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Eye on Arab Media: Middle East Christians Face Uncertain Future

New America Media, News Report, Jalal Ghazi Posted: Feb 16, 2010

Christians in the Arab world who played an important role in developing pan-Arab movements in the 1950s and enriched its culture have serious concerns about their future in the Middle East.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians have left and many Christian communities were uprooted. The reasons behind the mass exodus differ from one country to the other, but one common factor is the collapse of pan-Arab nationalism and the rise of Islamist movements.

Iraq

Al Sharqiya satellite television in Baghdad reported that out of the 1.4 million Iraqis Christians who lived in Iraq before 2003, only 800,000 remain. Al Jazeera English also reported that over half of the estimated 20,000 Christians who lived in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq prior to 2003 have already left.

Iraqi Christians are kidnapped and murdered; their shops and churches are burned and destroyed and their leaders assassinated. According the London based Arab News Broadcast (ANB), some Christian communities now dig trenches to protect their homes and neighborhoods.

It is unclear who is behind the acts of violence against the Iraqi Christians. Some accuse extremist groups. Others accuse the Kurds, saying that they are trying to intimidate Christians into moving out of contested areas such as Kirkuk and Mosul. Others blame the United States and British-backed Iraqi government.

Father Shafiq Abu Zaid, an Oxford University lecturer, told ANB, The Christians constantly feel that a war is being declared on them and they dont know where it is coming from

What is clear, however, is that Christians were not under attack when the former regime was in power. Abu Zaid said that despite Saddam Hussein's many shortcomings, Iraqi Christians felt safer under the Baath regime of the former president.

Baath, which means resurrection, was a form of pan-Arab nationalism that was founded by the Syrian Christian Michael Aflaq. It is still the ideological foundation in Syria, where large numbers of Iraqi Christians fled.

You cant compare the situation of Iraqi Christians when they were under Saddam to now. They were much better off, said Abu Zaid. They were safe and they held very influential positions, including Tariq Aziz, Iraq's former deputy prime minister. He was sentenced to 15 years to prison in March 2009 by the Iraqi supreme court.

The collapse of pan-Arab nationalism in Iraq created a vacuum that was quickly filled by many extremist groups, which have been further radicalized by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. These groups do not necessarily differentiate between Iraqi Christians and western Christians, whom they blame for the bloodshed in Arab and Muslim countries.

Palestinian Territories

Palestinian Christians also face an uncertain future in the holy land, despite their full support of the Palestinian cause and their strong Palestinian national identity. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there are only 50,000 Christians left in the Palestinian territories, comprising only 1.2 percent of the total Palestinian population, down from 20 percent before the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Father Theodosios Atallah Hanna told Al Jazeera that 200,000 Palestinian Christians have left since 1948. The number of Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem went down from 70,000 in 1948 to 10,000 today, he said, due to Israel's policy of emptying Jerusalem of its Christian Palestinians.

Without a doubt,Israels policies and the separation wall, which has isolated many Palestinians from their lands, jobs and schools, is a big factor in the migration of both Palestinian Christians and Muslims. However, according to Al Jazeera English, the rate of migration of Christian Palestinians is twice that of their Muslim counterparts.

Bethlehem University Professor Bernard Sabello believes that Christians are more likely to leave due to economic factors. He told Al Jazeera English, they are mostly middle- to upper-class society, and they worry about their children's prospects. He added, when the children get degrees from all kinds of universities here and abroad and see that they have no prospects, they leave.

Christians in Gaza are particularly vulnerable due to the Israeli imposed siege. Out of the 3,000 Palestinian Christians that remain in Gaza, Israel only allowed 350 to visit Bethlehem on Christmas day.

There is another important reason. Christians who continue to decline in numbers are increasingly feeling disenfranchised in their own cities and towns, especially with the rise of Hamas in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Reverend Alex Awad told Al Jazeera English, We feel we are losing our voice; we feel we are losing our testimony. And of course, we are losing our rights because when you are a very small community among large majority, then it is natural to lose your voice in the community.

Palestinian Christians feel that their future as a Christian community is threatened. Father Abu Zaid told ANB; Christians would prefer a secular government regardless of its deficiencies over and an Islamic one, which is what Hamas wants.

Egypt

Egypts Christians numbering 8 million comprise 10 percent of the total population. The majority belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Despite their relative large number when compared to other Arab countries, Christians in Egypt constantly feel marginalized.

While the policies of some European countries that make it difficult for Muslim immigrants to build mosques have led to numerous protests in Egypt, similar difficulties for Christians wanting to build churches in Egypt have not.

Unlike Muslim citizens, who only need a municipal permit to build mosques, the Copts must get presidential approval based on the 1856 Ottoman Hamayoni decree. In addition, churches must meet 10 conditions before being considered for a presidential decree including the approval of the neighboring Muslim community.

As a result, planning for many churches has been derailed for years and forced Christian communities to build churches without government approval. For example, an unlicensed evangelical church in Maadi has been unable to obtain a licensing permit for 50 years.

Father Sulaiman told British channel 4 that the Coptic community in Manshiet Nasser area, which is surrounded by mosques, was forced to carve a large underground church into the rock. He said that the community did not want to wait to get permission to built such a large church and was not sure if it would get the permission anyway.

Objections by Muslim citizens to the construction of unlicensed churches can lead to sectarian clashes, indicating the rise of conservatism among Egyptians since the 1950s and 1960s and the era of President Jamal Abdel Naser, who was viewed as the symbol of pan-Arab nationalism by many Arabs.

Sectarian violence, however, is not entirely blamed on the rise influence if Islamist groups. For example, many Copts blame government officials of instigating the attack on the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas on January 6, when three gunmen opened fire randomly on worshippers in Nagaa Hammadi, killing six.

Al Jazeera's Amr El-Kahky met with members of victims families and their community in Nagaa Hammady, where the attack took place. He
reported that many of them believe that the three men who were charged with the attack were merely hit men who carried the political agenda of officials seeking gains during this election year.

Hany Samir, the victims cousin told Al Jazeera English, Some parliament member hopefuls we have not supported in the past are trying to intimidate us into not voting this year, or they are creating this tensions in order to step in at a later time and resolve it and win us over on their side.

Aside from Lebanon where Christians form a strong community and occupy powerful political positions in the government and the army, Christians are also being treated well in Syria, the last stronghold of pan- Arab nationalism. Syria is home to more than 1.2 million Christians and the destination of many Iraqi Christian refugees.

Father Abu Zaid told ANB, Today, in all frankness, the Christian leadership and religious figures are very concerned that what happened in Iraq will be repeated in Syria. If this were to happen, it would be catastrophic to the Christian presence in the Arab world.

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