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Author Topic: Christians in the Middle East and regime changes  (Read 1101 times) Average Rating: 0
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Stavro
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« on: March 18, 2005, 11:54:01 PM »

By Derek Hoffmann(Christianity Today--April 2005 Issue) | posted 03/18/2005 09:00 a.m.

 
Recent U.S. Iraq policy has moved from toppling a genocidal autocrat to seeking to create a pluralist, prosperous Arab democracy and inducing neighboring regimes to replicate it. The mainstream media discuss what this might mean for the region at large, but what about for Christians in the Middle East? What does this policy portend for them? If one were to perform a risk analysis for churches as one does for corporations—something I do for a living—what would be the inherent risks for churches, particularly evangelical churches, in the Middle East at this time?

Minority of a Minority
Evangelicals in the Middle East are primarily the legacy of American Presbyterian missionary efforts in the 19th century. They are clustered in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian areas, and Egypt. In Cairo's Shubra district alone, 40 congregations meet, in addition to Kasr Dubara in the heart of downtown, which is the largest evangelical church in the Arab world, and one of the largest in Africa. Its Sunday evening worship service packs two thousand believers. Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, boasts seven churches, and believers populate other towns north and south, as well as some of the tiny villages nestled in verdant fields hugging the Nile.

In Damascus, Syria, one church's huge neon sign boldly proclaims Yesua Noor Al Alam (Jesus, Light of the World). The presence of this and six other evangelical congregations shows that the climate is considerably more permissive than when the apostle Paul had to sneak out of town in a basket. A revival is taking place among Orthodox and Catholic churches in Syria and Iraq, and in Iraq, at least five evangelical churches dot the map.

Still, Middle Eastern evangelicals remain a minority of a minority. Believers in the ancient branches—the Copts, Syrians, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Maronites, Nestorians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and others—make up only about 20 million of the 450 million inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa region. Evangelicals number only a million.

As a small minority, the churches of the Middle East face three principle risks due to the recent political changes in Iraq.

1. Increasing Intolerance Christians remain relatively safe under autocracies that allow some measure of discrimination while generally protecting Christians. Arab rulers are more interested in preserving their power than pursuing a religious agenda. They want to maintain social order—keep crime rates, political opposition, and social unrest to a minimum. If Islamist extremists start a campaign of violence against Christians, the average Middle Eastern autocrat often intervenes to protect them.

The generally good relations between most evangelicals and their Muslim neighbors in the Arab world prevail thanks to their shared ethnic and national identity (one exception to this is the periodic clashes between Egyptian Muslims and Copts). And in most countries Christians are free to practice their faith, though governments differ on whether to allow church plants, with Egypt being very restrictive, Syria less so.

All Middle Eastern nations prohibit Christians from sharing the gospel, yet interfaith dialogue does exist. In some countries, Christians can even legally distribute religious literature, provided they sell it.

With Arab regimes firmly entrenched, the status quo is likely to persist for some time. But if democracy does become the norm in the Middle East, some countries could elect Islamist regimes, which tend to repress Christians. Throughout the Middle East, whenever Islamist parties have stood for election they have usually won. And the Islamist parties are becoming more popular.

Then again, Islamism doesn't have to lead to an Iranian-style theocracy, where an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam is enforced and Christians are subjugated. The best-case scenario for Christians in an Islamist state would be marginalization.

One example of what marginalization looks like might be seen in Egypt, one of the more moderate governments in the Middle East. One evangelical in Cairo says that Muslims treat Christians well, but also says prejudice still exists. For example, some university professors dock the students' grades when they notice their Christian names. Such bias will continue to limit how high Christians can rise in society. It will also prompt them to emigrate to the West.

The worst-case scenario is that Christians under a democratically elected Islamist regime would be persecuted by the state and possibly hindered from practicing their faith.

2. Greater Vulnerability to Violence Ironically, in a purely democratic polity, Middle Eastern Christians would be much less protected from sectarian and terrorist violence than they are now. This is because popularly elected Islamist regimes would be less inclined to shield Christians from the sort of terrorist attacks and intimidation that prevail in Iraq's Sunni Triangle and that compose part of international terrorists' global strategy.

