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What Christians of the Arab world are facing this Easter

From the church bombings in Egypt to the restrictions on movement in Palestine to an exodus from Iraq, Christians of most Middle Eastern countries are at serious risk.

By James J. Zogby

Orthodox Christians participate in a Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem during the Easter Holiday, April 15, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Orthodox Christians participate in a Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem during the Easter Holiday, April 15, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

This year there will no Easter celebrations for Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt. Out of concern for their security and out of respect for the 45 Christians who were victims of two horrific suicide bombing attacks on Palm Sunday, their bishop declared that Easter services would be limited in his diocese to mass, “without any festivities.”

That Holy Week began for Egyptians with news of those bombings served as a powerful reminder of the threats faced not only by Egypt’s Copts but by other Christian communities in the Arab World.

It is only in Lebanon where, both because of their numbers and the unique characteristics of that country’s political system, Christians live in relative security. But in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, or Palestine, 2000 year-old Christian communities are at risk.

The situation in Palestine is unique. There, Christians and Muslims alike, are being strangled by the harsh Israeli occupation. They’ve lost land, livelihood, and the freedom of movement. This Holy Week, for example, only with great difficulty will Christians from Bethlehem, Bir Zeit, or Ramallah be able to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk the Stations of the Cross or to pray at the Church of the Sepulcher. Many Palestinians can see Jerusalem from their homes, but they are separated from the city by a 28-foot wall, restrictions imposed by occupation forces, and humiliating checkpoints. As a result of these near unbearable hardships, many Palestinian Christians have emigrated to the West causing a precipitous decline in their presence in the Holy Land.

The situation faced by Christians in Iraq and Syria is quite a different story.

In Iraq, the remnants of that country’s once thriving Christian church live in fear. Americans who only recently discovered Iraq’s ancient churches, do not realize that before the Bush Administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion, there were 1.3 millions in Iraq. Despite assuming some religious trappings, Saddam Hussein’s ruthless dictatorship was secular and, therefore, provided Christians some degree of religious freedom.

One result of the U.S. invasion that overthrew Saddam’s regime and the dismantling of Iraq’s state apparatus was to unleash a civil war of armed sectarian militias, a feature of which was the “ethnic cleansing” of entire neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia Muslims and, of course, vulnerable Christians—who had no militias to protect them.

During the first five years of the Iraq war, the Christian population of Iraq declined from 1.3 million to 400,000—with no one in the Bush Administration attending to their plight. Only with the emergence of bloody ISIS, did the West pay attention to the fate of Iraq’s Christians.

The Iraqi Christian hierarchy continues to urge those who remain to stay put, fearing that should their numbers continue to decline it could spell the end of their ancient communities. ISIS may soon be defeated and Christians and other minorities may receive protection in Ninewah Province, but fear remains and many are listening to the voices of despair suggesting that there is no future for Christians in Iraq.

The Syrian situation is a variation on this theme. The no less brutal Assad regime is also secular and has provided protection for that country’s Christian communities, earning it the support of many Christian leaders—who have a greater fear of both ISIS and many of the opposition Syrian militias who have an extremist sectarian bent. Most Christians have remained in regime-controlled areas, but they are concerned—caught between two evils and facing an uncertain future.

Egypt’s Coptic Church is the largest in the Middle East—numbering between 8 to 10 million. Despite their size or maybe because of it, they are vulnerable to attacks, especially with the unrest that has shaken the country during the past six years.

During the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule, Christians felt threatened by what they saw as an effort to politicize religion and Islamize the state, at their expense. In 2013, the military ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government resulting in bloody confrontations in which upwards of 800 Brotherhood supporters were killed. In response, violent extremist partisans of the deposed leadership took out their anger on the Christian community—in part because the Coptic leadership had joined with the Sheikh al-Azhar in supporting the military takeover, out of their fear of the direction Egypt was taking under the Muslim Brotherhood. During this time, churches were burned and Christians were brutally murdered and terrorized.

Since then, the government of President el-Sisi and the Sheikh al-Azhar have made significant gestures of support for Egypt’s Christians. Both have condemned the attacks and intolerance. They have called for and implemented a review of educational and other religious materials. The President has gone to Christmas mass for the past three years, and in two weeks the head of Al-Azhar will host a historic meeting in Egpyt with Pope Francis, as part of a conference on interfaith dialogue.

All of these constructive efforts, however, are in danger of being undercut by the government’s massive crackdown, not only on the Brotherhood, but on the Egyptian media and a number of human rights organizations and other secular political groupings. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned.

