As Unrest Spreads, Middle East Christians More Vulnerable Than Ever

Russ Jones | Christian Press | Friday, February 04, 2011

As Unrest Spreads, Middle East Christians More Vulnerable Than Ever

As turmoil from Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt spreads throughout the Muslim world, Christian communities in the region are increasingly concerned. They fear Islamic extremist groups could exploit political instability throughout the Middle East and create dangerous conditions for Christians.

Many believe the rash of uprisings gained momentum after weeks of unrest in Tunisia, where extended protests toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben in January. The call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down was mirrored by King Abdullah II of Jordan's removal of the country's prime minister and cabinet.

Christians in these Muslim-led countries have battled persecution for decades. Now, with unrest rising throughout the region, the crisis for Christians could reach epic proportions.

Coptic Christians Seek Refuge

Nabil moved his family to the United States from Egypt twenty years ago. With the Internet down in the North African country, the Coptic Christian learned by telephone his relatives have been locked down in their home since the protests began. He told that they haven't left their home to buy food or tend to their jewelry business because of safety concerns.

Coptic Christians like Nabil make up about ten percent of the total population in Egypt. Believers in both the U.S. and Egypt say the future doesn't look good for Christians in the Middle East.

"The Muslim Brotherhood wants to use Shari‘a law and it is really very bad for Egypt," said Nabil. "They want everyone to convert to Islam."

Nabil also reports Muslim embassy officials routinely turn away Christians who request visas to leave the country, so his relatives feel trapped with few options available.

Egypt in Transition

On Monday, Egyptian authoritarian Mubarak said he won't run for reelection. While a majority of the demonstrations are spontaneous protests of angry citizens frustrated with three decades of authoritarian rule, some commentators believe a change in political leadership could make way for Islamic extremists who might hijack a democratic election.

Muslims aren't alone in their protests. Reports claim some Christians in Egypt have taken to the streets to express their legitimate grievances demanding greater freedom to practice their faith as well as frustration with years of political corruption.

In some cases, Christians and Muslims are working together to stop vandals and looters through local "neighborhood action committees." SAT-7, a Christian satellite television ministry to the Middle East and North Africa, is located in one such area where average citizens are working together.

"Our team says there is an atmosphere of solidarity and civic pride, which transcends religious affiliation," said SAT-7's CEO, Terry Ascott.

Policy experts believe Mubarak has stayed in power for three decades partially because of American assistance. Egypt receives $1.5 billion dollars a year in foreign aid from American taxpayers - more than any other country except Israel.

While Mubarak has amassed anywhere from $40 to $70 billion in personal and family wealth, the average Egyptian family lives on 2 dollars a day or less. Many believe it is this disparity that has caused average citizens to protest.

The Obama administration faces a dilemma - does it stand behind Mubarak who has been a strong ally despite his dictatorial and corrupt leadership? Or does the U.S. support a new regime which could usher in extreme Islamic rule?

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton predicts Egypt's Coptic Christian community could face increased persecution if a group like the Muslim Brotherhood takes control.

"It is really legitimate for the Copts to be worried that instability follows Mubarak's fall and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood," said Bolton.

The Muslim Brotherhood, also called Muslim Brethren, is an Islamic organization which uses politics to promote its beliefs by creating an Islamic state. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Brotherhood has spread throughout the Middle East causing more autocratic governments to implement the harsher elements of Shari'a law.

"The problem with these groups is, if they gain control, the state will now begin to implement more policies of restrictions on Christians," said Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, UK-based International Director of the Barnabas Fund. "Islamism particularly forces injunctions of Shari'a on Christians."

Reports of large protests in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen seem to point to a growing trend. Sookhdeo, who works with Christians throughout the Middle East, contends the radical Islamists crusade throughout the Middle East will extinguish the region's Christian presence.

Instability Hits Strongest Countries

Jordan has historically been the most stable country in a region of great mayhem. Massive anti-government protests there, however, have some Christians there concerned.

