BY NARINÉ ATAMIAN
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.
As was the case in Iraq, many Muslims, backed by the extended network of al-Qaeda, are beginning to channel their rage at both Western interventionism as well as repressive, impotent dictators at Armenians and other Middle Eastern Christians. These populations are indigenous to the lands they inhabit, having lived alongside Muslim populations since the dawn of Islam, but are increasingly considered as representations of and supporters of these foreign “others.” The attacks against Iraqi Christians did not end with the comparative easing of the tensions created by the invasion. As recently as this past fall, 58 people were left dead in an attack against a Baghdad Catholic church. The lslamic State of Iraq, linked closely with al-Qaeda, held over 100 Christians captive in an effort to strong arm the release of imprisoned al-Qaeda members in Egyptian and Iraqi jails. This attack, the bloodiest since the early period of the invasion of Iraq, signals that, rather than sectarian differences calming down as a semblance of political stability has been achieved, negative attitudes and treatment of Christian minorities in the region have become permanent.
Egypt, with its large Coptic Christian population, served as another dramatic warning sign to North Africa and the Middle East. Discrimination has soared in Egypt towards its Christian communities, in particular its Copts. With the bombing of churches all over Egypt, particularly in Alexandria since the Egyptian masses began demonstrating against Mubarak, the level of sectarian distrust and bigotry has become apparent. After 21 people were killed in the attack of a church in Alexandria, angry Christians streamed out of the church, confronting the police, storming a mosque, and even hurling stones at Muslims. Similar attacks have since happened across the Middle East; where there is “revolution,” there is growing sectarian violence. Christians in Egypt have taken to occupying their churches, as the only way of protecting themselves and their places of worship against extremist Muslim activists.
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.
The situation in Syria is becoming similarly bleak for the many minorities in the country, Muslims and Christians alike. With a large Kurdish community, as well as considerable Druze, Ismaili, and Christian populations, Syria has historically been a very diverse nation, with the many different populations living in peace. Christians, particularly Greeks and Armenians, have voiced repeatedly how well they were treated in Syria until recently, with religious freedom and rights ensured them despite not being of the Alawite or Sunni Muslim communities. The Armenian population, at almost 100,000 strong before the political upheavals, is coming under fire by the revolutionaries as Assad supporters; their safety, not to mention freedoms, are being directly threatened.
Assad’s regime has begun to utilize the excuse of the different minority Syrian populations, especially the Kurds, as potentially seceding and dividing up the country as an excuse to issue new policies of oppressive, totalitarian governance. Assad has instilled a very real fear in the minority communities of what life could be like under the Sunni-led Muslim Brotherhood. The Assad family controls the Shabiha militia, a heavily-armed troop that is responsible for actually causing many of the peaceful demonstrations within Syria to become violent. The violence and sectarian differences created by extremist Muslims has become instrumental in the protests against the older generation of Western-leaning dictators, and coupled with the fear-mongering and intentional sectarian divisions created by these leaders, the minority populations are trapped and essentially powerless in the violent political upheaval of their country.
The UNHCR reported that, as of May, thousands of Syrians have been forced to flee Syria, often without possessions, into neighboring Lebanon. Many of these Syrians, fleeing violence in their native land, are Christian women and children. While Lebanon might provide a temporary safe haven for these Syrians, their fate is uncertain. Just as many Christians were forced to flee as refugees from Iraq to Syria, these Syrians now displaced in Lebanon face the continued threat of anti-Christian sentiment in sectarian feud-wrought Lebanon. With Hezbollah, a Muslim extremist group and political party, becoming increasingly powerful in Lebanon, it seems to be only a matter of time before Lebanon too becomes so unfriendly towards its Christian population that the population, made up of Maronites, Armenians, and other sects, are again forced to find a new place to call home. It has become increasingly apparent that these sectarian differences are caused by a combination of political upheaval, Muslim extremist groups’ indoctrination of hateful speech, and manipulative governments seeking to utilize social tensions to solidify their own political might.
The calls for national unity that have characterized the demonstrations of the Arab Spring have been seriously undermined by these acts of violence and institutionalized discrimination to the Christian populations so integral to the culture and society of the Muslim-majority countries in which they take place. The rulers whose authority has been threatened in each of the countries in which open anti-authoritarian revolts and demonstrations have taken place have tried to further sectarian tensions by creating loyalty to the regime in minority populations by instilling a fear of a “second Iraq” occurring. This strategy only served to cause an escalation of sectarian tensions by dividing the loyalties of the country’s population.
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.
The Arab Spring and the ensuing political repercussions represents high-minded and worthy goals — of freedom from tyranny, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. However, the majority of these “revolutionaries,” currently gravitating towards ideologies that unify the masses of the Middle East and North Africa, are set to marginalize Armenian and other Christian groups that do not fit into this new vision of a democratic and free Arab-Muslim world. The Republic of Armenia values and respects the Armenian diaspora around the world, and very much appreciates Armenian populations everywhere, including in the Middle Eastern countries affected by the Arab Spring’s events, remaining intact abroad. This policy, though, means that even the Republic of Armenia is thus far not implementing any widespread policy of acceptance and naturalization of marginalized Armenians from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and other nations. With the departure of these Armenian and Christian groups, their “home” countries will also suffer, losing the cultures and populations that are so integral to the overall national character and identity of said countries. With the widespread hope that the Arab Spring has brought the masses, the plight of Armenian communities in their historic lands becomes more dire, with their ultimate extinction thanks to mass migration to the West becoming a reality.