Instead of making Christians more secure, the arrests and pervasive climate of fear created by the repression have undercut efforts to promote tolerance and stability—with Christians being the “soft targets” for religious extremists.

The lesson should be clear. Repression may produce some short term satisfaction, but it doesn’t create the long-term conditions that promote the security and tolerance needed to protect vulnerable minority communities. Christians in Iraq and Syria may have benefited, for a time, from brutally imposed secularism, but the resentment that resulted from prolonged oppression unleashed a deadly extremist wave drowning everything in its wake.

The official U.S. reaction to the still unfolding tragedies facing the Christians of the Arab World is utterly frustrating. We never understood or even considered what would happen to Iraq when we foolishly invaded that country. And we still have no clue about the internal dynamics that shape the Syrian horror. At the same time, because successive Administrations can not even see Palestinian humanity, we maintain a disgraceful silence in the face of Israel’s strangling of the Palestinian people, both Christians and Muslims. And in Egypt we fail to caution the government regarding the potential consequences of their disregard for human rights.

The result is a record of disaster with the best evidence of this failure being the growing dangers faced by the region’s vulnerable Christian communities.

James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.

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    1. JeffB

      @James Zogby

      FWIW the Israeli government is trying to liberalize with respect to Palestinian Christians to put them same category as Druze. That deserves some comment if you are going to discuss Israel and Christians.

      As far as the Copts they need to stop being ambivalent about the Sisi government. While they support the government in a vague sense they aren’t all in. The aren’t volunteering, they aren’t organizing pro-Sisi rallies. They aren’t asking how to organize their community to give Sisi’s people strategic depth. They aren’t asking the Sisi government what more they can do. He’s reached out. Its hard for Sisi and his opponents to figure out who is really a Nasrist. It isn’t hard to figure out who is really a Copt. To the Copts: its a low level civil war, you have an obvious side. Fight for it!

      As for Iraq:
      We never understood or even considered what would happen to Iraq when we foolishly invaded that country.

      That’s nonsense and you know it. Heck if memory serves you yourself wrote some good articles in 2002-3 about the effects of invasion. I remember listening (a few days later) to the debate you moderated March 12, 2003 which included this topic (you did a good job BTW). There were people (such as myself) who favored destabilization. There were people (such as Bush) who heard the arguments for destabilization and rejected them. But to say there was no discussion of destabilization or Iraq breaking up into constituent ethnicities just isn’t true.

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        Using bold or all caps doesn’t give any of your shit legitimacy.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This cheap potshot at Zogby is unwarranted. His “we” is in the context of the official U.S. decision makers, the United States as a whole, and if you say Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz adequately understood or considered what would happen to Iraq you are falsifying history. You favored “destabilization.” Just like that. I’m not surprised. As you know Bush wasn’t seeking destabilization; the lying nitwit was sure as blazes he was going to get a stable democracy in short order.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Ben

          There was nothing cheap about that shot at Zogby. He made a strong claim which wasn’t true.

          His “we” is in the context of the official U.S. decision makers, the United States as a whole

          In which case it is still false. There were multiple conversations including on the floor of the House and Senate about likely outcomes. There were debates for over a decade including decision makers about whether Bush-41 should or should not have kept going. There were debates in especially in ’96 when America adopted regime change as policy.

          if you say Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz adequately understood or considered what would happen to Iraq you are falsifying history.

          There was nothing about understood, the claim was considered. Cheney and Wolfowitz had considered it for years and thought deeply about it during Clinton’s time in office. Rumsfeld wasn’t that interested in considering what would happen to Iraq. He was thinking about counter insurgency everywhere and how to reform America’s military. Iraq was as good a place as any to start working through the structural changes he wanted in the military. And again he had considered what would happen.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Baladi Akka 1948

      Not to forget the Christians in Jordan, among them many Palestinian Christians, settling down after the Nakba, after the Naksa (1967) and since the Second Intifada, particularly the construction of the Apartheid Wall has destroyed the livelyhood of many Christians around Bayt Lahem, Bayt Jala, Bayt Sahour (and the Hasbara army has the chutzpah to blame the exodus of Christian Palestinians on the Muslim Palestinians ….)

