important architects of a new order in the Arab world,” the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen wrote this past August in a powerful column on Christians in the Arab Spring. As vocal defenders of religious freedom, the region’s Christians could become a powerful and credible force not only for human dignity but also for the kind of regime in which they – and all minorities – are most likely to find protection in the new Arab order. But they need help. To be the architects that Allen envisions, Christians require solidarity from sympathetic governments, Christians outside the region, and like-minded Muslims.

Daniel Philpott is associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he is on the faculty of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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To find out more about the origins of religious freedom and its contemporary significance for America, Egypt, and other countries of the Arab Spring, attend the November 17th RFP symposium "What's So Special about Religious Freedom?" or read our more at our resource page.