Fear and hope for indigenous Christians in the Middle East and North Africa

Harry Hagiopan, Ekklesia, Jan.13

As a new year arrives, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) uprisings continue their relentless surge in different parts of the region. While Egypt and Syria have grabbed our attention throughout 2012, it is quite clear that much is also happening elsewhere.

From Tunisia and Libya to Morocco and Yemen, from Jordan and Lebanon all the way to Bahrain and Kuwait, the tensions are manifesting themselves in different ways – some more subtle than others, some far bloodier than others.

In the midst of this maelstrom, it is appropriate to re-visit the realities of the smaller Christian indigenous communities as they oscillate between fear, hope and uncertainty.

It is true that many of those communities in various countries are fearful that their rights will be squelched further under the emerging ‘Islamist’ regimes. They might well be right, in the sense that some of those more conservative brands of Islam are so unequivocally exclusive of the ‘other’ that they simply cannot govern equally, let alone equably.

Almost a year ago, for instance, I recall coming across an article which stated that the clergy and hierarchy of the churches in Syria were solidly supportive of the regime, while many of the younger men and women were aspiring for human rights, democracy as well as freedom and were joining the revolution on the streets.

Now, a year later, there seems to be a marked change. Most Christians, old or young, are extremely worried about the changing nature of the rebel movement, whereby the rising trend of Islamism and the presence of foreign jihadis and warlords has frightened Christians. There have even been reports of evictions from homes, robbery, rape and extortion from Christians.

I do not disagree with those who suggest that there is a reassertion of Islam, even an Islamist wind, blowing across the whole Middle East and North Africa region, albeit at different levels and with varying forces. I also agree with many pundits that local Christian communities may be finding that their liberties are constrained further than they were during authoritarian times.

However, the fearful reactions that we have experienced in different parts of the Middle East and North Africa region are nothing new. Subscribing to the pages of history, we can see that smaller (minority) communities are often — almost inevitably, perhaps — at the receiving end of destiny. This is why one of my mentors, Latin Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah, used to talk about “the cross we have to carry before we jumpstart into the Resurrection”.

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