These days, Arab countries stretching from the Persian Gulf to Libya are a stage for uprisings of oppressed peoples against their dictators, for reckoning with legacies from the past and for both elections and regime changes.
After the overturning of state leaders that had ruled for years in places such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, now Syria and Yemen have appeared on the horizon. Along with the arrival of the Arab Spring, the era of single-man dictatorships in the region is being buried.
Though the Arab Spring has been greeted by many from the very beginning with great joy and optimism, it brings along with it much fear and worry over possible chaos and division in the region, no matter how much work is going into making the various revolutions permanent and lasting. One such worry concerning the whole Arab Spring is the possible flight of Christians from North Africa and the Middle East.
Arab Christians are an ancient community which played an exceedingly important role in the renaissance of the Arab language in the 19th century. These days, such Christians number more than 20 million, with strong and steady ties not only in the Middle East but also North Africa, thanks to their deep roots in those cultures and their good relations with others around them. In fact, the propensity Christians in the region have for defending the Middle East has turned them into a sort of glue for the area.
For instance, taking just one look at the stance adopted by Christian Arabs on the whole Palestinian matter is sufficient to understand the situation. Just as Christians have played an influential and leading role in Arab politics and culture, they have also shown care in not becoming part of clashes over leadership in the region. They have made direct contributions to some of the uprisings against various Arab dictators, often shaping and helping to lead these uprisings. The images of Muslims and Christians praying side by side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are not old ones. One could assert that, in fact, Christians have acted as catalysts in the support lent by the West to the Arab Spring.
Arab Christians are, however, on the verge of being sacrificed to the violence and lack of authority that have arisen as a result of recent events in the region. And it is quite saddening to witness this same spring, greeted with such joy by Christians, be transformed into a season of flight and migration from the region as this group falls victim to violence around them.
Deadly attacks against Copts in Egypt are on the rise and, in Syria, Christian communities such as the Maronites, depicted as taking the side of the Assad regime, have become true targets. At the same time, attempts to sow the seeds of enmity between Islam and Christianity through provocative attacks, portrayed as being different from attacks on mosques and churches, are also increasing.
There is of course no desire on the part of most Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa to see non-Muslims living in these regions forced out. Instead, this is the work of radical movements in the region aiming to use violence to impose a single religion around them. These are marginal groups which aim to tether nationalist and religious emotions in order to take control in their own favor.
Furthermore, within the vacuum in authority resulting from the Arab Spring they have set out to cleanse Christians from places such as Syria and Egypt, as though this is part of their religious duty. Their goal is to prevent local Christians from living like other citizens and to thus force them to flee the region as a result of attacks. At the same time, they are trying to gather societal support for the mass migration of Christians from the region, depicting Christians as an “enemy from within” in the guise of a sort of Trojan horse. In fact, one could even assert that these efforts have been, though only partially thus far, quite successful.
Bells toll for Christians in Syria
What is the reason for the threats and attacks that are forcing Christians to flee from the region? While the answer to this question is different in every country throughout the region and while one can certainly assert that one of the factors at hand is violent movements, one cannot say that the root of the problem is Islamism.
Just as Islamism is not a new phenomenon in either the countries of the Middle East or North Africa, these regions themselves do not possess societal or historical backdrops that make them appropriate settings for one religion to target another.
In fact, the Middle East itself has thousands of years of history behind it during which different religions lived together in peace. Also, it must be pointed out that it is very difficult to actually say that any perceived threat against Christians in these societies is widespread. Levi Strauss’s finding about how peoples’ ideas of the societies they inhabit do not always match societal reality fits perfectly in this instance.
In any case, to return to the reasons at hand; we are now witnessing attempts in Egypt to spread anti-Christian sentiment as clashes over leadership continue. In Syria, what we are seeing is different, as attacks against Christians are rooted in the perception that they have taken the side of the Assad regime. It would be impossible to touch on this topic without mentioning the images reflected in the press of last month’s meeting between the Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. While some say the reason al-Rahi visited Sarkozy was to push for Syria to be left to carry out reforms on its own, the perception of this meeting in Syria was that al-Rahi and his community do not support the downfall of the Syrian regime. Some also assert that Sarkozy, at this same meeting with al-Rahi, proposed that Christians living in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East region in general flee to European soil. These assertions aim to force Christians to leave the region by turning them into targets of attacks by local people inflamed by radical movements.
It is known that the flight of Christians from North Africa and the Middle East is a phenomenon wanted not only by violent radical movements, but also by various EU countries and even the US and Israel. This support for such a flight was seen clearly in the debates over the division of Sudan. The efforts of Tel Aviv in a mass flight of Christians from the region is particularly interesting: A departure of Christians would mean that Israel can portray regional conflicts as being between Jews and Muslims and thus gain the support of the Christian West more easily. If one observes the attempts by the Christian Zionist movement in the West, which is under the control of the Israeli lobby, to create negative images of Muslims in the eyes of the Christians, one sees that policies aimed at supporting these flights of Christians from the region are in fact being supported.
The well-known thesis on the clash of civilizations is yet another lens through which the problems leading the way to a mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East must be examined. Every passing day sees stronger and stronger lines dividing the ethnic and religious communities of North Africa and the Middle East. Points at which various religions and ethnicities used to overlap are being replaced by points of division these days. It does not matter what perspective one looks at this all from: There is nothing which augurs well in the flight of Christians from North Africa and the Middle East.
There is nothing to support the ridiculous assertions by some that the work of new regimes in more homogenous societies will somehow be easier. There can be no question that the Arab Spring does correspond with a rise in democracy throughout North Africa and the Middle East but at the same time, the perception that democracy is being sacrificed to pluralism is being sparked by this Christian flight. One could in fact assert the following: Worries over the future and fate of Christians in North Africa and the Middle East directly concern not only the history and culture of these regions but also projects aimed at reshaping these areas in this new era.
In short, what is about to be lost in North Africa and the Middle East is the very same mosaic that has been praised so loudly for so many years in these places. It is very painful to witness the departure from these lands of Christians, who had up until the present lived in peace in the Muslim world and who are feeling that their time is now up and that they must create new lives for themselves elsewhere.
As the Arab Spring sees the end of regimes that completely discounted the will of their peoples, there also needs to be more of an understanding of how important the cultural variety of these lands is to everyone, as well as the importance and meaning of Christians to these lands. Cultural and religious diversity must not be allowed to become a reason for division and mass flight, but must instead be a phenomenon which helps push forward the rise of countries in the region. The poisoning of a pluralistic environment must not be allowed to take place.
*Recep Korkut is an expert on migration. [email protected]