The Middle East is known to be the both the birthplace of Christianity and the current home to some of the world's most ancient Christian communities. But Christianity’s rich history in this region is not enough to secure its future. In the past decades, a combination of low birth rates, extensive emigration and growing persecution has contributed to the decline in both the size and visibility of Middle Eastern Christian communities.
In this context, the arrival of the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of Islamist movements in the region may threaten the already precarious equilibrium between Christian minorities and their host nations. Some worried observers have noted that the political ascent of more radical streams of Islamism—like the Salafist movement—might have a negative impact on the region's capacity to deal with its own sectarian and religious minorities. What's more, with the post–regime-change phase being a time of internal instability and volatility, preexisting cleavages within society are likely to be heightened, increasing the potential for internal violence against minorities.
Setbacks in Iraq, Syria and Egypt
Iraq is the best example of the relation between postconflict stabilization and violence against minorities. Since 2003, the Iraqi Christian community—whose presence dates as far back as the second century A.D.—increasingly has became the target of violent attacks, resulting in a dramatic decline, allegedly from a population between seven hundred thousand and 1.4 million to one as low as four hundred thousand. An October 2010 massacre at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church that left fifty-eight people dead raised the issue of the Iraqi Christian community’s safety in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal.
Syrian Catholic and Orthodox communities also face an uneasy predicament: they fear being targeted by both pro- and antiregime forces and are unsure of what a post-Assad Syria would mean for them. And if postconflict transitions embody a potential threat to sectarian and religious minorities in general, the post–Arab Spring period will see specific challenges to the region's Christian communities. One such prominent challenge is the rise of Islamist parties.
The Islamist threat has become apparent in Egypt. The future of Egypt's Coptic community—which is the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East at approximately 10 percent of Egypt's population—looks increasingly uncertain. In the last year, an estimated two hundred thousand Copts are believed to have left the country. There has also been a rise in the number of mob attacks against churches and Coptic villages, contributing to increasing levels of insecurity among Egypt's ancient Christian community. This uptick in violence against Copts has been accompanied by the political ascent of Islamist groups, further increasing the community's sense of isolation.
But the Arab Spring may represent more than just a threat to the region's minorities—it also could be an opportunity to reassert their status and political rights.
With the fall of Mubarak and the potential democratization of the country, the Coptic community sees an important chance to redefine its role while improving its level of national integration and recognition. The past year has seen the rise of a Coptic movement demanding rights and protection, although so far the response by ruling military leaders has been repression, not accommodation.
The ongoing process of drafting a new Egyptian constitution represents an important test in assessing the future of Muslim-Christian relations. But there are ongoing structural problems. The newly elected People's Assembly Constitutional Committee was not designed to be especially representative of Egypt's diversity, as it is heavily dominated by Islamist-oriented parties and includes only six Coptic representatives. This lack of meaningful representation led the Coptic Church to quit the committee in frustration.