Spurred by Egypt's revolutionary activity, Jordan's King Abdullah II fired his Cabinet and appointed a new prime minister to pursue political reforms to "correct the mistakes of the past."  However, the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's principal opposition group and arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, has repudiated Abdullah's appointments.

Some missiologists say the severity of instability in the region is best viewed when moderate nations like Jordan see political uprisings like in recent days.

"In Jordan the government has tried to insure that Islamic religion does not become too extreme, said Sookhdeo. "The problem is - what happens if the religion is given full reign and the Islamist gain power?"

Christians in Yemen Vulnerable

Even after Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he will not seek another term as president in 2013, protests continued. Yemen's coalition of opposition parties, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), held what it called Yemen's "Day of Anger" on Thursday. The nation faces extreme poverty, and tens of thousands anti-government protesters gathered in early morning.

Vulnerable Jewish and Christian minorities in Yemen face escalating insecurity as the state teeters on the brink of collapse. Saleh is fighting a determined al Qaeda faction who would bring restrictions on non-Muslim groups as he also negotiates peace with Shi'ite rebels.

AFP reports one al Qaeda leader in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) warned Sunni Muslims of a rising Christian-Shiite alliance. "Sunnis, be careful from the massacres that happened in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen to happen to you while you are unarmed - prepare yourselves before it is too late - buy weapons and protect your religion, your lives and your honor."

As one of the poorest and least evangelized nations in the world, most Christians in Yemen are expatriate workers or Ethiopian refugees.

Israel Surrounded By Turmoil

While he is still regarded as an authoritarian, Israel has tremendous respect for Mubarak. The Egyptian president has carefully honored his country's peace agreement with Israel since taking power, and Israeli officials fear a regime change in Egypt could jeopardize the peace agreement.

"If extremist forces are allowed to exploit democratic processes to come to power to advance anti-democratic goals - as has happened in Iran and elsewhere - the outcome will be bad for peace and bad for democracy," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Only in Israel has the number of Christians increased from 34,000 in 1948 to 151,700 in 2009.  One pro-Israeli organization says unrest in Egypt could bring tragic results for both Jews and Christians in Israel.

"This situation is about a dictator or about a terrorist organization," said Laurie Cardoza-Moore, president of Justice for the Nations. "Mubarak was willing to sit down at the negotiating table with Israel and with the U.S. Some of the other groups want to wipe Israel and America off the map."

Growing Threat for All Non-Muslims

In response to recent violence towards Christians in nations like Iraq and Egypt, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced legislation in January calling for the creation of a special envoy at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. 

"There are tremendous problems for the Christian community for Iraq, Egypt and also in other places," said Wolf. "The Coptic Christians are being persecuted in Egypt quite extensively, where more biblical activity took place than any other place than Israel."

With or without such legislation, Christians say they are braced for even more extreme conditions. Sookhdeo says many Christian organizations serve daily in restrictive environments, but some missions may leave if more extreme ideologies come into power.

"Many missionaries are concerned with their growing alienation, and what is going to happen to them," said Sookhdeo. "The few that are left are beginning to wonder if they should stay or go. One Christian leader believes it is time for Middle Eastern Christians to leave - others say, perhaps it is not yet time to leave."

As Middle Eastern nation's hold dueling anti-government protests, Christians serving in those countries watch wondering their future. Sookhdeo says with so much uncertainty, Christians can still be encouraged.

"We as Christians need to remember the earth is the Lords, secondly he is the author and finisher of history - he knows what is happening - he brings things into being - he is still in control and no need for fear," said Sookhdeo. "We see the end which is glorious. Ultimately all will be well because as Christians we live with the resurrection hope. Unfortunately, however, suffering is very much a part of our lives."

Russ Jones is an award winning journalist and co-publisher of Christian Press Newspaper ( and media consultant located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Total Living Network, Travel with Spirit and American Family Radio Network. He may be reached at [email protected].