Even Syria—one Arab regime that is not in the U.S. camp yet and in general incurs as much of Al Qaeda's wrath as does the United States—is inclined to protect Christians and other religious minorities. In the case of sectarian tensions that might pit Muslim citizens against Christians, Islamists would probably be slower to intervene, more apt to side with fellow Muslims, and even less sensitive to international criticism regarding human rights than Arab leaders are today.

Iraqi Christians, for example, are especially vulnerable to political and criminal violence now that Saddam has been deposed. David Mack, vice president of Washington's Middle East Institute and a former diplomat in Iraq, says that despite Saddam's severe repression of the Kurds and Shiite Muslims, "the Iraqi Baath Party reversed many of the discriminatory aspects of previous Iraqi government practice in dealing with Iraq's various Christian minorities."

So far Iraqi evangelical churches have not been attacked, if you don't count recent threats to individuals and churches in Baghdad. They're fairly safe in part because there are so few of them and their places of worship are relatively unseen. But the Catholic, Chaldean, and Assyrian churches, whose buildings are more visible, have been targeted. The worst attacks fell on August 2, 2004, when terrorists affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hit four Baghdad churches and one in Mosul, killing 11 people and wounding more than 50 others. Criminals routinely abduct Christian hostages and threaten to kill them unless their families pay a ransom. To them, Christians are an easy target: They are unprotected by tribe or government, and they don't retaliate.

3. More Social Ostracism Many Middle Easterners already shun Christians for their perceived links to Western values and policies. This is unfair since many Arab Christians oppose U.S. intervention in Iraq as well as the West's decadent values. Although some Christians believe the American Iraq policy is divinely blessed because of President Bush's faith, most don't. Images of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded in the course of hostilities and the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison override any sense of God blessing the war. Many resent what they see as President Bush's mixing of political and religious rhetoric, which has made it easy for Arab media to portray the war as a "crusade."

Be that as it may, Middle Easterners continue to identify the United States as a Christian nation, and Christianity as a faith that supports U.S. policies and social morals. Again, even if democracies are formed throughout the Middle East, it is likely Islamist governments will be elected. In that case, just as violence might increase against Christians, so would social ostracism for perceived links with the West.

Uncertain Future
Both Arab Christians and the U.S. government have benefited from the political status quo in the Arab world. But they also know that it is volatile. Some Middle Eastern Muslims are increasingly frustrated with regimes they feel are not sufficiently religious and are unable to deliver jobs. Regime changes eventually must come, and with them substantial risks for both Christians and U.S. interests. Washington hopes it can shepherd change by using Iraq as a model for a tolerant, economically viable Arab democracy that will protect the rights of its minorities, including Christians, and that other countries will view this success as a goal to emulate. In Iraq, many believe this venture will take years to achieve.

While Christians in the Kurdish and Shiite areas may be relatively safer, the situation in the Sunni heartland will continue to be extremely dangerous in the foreseeable future. Believers in Syria have reported that countless Iraqi Christians who have fled there from their homeland are "sick at heart" over the prevailing chaos and wonder if they can ever return.

Yet at least one positive result of Iraqi Christians' hardships is that growing numbers of them have reportedly been gathering to acknowledge their dependence on God, and seek his deliverance for their families and their nation. They need our prayers too.

Derek Hoffmann is an Egypt-based risk analyst for TranSecur Inc., and will soon enter the U.S. Foreign Service.

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« Reply #1 on: March 19, 2005, 02:43:25 AM »

Recent articles in the Word, the Antiochian Archdiocese  magazine would tend to verify the previous article.  In the magazine there are articles noting that many Iraqi Christians are going to Syria where they are admitted as refugees and are allowed to be supported by the Church there both Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch,  Roman Catholic,  and Syrian Orthodox . By comparison of the history prior to the Bathists, the Christian Minority in Syria is better off at present----we can expect another influx of middle eastern Christians if the Islamist have their way in the middle east.

