Beirut -- The death of 24 Coptic Christians in Cairo this week is the latest in a string of ominous signs that the once-inclusive Arab Spring may be turning against the region's minorities -- including burned churches, the forced removal of Christians from government posts, and sectarian clashes in the streets. It is a feeling shared by many Christians across the Middle East. Yet how can it be that in this age of popular revolution and self-determination, Arab Christians -- whose communities predate the coming of Islam -- find themselves out in the cold?
Religious tensions are common in many Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, this week's deaths -- caused by clashes between Coptic demonstrators and state security forces -- was a tragic restaging of an all-too-familiar scene, in which minorities find themselves vulnerable to mob violence and the whims of their alleged government protectors. What is striking about the tensions of recent months, however, is how old sectarian notes are sounding amidst the new symphony of freedom. Syria's Christians, who have long lived in fear of sectarian persecution, look upon the troubles of their co-religionists in Egypt with dread, and wonder whether their present security can withstand the fall of the Baathist state. The fate of Iraqi Christians is perhaps the grimmest omen of all; since 2003, about half of them have fled the country, driven out by ferocious sectarian attacks, and the remaining half marches on in dread of further violence.
What is behind all this? First, we must remember that Western nations have long showered attention upon Arab Christian communities. The courtship flowered during the nineteenth century, when the European powers relied on Christians as diplomatic and commercial middlemen in their dealings with the Ottoman Empire. This privileged relationship gave Christians unprecedented access to education, wealth, and influence. We may regard 1926 as a culmination of this courtship, when the French midwifed the birth of the Republic of Lebanon for their Maronite Christian clients, partly in response to the sectarian violence that had engulfed the region in the 1860s.
Animosities toward Arab Christians have ebbed and flowed over time, but a chronic anti-Western subtext has pervaded the region's sectarian discourse. Of late, this static noise has become clearer and clearer amidst complaints against the U.S. and Europe, corrupt pro-Western governments in the region, and their alleged allies, including local Christians.
The second important factor is the habit of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to foster ties to minority groups in order to offset opposition coalitions. In both Egypt and Syria, the government won the support of Christians in part by stoking fear of an Islamist takeover. This was especially true in Syria, where the Alawi-dominated Baath Party cultivated fellow minorities as a way of fending off the disenfranchised Sunni majority and its more extreme constituents, such as the Muslim Brothers.
In an atmosphere thick with anxiety, the regimes could portray themselves as guardians of secularism and stability -- a wager the Christians could not afford to reject. Ultimately, however, it proved to be a deal with the devil. Despite pretensions of national unity, the regimes failed to suppress sectarian strife, as in Egypt; or they never bothered to truly delegate power outside a narrow religious clique, as in Syria. Fast-forward to 2011, the Christians' regime loyalty has not only become passé, but perhaps even dangerous. During a time when many desire to settle old scores, the political ties that once shielded Christians have become a major liability.
The third and final factor in the recent sectarianism has been the slow death of Arab nationalism. For much of the twentieth century, nationalism was the prevailing ideology in many Arab countries. It represented an inclusive vision of political community for all Arabic-speakers -- one which aspired to transcend ties of region, culture and even creed. It is no wonder that many of the founding fathers of Arab nationalism, such as Michel Aflaq, were themselves Christians.
After the defeat of 1967 and the collapse of Nasserism, Arab nationalism began to falter. New narratives of identity emerged in the Middle East, none more persuasive or vital than Islamism. At its core, Islamism regards the historical trajectory of the Middle East as being essentially coterminous with that of Islam. By proposing Islamic revival as the key to the region's future, Islamism largely discounts the contributions of non-Muslim communities. As a result, Christians become a rather eccentric footnote in an otherwise triumphant tale of Islamic birth and renewal.
As we have seen, the problems facing Christians today are nothing new. They constitute roughly 10% of the population in both Syria and Egypt, and a paltry 6% of the wider Arab world. Some might dismiss their plight as a cause célèbre -- a lamentable but manageable tragedy in a region brimming with more serious problems, like stagnant economies, nuclear proliferation, and rivalries between Sunnis and Shi'is. This is sadly misguided.
The safety of Arab Christians is important not just in absolute terms. Their treatment will help us answer bigger questions about the changes currently underway: Namely, will revolutionary movements give rise to democratic governments that uphold universal equality before the law, or to unstable, mercurial regimes that obey the whims of extremists? These are the signal questions facing Christians in the Arab Spring, and as of now, the new season's forecast looks uncertain.