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ICC Note:

“This mistreatment of Christians [following the Arab Spring] not only calls attention to the possibility of a Middle East without a viable Christian community, but also the entire mission of free, democratic societies the Arab Spring has come to represent,” Asbarez reports.

By Narine Atamian

8/7/2011 Middle East (Asbarez) – The waves of civil disobedience, protests, and demonstrations that have swept through North Africa and the Middle East have been heralded as a collective awakening of the long-dormant Middle Eastern political consciousness by the international community against dictatorial and repressive regimes. With the spark of revolution set off by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, major protests and uprisings have occurred in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, and many other countries spanning the Arab-Muslim world, with the revolts in Syria against President Assad currently presenting themselves as the most dramatic pro-democratic acts of mass revolt. While applauded by much of the world as positive signs of a new democratic collective spirit, set to “free” the historically repressed Muslim populace, these radical mass political movements are creating sectarian divisions that pose a significant threat to Armenians and other minority Christian communities calling the region.

The Arab Spring is by no means the first series of events in recent memory that have posed an extreme risk to Christian minorities’ very existence in the Middle East. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq resulted in a mass exodus of Christians from the country. Numbering 1.4 million in the 1980s, Iraq’s Christian population had ancient ties to the land, having occupied the territory of Iraq, and many neighboring regions, for over 2,000 years. Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites, and other Christian sects enjoyed religious freedom and privileges under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Before the invasion, up to 25,000 Armenians resided in Iraq. Beginning in April 2003, though, Christians came under attack. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees said in a 2004 report, “The days of officially preached religious tolerance….are gone and freedom to worship now gives way to fear.”

With a series of firebombs targeting Iraqi churches and Christian businesses beginning in August 2004, tolerance gave way to increasingly militant enforcement of Islamic moral codes and anti-Western sentiment. Vying for survival, Iraqi Christians fled to neighboring countries (40,000 Iraqi Christians fled to Damascus and Aleppo alone), taking their rich heritage with them as they left behind the Muslims they once peacefully lived alongside. Certainly, the breakdown in security that inevitably takes place during wartime contributed to the violence that often targeted the once-favored Christian minorities. More important, however, was the resentment at the American and European occupation, resulting in Armenians and other Christians being considered others allied with the imperialist Christian occupiers of Iraq. While many Armenians were able to take advantage of the Armenian Embassy’s offer to provide refuge in Armenia, not all Iraqi Christians were so fortunate, becoming refugees scattered across the Middle East as a result of their own Muslim brothers’ discrimination and violent persecution.

With the extreme political upheaval and instability caused by the revolutions that made up the Arab Spring, there has been a recent surge in attacks against Christians. These attacks cannot be explained by simply calling attention to the decreased security levels in times of political upheaval; the bigotry and hatred being fostered by sectors of the Muslim world are in large part to blame for these religion-based attacks. It is crucial to look back at the regimes against which the Arab Spring revolutionaries are revolting. Many, if not most, of these leaders were actually instated in the 1970s and 1980s by Western nations as a way to shift the balance of power towards the democracies of America and Europe during the height of the Cold War. A new wave of Islamic extremists were able to gain power, supported financially by the Western nations eager to thwart their Soviet “enemies.” So, while anti-Christian sentiment is by no means any inherent part of Muslim culture, vocal and powerful extremist groups like al-Qaeda have become powerful voices in these times of political upheaval and social chaos. Coupled with rising sectarian tensions, Christian-Muslim relations are, in many places, being strained to the breaking point.

Even Iraq’s Christians, most of whom already migrated from the country in wake of the invasion in the mid-2000s, are not exempt, with a recent attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad resulting in 44 worshippers, 2 priests, and 7 security guards dead. These minority communities receiving the brunt of the attacks are not small communities; for example, Copts and other Christians made up over 10% of Egypt’s population of 80 million, with Armenians numbering 10,000 strong, before the events of the Arab Spring began to unfold. Even before the overthrowal of Mubarak, Christians in Egypt felt the heavy hand of religious discrimination, with a demonstration this past fall against the unfair church building laws in Egypt resulting in the imprisonment of over 150 Christians.

This mistreatment of Christians not only calls attention to the possibility of a Middle East without a viable Christian community, but also the entire mission of free, democratic societies the Arab Spring has come to represent. Questions have arisen, especially in the cases of Egypt and Iraq, as to how the country’s leadership can allow such mistreatment of its politically passive Christian minority. In Egypt, the new military regime, meant to signal progress and the new-found freedoms of the Egyptian people, have stood by, allowing not only these attacks post-revolution but also doing nothing to address the root cause of these sectarian clashes. While many Muslims in Egypt and Syria have demonstrated against the mistreatment of their Christian brothers, those in power — the governments and Muslim activist groups, specifically al-Qaeda — have actually allowed, even have caused, these acts of violence resulting in the mass exodus of refugees escaping persecution in their native homes. Once an idea propagated by fear-mongering Islamophobic Westerners, the idea of a Middle East without Christians is becoming an increasingly real possibility.

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