Christians fear losing freedoms in Arab Spring movement

CAIRO—From her home in a labyrinth of stonewalled alleyways, Samia Ramsis holds a key chain bearing the face of the Virgin Mary as she sits in her yellow pajamas on the morning of Orthodox Christmas.

Sunlight pours in through a window. Outside, visitors come to look upon the spot where Egypt’s Christians—most known as Copts—believe the Holy Family found refuge after fleeing Bethlehem and assassins sent by King Herod to kill the baby Jesus.

Once crowded with Christians, Cairo’s Coptic quarter where Samia lives with her husband, Mounir, and two children is home to fewer than 50 Christian families.

“We know many Christians have left,” says Mounir Ramsis, speaking not only about this quarter but about all of Egypt. “But we love this country and will stay until death.”

The Arab Spring uprisings that have toppled secular dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa have unleashed long-suppressed freedoms that have allowed Islamic parties to gain a share of political power they have been denied for decades. Their rise is creating near-panic among ancient Christian communities that dot the Muslim world and predate Islam by centuries.

• In Tunisia, where the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted last year after 32 years in power, the dominant political party, Ennahda, has worried some of Tunis’ 22,000 Catholics by vowing to tilt the country’s yet-to-be-written constitution toward sharia, or the detailed and often harsh system of Muslim theocratic laws.

• In Libya, Christians are uneasy as the powerful head of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, who once led an Islamic militia with links to al-Qaeda, has said he plans to run for office in elections scheduled for April.

• In Afghanistan, no new building permits have been issued for churches, and the last church open to the public was demolished over the summer. In Iraq, the Christian community has decreased by two-thirds since 2003 amid bombings of churches and assassinations of priests.

• And Christians in Syria, where Muslims have risen up against President Bashar Assad, have been subjected to murder, rape and kidnappings in Damascus and rebellious towns, according to Christian rights groups, including Open Doors, which helps Christians facing persecution.

Many had hoped for better in an Arab movement that proponents said was about replacing tyrannies with democracies.

“The outlook is grim,” says John Eibner, CEO of the California-based human-rights group Christian Solidarity International.

“If the current trajectory continues, it’s reasonable to think that within a generation these [Christian] communities will not look like functioning communities,” Eibner says. “They’ll look more like the once-flourishing Jewish communities” across the Arab world that are all but gone.

Nowhere is the irony more profound than in Egypt, where an estimated 8 million Christians live with more than 70 million Muslims.

Christians demonstrated alongside Muslims early last year to oust Hosni Mubarak. Before Mubarak’s overthrow, Christians had suffered from years of church burnings and murders at the hands of radical Muslims who want an Islamic state free of religious minorities. And after the ouster, the military regime that has been running the country has refused to make any arrests in attacks on Christians.

Mina Bouls, 25, a Copt who fled to Philadelphia, recalls cowering with his mother in 1997 as a mob stoned the family home and chanted anti-Christian slogans. But the difference then was that Mubarak ordered the military to protect Christian communities and jail extremists, Bouls says.

In October, Copts organized a protest in downtown Cairo over the authorities’ failure to investigate attacks, including the bombing of a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011 that killed 20 people. The military attacked the demonstrators and 17 Christians were run down and killed by military vehicles, according to Human Rights Watch.

Bouls wants to bring his family to the United States because he says he is petrified by the new society forming in Egypt. The first free elections in decades held in the past two months handed power not to moderates but to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafi candidates, who combined took nearly 70 percent of seats.

“If people try to rule the country with the Koran, with sharia law, that means they look to us as second-class people,” Bouls says.


Small share of population

CHRISTIANITY has existed in Egypt since the second century. The Muslim Brotherhood, a political movement that seeks a nation run according to Koranic law, has said Egypt would respect the rights of religious minorities to worship and dress as they please. Muslim Brotherhood executive member Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barr says Israel is to blame for clashes between Coptic protestors and security forces.