      Reply to Comment
    3. Grandpa Frost

      Can you believe this Zogby who is trying to put Israel on the same level as Muslim states in terms of treatment of Christians? Zogby is fully aware of the fact that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christians are safe. Case in point, Christian population is actually INCREASING in Israel as opposed to the Arab world where the Christians are fleeing. The Christian population of Bethlehem plummeted after Israel foolishly withdrew its forces from Judea. One might make the argument that Israel should not search and detain Christian Arabs the way it does Muslim Arabs because the Christians do not attack the Jews. However, that would cause the Muslims treat the Christians even more horribly than they already do. I am sure Zogby is fully aware of all these facts. However, because he is a coward and a hypocrite, he won’t speak out for his fellow Christians, instead opting for making ridiculous comparisons between Muslims and Jews!

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        “Can you believe this Zogby who is trying to put Israel on the same level as Muslim states in terms of treatment of Christians? Zogby is fully aware of the fact that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christians are safe. Case in point, Christian population is actually INCREASING in Israel as opposed to the Arab world where the Christians are fleeing”.

        ‘This Zogby’ is the president of the Arab American Institute and is no grandpa frost. Before you gather the lynch mob, which is what reading your post sounds like – provocation and nothing more, read what you are fully aware of below, that fact that Israel isn’t a paradise for non-Jews. And lay off the pipe.

        Archbishop of Canterbury to see first-hand Israel’s persecution of Christians”.
        March 27, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Published in: Europe & Russia, Israel, Middle East, News, Palestine, UK

        The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, will make his first official visit to Israel and Palestine this May. The 12 day tour will see the Archbishop meeting with political and religious leaders while focusing on religious freedoms and challenges facing Christians in the Middle East.

        The tour will be Welby’s first official visit to the Holy Land since becoming archbishop four years ago, although he made a private visit in 2013 during which he was criticised for not visiting Bethlehem.

        The trip is planned to begin in Jordan where the Archbishop will hold talks with King Abdullah, he will then travel to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Bethlehem where he will hear about the challenges posed to Palestinian Christians by the illegal Separation Wall erected by Israel.

        While any Jewish person can become not only an Israeli citizen but also a Jerusalem resident by virtue only of their faith, all Palestinian Christians who have been out of Jerusalem for more than seven years and/or acquired a foreign nationality or a residence permit abroad are liable to automatically lose their “permanent residency” in the city of their birth. For Jerusalem’s Christian community, this means, the number of Christians in the city is likely to drop even further.

        The Guardian reported that Welby is planning to cross the imposing Separation Wall that Israel has erected to visit the birthplace of Jesus. He plans to meet the Christian Mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, and Palestinian Christians whose homes, land and livelihoods have been affected by the wall that partly runs beside Bethlehem and adjacent villages, cutting them off from Jerusalem.

        Securing rights

        The Archbishop’s trip to the region will be the most high profile visit by a Christian leader since Pope Francis toured the area in 2014. A year after the tour, the Vatican formally recognised the State of Palestine. The agreement called for moves to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and backed a two-state solution.

        The treaty aimed to secure the rights of the Catholic Church on Palestinian territories in exchange for backing the two-state solution, and gives more weight to Palestine politically. Palestinian Christians will expect an equally positive outcome from the tour, once the Archbishop sees the extent of their persecution, especially by Israeli settlers who have torched a number of churches in Jerusalem.

        The Palestinian Christian population has fallen dramatically since the creation of Israel. Christians make up two per cent of the population of both Israel and the Palestinian Territories – the number used to be around 15 per cent. In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has slumped to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995. While tension across the Middle East is said to be a reason for Christian flight from the “holy land” most cite Israeli occupation as the prime cause of emigration and the decline of the Christian community.

        The sharp decline in the number of Christian Jerusalemites is the result of the implementation of Israel as a de facto state on this land

        Yusef Daher, executive cecretary of the World Council of Churches, said.

        “The Israeli government policy throughout the whole history has been unilateral: turning Jerusalem both into a Jewish city and into the capital of Israel, while getting rid of all the Christian [and Muslim] Palestinians.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        James Zogby is making no “ridiculous comparisons between Muslims and Jews!” What a stupid potshot.

        Reply to Comment
        • Grandpa Frost

          Carmen,

          Funny how you’ve utterly failed to refute any points I have made. But even the propaganda article that you’ve copied and pasted somewhere confirms what I said if you read between the lines: “…In Bethlehem alone, the Christian population has slumped to 7,500 from 20,000 in 1995.” When were the Oslo accords signed? That’s right, in 1993. Israel withdrew from Bethlehem and therefore no longer affords the protection for its Christian population.

