THE BLOG

Shameful Plight of the Middle East's Christians

"You have heard it said of old, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you, do not resist the evil person. If he strikes you on the left, turn to him the right."

Perhaps nothing sums up the travails of the Christian community in Iraq and throughout the Middle East better than this statement by Jesus in the Bible.

Since the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 a wave of unprecedented cross-sect terror has been ignited, with Sunni and Shia groups in a race to exterminate each other. Because of the horrific violence, the number of Christians in Iraq has decreased from 800,000 in 2003 to roughly 500,000 now, as the community continues to emigrate in search of peace.

And it is not only in Iraq that the plight of the Christians of the Middle East is so dire. Across the region they are either under-represented in legislatures and in government, or looked upon as outsiders. In Egypt, for example, the Coptic Christians comprise up 15 million of the population, depending on the source of your information, yet they hold no significant posts as heads of universities or governors of major cities, and have, at most, two ministerial positions at any given time.

As the political Islamisation of Middle Eastern states continues, so does the marginalisation of the native Christian communities. Not long ago it was not uncommon, when reading the credits to Egyptian movies, to see a variety of Christian Arab names. In fact, the most famous Arab movie and my late father's favourite, Doaa el Karawan (The Nightingale's Prayer) was financed and produced by Henry Barakat in 1959; but those days are gone.

In Lebanon, the Christian majority has shrunk to a minority in the past 50 years because of falling birth rates and migration. The ceremonial position of a Christian President, a direct result of the French occupation constitution, has been compromised by outside powers and recently was left vacant for several months. In Jordan, Marwan Muasher, the former deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and the most senior Christian member of the government in half a century, was more or less ousted to please the influential Islamic Brotherhood.

The Muslim monarchies of the Gulf put the Middle Eastern states of Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Jordan (where Christianity was born) to shame in 2005 when Alice Simaan, a Christian member of the Bahraini parliament representing the kingdom's 1,000 strong community, chaired a parliamentary session for the first time in the region's history. When the veteran Israeli-Arab Christian parliamentarian Azmi Bishara was accused of treason by the Israeli authorities in 2007, he sought refuge in Qatar, a Muslim Gulf monarchy with no native Christian community, rather than Egypt or Jordan. In the UAE, the Arab Christian community has contributed substantially to the country's development; the founder of the American University of Dubai, the representative of the UAE in the International Advertisers Association and senior advisers to the rulers hail from this successful community.

Kuwait made a Christian citizen from its 200-strong minority ambassador to Japan in the 1990s, and the Kuwaiti pastor Emmanuel al Ghareeb heads the state-sanctioned Church of Kuwait. Paradoxically, it is common to find Arab Christians proportionally enjoying more economic and social success in the Muslim Arab countries of the Gulf than in the lands that gave birth to Christianity.

Last week the Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Iraq cautioned that his community is facing extinction because of the horrendous crimes of the terrorists and thugs who target the largely apolitical and passive community, believing it to be wealthy. Christians are kidnapped and held for ransom, and in many cases are murdered in cold blood, as in the case of the late Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paul Rahho; and the Iraqi government stands idle.

Arab Christians of all denominations should not only be protected, like all minorities, but also encouraged to flourish as they have in the Gulf. They must be allowed to exercise full control over their communities and interests in their own countries as they are an integral part of the mosaic that makes up the Middle East. The Muslim majority ought to put themselves in the place of their Christian Arab brothers and sisters and give them the same rights that they would be demanding had Muslims been the minority instead.

No community today is so targeted by violent thugs for no reason other than sheer bigotry as are the Christians of Iraq. They have had their churches bombed and their priests kidnapped and murdered and yet they persevere with dignity and passive resistance. The Christian community in Iraq do not take to armed conflict and violence against the criminals who want to drive them out because they have kept in mind the words of Mahatma Gandhi, inspired by the teachings of a sage who preached 2,000 years ago in the Holy Lands: "An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind."

This article was first published in The National newspaper on October 18th 2008.