The Salafis, Muslim fundamentalists who want a complete application of sharia law that generally denies equal rights to women and religious minorities, also say Copts are safe in Egypt.

“Even if there are Salafi leaders who proclaim Copts to be heretics, this does not mean that [the Copts] must be subjected to any religious or [legal] sanctions,” says Imad Abd Al-Ghafour, head of the al-Nour party that won 25 percent so far in parliamentary elections.

Abanob Magdi lives near Egypt’s largest pyramid and says he is not optimistic about what lies ahead. “I saw on TV the other day a Salafi saying that if they get in power, beaches will be divided for men and women and women will have to be veiled,” Magdi says as he walks through Coptic Cairo with friends.

Christians account for 4 percent of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Despite being the birthplace of Christianity, the region now has the fewest number of Christians (13 million) and the smallest share of its population that is Christian of any other major geographic region, according to the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life.

The future of minorities in the emerging democracies of the Middle East “is a huge issue most vividly seen in Egypt and the Copts,” says California Rep. Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s on our agenda as we figure out how to help these countries,” and their treatment of Christians and other minorities is a “red line” that will affect future aid.

President Obama has said Christians must have the right to worship freely, and he has spoken on behalf of persecuted individuals such as pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death in Iran for converting himself and others to Christianity, says Joshua Dubois, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Some say stronger action is needed. Eibner wants Obama to urge the United Nations secretary-general to declare a genocide warning for Christians across the Middle East and a policy for preserving religious pluralism in the region.

Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, Republican chairman of the human rights subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the Obama administration “has been AWOL” on the issue. Smith says Obama should designate Egypt “a country of particular concern,” which allows the State Department to impose sanctions. He could also make $1.3 billion in annual US aid to the Egyptian military conditional on fair treatment of minorities, Smith says.

Representative Gary Ackerman (Democrat, New York) warns that threatening to withhold US aid could prompt a “backlash” in the region. “These situations are delicate but the case has to be made and the president has to make it,” he says.

Historian Habib Malik of Lebanese American University in Byblos, Lebanon, says Western nations can improve the situation by shifting from promoting democratic rule to emphasizing “minority rights, checks and balances, freedoms and the substance side of democracy.”


Growing wave of restrictions

SOME Middle Eastern countries remain relatively safe for Christians, says Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors. Jordan accepted thousands of Iraqi refugees, including Christians, who are allowed to practice their faith. Armenian Christians in Iran, while monitored by the government, can worship unhindered, though conversion is illegal, Moeller says.

But Christians in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring movement began, have faced a growing number of restrictions since the dictatorship fell, he says.

“Foreign Christians have been called into the police in Tunisia, [and] they’ve had their phones tapped,” he says. “There’s definitely growing restrictions on Christians in Tunisia.”

In Syria, where Christians have lived since the Apostle Peter established the first church in now-Turkish city of Antioch 2,000 years ago, cities that are strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood have risen up against Bashar Assad. Christians make up more than 2 million of the country’s 22 million people, and they fear that the uprising will bring Islamists to power, rights groups say.

In Afghanistan, Western nations that are spending billions of dollars on reconstruction and maintaining security have failed to get the government to protect Christians.

One of Jesus’s own apostles, St. Thomas, brought Christianity to Afghanistan in the first century, and today there are 8,000 Christians there. But the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan does not recognize Afghan citizens as being Christians, and converting to Christianity is illegal.

Not a single public church remains. The last Christian church was destroyed by its landowner in March after the Afghan courts refused to uphold the legality of the congregation’s lease.

In Iraq, after the United States ousted Iraq military dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Christian population has gone from 1.5 million to a half million today.

The exodus came amid 60 church bombings and the deaths of 900 Christians, says William Warda, chairman of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization in Baghdad.

“We consider that genocide,” he says.

Malik says Western nations must stand up for the rights of Christians, who he says may be cleansed from lands where democratic elections are used to oppress minorities rather than empower them.

Malik says it must be done “in a way that is not misperceived on the other end.” However, “the West should not be cowed.”

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