          Ben,
          That’s exactly what he’s trying to do. Zogby, by failing to state the obvious and easily verifiable truth while at the same time painting Israel as a culprit, is in fact enabling the persecution of Christians.

          Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            Disgusting ! If there’s something that makes me very, very angry it’s when Zionist Hasbara thugs use the Christians of Bethlehem to promote Zionism. It’s simply the hight of cynism ! The Christians didn’t leave Bethlehem or the surrounding villages becasue the Isrealis left ! I remind you that the Israelis weren’t there before 1967 either ! The Christians in Bethlehem have been particularly effected by the Apartheid Wall and the economical hardship due to lack of tourists, the majority of people who lost the land to built the Wall are Christian families (and many went to Jordan such as family members of mine).
            Right now the State of Israel is building the Wall tin the Cremisan Valley, destroying historical Christian sites and preventing many more Christian families from farming their land, and then some MF will come around and ‘explain’ that if they left, they did so due to Muslims ! Muslim and Chrisian Palestinians are one people, and don’t you dare to prmote your disgusting State on out plight, shar**** !

            Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            What is truly disgusting is that people like you and Zogby are in fact, acting as enablers of Christian persecution throughout the Muslim world. There have been numerous documented attacks on Christians by Muslims in pretty much all the areas that are under the control of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. And yes, that very much includes Bethlehem. And unfortunately, the so called “occupation” is not there to stop these despicable attacks. Again, how do you explain the fact that Israel is the ONLY country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing, which is in stark contrast to ALL of the Muslim world where the Christian population is shrinking. I’d like to hear a coherent explanation of this phenomenon instead of your triggered huffing and puffing. You say that there were no Israelis in Bethlehem in 1967, and that supposedly negates the reality of Muslim persecution. That’s like saying, the Yezidis and the Christians in Iraq were not persecuted a long time ago, therefore they can’t be now. You say Christians and Muslim “Palestinians” are one people? Tell it to the thousands driven out of Bethlehem. Tell it to the families of MURDERED Christians in Gaza. Tell it who Father Gabriel Naddaf who encourages Christians to join the Israeli army and actually speaks out against Christian persecution, as opposed to that coward Zogby. And Father Gabriel Naddaf is a “Palestinian” by your definition, is he not? Your last sentence is rather revealing. You say “…don’t you dare to prmote your disgusting State on out plight…” Well… whenever people talk about their “plight”, they never speak about it in positive terms. Clearly, you recognize the problems you are facing, and you recognize that your problems don’t have anything to do with Israel’s existence. Perhaps, it’s time to stop being so stiff necked and recognize the Jews, not as the enemy, but as fellow victims of oppression. Perhaps, it’s time to join forces and resist that oppression? However, somehow I doubt that people like you are capable of recognizing reality for what it is. Can you say Stockholm syndrome?

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            I think you should post some of these numerous sources concerning Muslim agression of their Christian compatriots in Bethlehem, it would be sad if we just thought you’re a despicable liar !

            The traitor Gabriel Naddaf, hehe, you don’t even know he’s been evicted by his own church ! You don’t give shit about the Christian Palestinians, you’re just another lowlife Zionist, just as sick as if a German Nazi tried to pretend caring about Jews. Nothing to say about Cremosan, right ? About the dozens of Christian Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel: Iqrith, al-Bassa, Kafr Birim etc, right ? GFY !

            Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            By the way, here’s a quote by Father Naddaf: “Why do the Druze serve? Why do the Bedouin serve? But not the Christians? Because they are scared.” And that, he suggested, had to change. “It is time to say in a loud and clear voice: enough.” We all know what the Christians are scared of. And it ain’t the mythical “occupation.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            By calling the occupation “mythical” you discredit yourself as nothing but a propaganda and whataboutery purveyor. And a none too bright one I might add.

            Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            Ben, for a millionth time, prove the existence of the occupation. You never fail to fail. Just because it is an accepted opinion, it doesn’t make it anymore true. Flat Earth theory used to be an accepted opinion. We know better now. As soon as the leftist/Islamic alliance collapses, so will the myth of occupation.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Flat Earth theory, eh? Why is that you’re the one who sounds every bit like a dim-witted creationist trying to insert creationism into the evolutionary science curriculum to “teach the controversy.” Biologists were too smart to fall for that. So am I. For a fact, the earth revolves around the sun, the earth is not 6000 years old, dinosaurs and man never coexisted, there is no “missing link,” man evolved from lower order primates, the Exodus is a religious myth, and the occupation exists. I’m not saying you can’t start your own quack Institute of Occupation Denial, but I don’t feel the need to give you space in my curriculum because I don’t relish becoming a laughing stock. And I have better things to do and I have standards. And so does this magazine. Run along and play now.

