The Future of Middle Eastern Christians

The Future of Middle Eastern Christians

The Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist parties present both opportunities and threats to the region's religious minorities.


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.

The challenge ahead in Egypt is to enshrine both equal rights and religious pluralism in the constitution, while presumably also including references to Islam as the country's main religion. And in addition to de jure equality, there also needs to be de facto integration and access to power. While the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party has committed to equal citizenship rights, the party still objects to making Christians eligible for the presidency, leaving a mixed impression of the Brotherhood’s stance on religious pluralism.

A Few Bright Spots

Islamist parties need not be seen reflexively as a threat to the region's Christians; in postrevolutionary Tunisia, the ruling Ennahda Party has invested in maintaining a balance between Islamist identity and respect for the country's religious and cultural diversity. For example, Ennahda has refused to back attempts by the more conservative Islamist parties to enshrine sharia law in the first article of Tunisia's future Constitution. Ennahda has instead proposed mentioning Islam as the state religion.

This example does not imply that balancing Islam, secular values and religious pluralism will be easy, nor does it suggest that the Ennahda party's record on the topic is spotless. Still, the evolving situation gives hope to Tunisia's tiny Christian community. It may also suggest that political alliances to support religious pluralism can be sought not only with secular and liberal parties but also with moderate Islamists.

Looking back at the past year’s transformation in the Middle East, there are reasons to be concerned as well as signs of positive development. On the bright side, democratization may indeed bring about increased pluralism, improving the visibility and integration of the region's sectarian and religious minorities. But in the shorter term, the poststabilization phase may see growing intersocietal violence, placing the region's minorities at heightened risks. In this sense, the rise in violence against Christian communities—whether in Egypt, Iraq or Syria—is worrisome for the entire region. The slow, far-from-ideal pace of the postrevolutionary democratization process and the rise of more radical Islamist groups, like the Salafists, are cause for concern among the region's Christians.

Christian communities have been gradually shrinking in the Middle East, and post-Arab Spring trends risk accelerating the pace of this process. If these trends are not reversed and Christians are not openly reassured of their security, there is a danger that within one or two generations, the Christian communities will further contract in size and visibility. Then they will more and more look like the once-flourishing Jewish communities of the Arab world.

Yoel Guzansky is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.

Benedetta Berti is a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University (TAU), a lecturer at TAU and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group. She is the author of "Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).