As secular governments topple across the Middle East, sectarian violence has emerged as a growing threat for religious minorities in the region. The Syrian uprising holds promise for many citizens, but for Syria’s fragile Christian community, comprising only 10 percent of the population, the prospect of president Bashar al-Assad’s fall triggers fear of a takeover by the Sunni Muslim majority.
It’s becoming a familiar tale in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and now Syria. Throughout the Middle East, religious minorities once under a semblance of governmental protection – even under corrupt regimes – have fallen victim to increased violence from hard-line Islamist elements in the wake of collapsing regimes. In each case, the crumbling of a secular government has paved the way for increased acts of violence against members of minority faiths.
Sectarian Violence on the Rise
Vali Nasr is a professor at Tufts University and the author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Nasr referenced the “strong undercurrent of simmering sectarian tension” surging across the Middle East.
It is an undercurrent that is sweeping away the church in large numbers in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria, as Christians flee their homelands in search of safer regions.
On Wednesday the New York Times published a front-page article spotlighting the desperate plight of Syrian Christians. The article quoted Abu Elias at the Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya, a Damascus church where Christians have met for over a thousand years. “Fear is spreading among us and anyone who is different,” he said. “Today, we are here. Tomorrow, who knows where we will be?”
Attacks Against Christians in Iraq and Egypt
In Iraq, the fall of the Ba’athist regime precipitated a massive exodus of Christians. Even today, churches are burned and bombed by Muslim insurgents in Iraq on a regular basis. On August 2, Islamists targeted three churches in Kirkuk, Iraq.
“Now I am here and seeing it with my own eyes,” one Iraqi pastor told Compass Direct News, while viewing the wreckage of his church. “They have to demolish the church and rebuild it.”
Abuna Gourgis Alyes is a priest at the Mar Afram church in Kirkuk. “Many will leave Kirkuk because of this explosion,” Alyes told Compass Direct after the bombing of his church. “Many Christians take this event as an opportunity to make their decision to leave the city. I am sure many will leave after this.”
Post-revolution Egypt, too, has sparked fears for the Christian minority. Only two months ago, Islamists attacked a predominately Christian village, killing a Coptic Christian and setting the village on fire. A report from Compass Direct News stated that “the assailants killed Maher Nassif, 46, a civil servant and livestock farmer, when he tried to defend his home. ... [They] burst into Nassif’s house, shot him in the head and slit his throat while his teenage son watched from under a bed where he was hiding.”
Melad Thabet, a 25-year-old teacher from the village, “spent the night of the attack listening to gunfire and the sound of people ‘weeping and screaming in the village.’”
Church Closures in Syria
Even under Assad’s government, Syrian Christians have not been immune to persecution. In 2010, six churches were shut down by the government, and reports of arrests and interrogations were on the rise. Yet there was some comfort for Christians under Assad’s regime, a comfort that is gradually eroding along with the government.
“The reason for this ambivalence [toward the Christian community] is simple,” says columnist Christine Flowers in an article on Philly.com. “Like Mubarak and Hussein, Assad continues the proud tradition of secular despotism, persecuting those who wear the cross, the hijab and the kippah with equal fervor.”
Flowers is convinced that “those who say religion is the root of all evil in an attempt to maintain the devout wall between church and state conveniently overlook secular societies such as Syria and Baathist Iraq that terrorized their citizens in a religious vacuum.” But she says that “godless regimes generally treat all victims equally, whereas those founded on a specific creed play favorites.”
A Death Sentence for Apostasy
Indeed, in Iran, the hard-line Muslim government specializes in targeting Muslim converts to Christianity and exacting severe punishments on those who refuse to return to Islam. Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani in Iran is one such victim. Today Nadarkhani is facing a death sentence for apostasy, after converting from Islam to Christianity.
A source close to the Nadarkhani family has said, “They probably won’t kill him today, but they can do it whenever they want,” adding: “They can hang him in the middle of the night or in 10 days. Sometimes in Iran they call the family and deliver the body with the verdict. They have gone outside the borders of law. This is not in the Iranian law, this is Sharia. Sometimes they don’t even give the body.”
The crumbling of Assad’s regime has precipitated an exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence into neighboring Lebanon. Almost 4,000 Syrian refugees are now registered with UNHCR.
“I can't return until the regime falls," says Suheed al-Aqari, whose political views marked him a dissident and forced him to flee. For these refugees, the toppling of the regime symbolizes the only hope for a peaceful future. For Syria’s 1.5 million Christians, too, the prospect of a new government affords promise mixed with uncertainty.
“We endured the rule of the Syrian regime. I have not forgotten that,” says Patriarch Rai, a leader of the church in the region. He is uncertain about the future, and fears the persecution Christians might face under a hard-line Islamic government.
“We do not stand by the regime, but we fear the transition that could follow,” he says. “We must defend the Christian community. We, too, must resist.”
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email [email protected].
Publication date: September 30, 2011