            Reply to Comment
          • Grand

            What a cop out. Of course you can’t prove the existence of occupation because it doesn’t exist. Sorry to disappoint you, but you’re already a laughing stock.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Grandpa Frost I am delighted to have you link to that page. It is a strong, supporting footnote. I think I made the case quite well there. Thank you for drawing our attention to it. I shall bookmark it for future reference. And I will repeat what I said towards the end of that thread. It is equally apt here:

            ‘You have disproved nothing. Saying that you have is not an argument. I am quite comfortable letting the foregoing stand and have others decide. “At this point, I have to stop our debate” has the air of losing the game, picking up your marbles and stomping off the playground. Be my guest.’

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I should add that revisiting that thread makes me realize, my goodness, I really took the time to painstakingly lay it all out for that guy and he still doesn’t get it. Why would I do it again? I already went over of all of this with you, in detail, and you helpfully linked to it, so I really don’t feel the need to give you “debate time” any further. But you know, you could always grow a long gray beard and don a white robe and sandals and tramp around spreading the “good news” that in your religion the occupation does not exist. Like a moonie at an airport. I’m not stopping you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            @ Frozen Grandpa
            I’m still waiting for some of the “numerous sources” about Muslims agressing Christians in Bethlehem !

            Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            Ben,

            Funny that you would spend all this time writing two comments bragging about your alleged victory over me, the very time could have spent explaining how Israel’s control over Judea and Samaria fits the definition of the occupation. And the obvious answer is that you cannot, you have failed by every objective standard. No amount of verbiage can conceal your colossal failure and it is for the world to see.

            Baladi,

            Let’s see what a simple Google search will reveal:

            http://www.wnd.com/2014/05/christians-stabbed-stoned-by-muslims-near-bethlehem/

            Also, look at this:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QClWlrJRBk

            Google is your friend, especially if you are hopelessly ignorant of what’s happening in the region, which you clearly are.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Baladi Akka 1948

      @ Grandpa
      Still waiting for the sources.
      Your unending discussion with another commenter about an unrelated topic is a way to try to avoid answering ? So we can conclude that you have no such sources, that you just pulled a lie out your a** ?

      Reply to Comment
      • Grandpa Frost

        Baladi, I suggest you look at the message I posted that is right above yours. Just click the blue More… link. There you will find the sources you asked for. You might have to put your reading glasses on.

        Reply to Comment
        • Baladi Akka 1948

          @ Frozen Grandpa
          Oh, you mean that link that you put at the bottom of a comment that you adressed to Ben ?
          I don’t open you comments adressed to another peron, but I understand very well you posted that discretely.
          So that’s what you could come up with concerning you BS that “there has been numerous documented attacks on Christians by Muslims” etc etc in Bethlehem ?

          A link to Worldnetdaily, a far-right conspiracy website founded by the freak Joseph Farah ? An article by Lela Gilbert, a Zionist Christina freak based on an article from CAMERA (a major Zionist organization)with a video that shows nothing ?

          Wow, we can thus conclude that you just pull things out your ass ! Now, if you want documentations of Christian Palestinians being agressed by Zionist thugs, just tell me so, I’ll give you real sources, ya himar !

          Reply to Comment
          • Grandpa Frost

            Well, that site includes a video. You’re denying things that have been captured on video, and then you’re calling me a conspiracy theorist? Fascinating. I guess you’ll only believe it when they come for you and your family. Well, with your keen intellect you might actually find a way to blame it on the Zionists! Tozz feek!

            Reply to Comment
          • Baladi Akka 1948

            @ Frozen Grandpa
            I visionned the video, could you tell me where exactly you hear or see this is “Muslims agressing Christians” ? I also read another article about this minor incident which started out as a parking dispute on MEM.
            The fact that you had to find an article on a right-wing conspiracy website with a video that says absolutely nothing about what is happening is in itelf a proof that you”re just posting hasbara.
            You still don’t wan’t any sources of Jews harassing Palestinian Christians ?

            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            No doubt it is a coincidence that the Christian population of the Middle East outside of Israel has plummeted in the years since the colonial powers withdrew. All we have to do is look at Lebanon and see how much Christian/Muslim amity there has been over the years.

            Reply to Comment
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