In Christ,
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« Reply #2 on: March 19, 2005, 03:39:58 AM »

I am afraid that islamists already have their way, and in a way or another, it is just a matter of time until they are in power. This is just my personal opinion, and I hope I am wrong. Democracy is a process that , I believe, has to come from the society itself, by the values that are dominant in the culture of a society. It is a long evolution process, and not just a decision rendered by powerful nations. The goal might be great, and very idealistic, but ideology is different than practicality.

Before having free elections, education , media and the culture as a whole has to be radically changed. With poverty,lack of education. It is a vicious cycle, for dictators will not develop their countries. I am almost certain that free elections, in Egypt for example, will be a free trip to power to islamists.
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In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. (Isaiah 19:19)

" God forbid I should see the face of Judah or listen to his blasphemy" (Gerontius, Archmanidrite of the monastery of St. Melania)
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« Reply #3 on: March 19, 2005, 05:35:41 PM »

Hi all!

This http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Facts+About+Israel/People/Focus+on+Israel+-+The+Christian+Communities+of+Isr.htm is about Israel's indigenous Christian communities.

Be well!

MBZ
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« Reply #4 on: March 20, 2005, 01:03:56 PM »

Quote
By comparison of the history prior to the Bathists, the Christian Minority in Syria is better off at present----we can expect another influx of middle eastern Christians if the Islamist have their way in the middle east.

In Syria, we had a Christian Prime Minister who was elected totally democratically long before the Ba'th came to power. When we were united with Egypt and Nasser came to Damascus, people said "we want Arab unity of Islam and Christianity and social justice" people used to associate more together instead of segregating. We have more government power but people trust us less and socially things are not as good as they were before. I used to think of the Revolution as like the French Revolution, with bad this is how itis told to us but then I am reading about how things were before the Ba'th and there was more money, Christians had more say and people in general were better off.

My opinion of "Evangelical" Arab Christians is that I have only met very few and the ones I met were either fanatical or they were trying to get out of Syria as quickly as possible and saying they were Americans before they even got there. It is easy to see why there are so few of them. This article talks about the Arab Orthodox/native Christians as if we are a bad thing. He talks about "marginalization" which is just another word for dihimitude. Christians socially in Syria are already marginalized as are all non Sunnis. You go to school, the Sunnis talk to Sunnis, Christians to Christians, Alawites to Alawites, Druze to Druze etc. The government marginalizes Christians by trying to make itself Sunni even though it is Alawaite. You can only associate with other groups if they are minorities too or if the Sunni you are with is very nice (There are a lot like this in cities it is harder in the rural or less populatred areas because everyone is so tribal). Lots of Christians support the government because it helps Christians and there is lots of fear of what the article talked about, persecution and marginalization etc which the government (Alawite) is also afraid of. The grandpa of Hafez al Assad said that if there was democracy in Syria, the Sunnis would devour the Alawaites and petitioned for an Alawite state in Latakia where the Assad clan is from. Lots of Christians feel this way. Especially after the elections (which locally are free and so are Ba'th elections in towns and unis) this year where there were no Christians elected to any of the professional (doctor, engineer, etc) boards/unions even though Christians are overrepresented here. There is currently only one Christian governer and usually there are two or maybe a governor or a Minister. There are none. So sometimes people get paranoid.

Quote
Before having free elections, education , media and the culture as a whole has to be radically changed. With poverty,lack of education. It is a vicious cycle, for dictators will not develop their countries. I am almost certain that free elections, in Egypt for example, will be a free trip to power to islamists.

I agree. Syria needs to be demilitarized fully, no more military uniforms in schools, no more religion class that tells the Muslims that jihad has to be violent against the Jews etc. And they need to stop saying that Lebanon is part of Syria. I don't mind about Alexandretta (Iskenderun) because I personally think it is Syrian but thats very minor compared to Lebanon because Lebanon is the a whole country and it is only hurt by us. Plus it can help Syria if it is by itself by making an example for us like they are doing now.
« Last Edit: March 20, 2005, 01:25:00 PM by Ibrahim » Logged

At any rate, I do not believe that there is a man in the USA who accepts to live in illusion who says that peace will be recognized between the Arabs and Israel even if the occupation of the occupied Arab territories does not come to an end.
The late
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