Christian minority tensions follow Arab Spring

COMMENT

As the dust partially settles over the Middle East this Easter and new governments try to move past the turmoil of the past few years, the so-called Arab Spring is still exposing deep and raw ethnic tensions.

People of all stripes are attempting to find their feet. And with most political movements tending to come from majority Islamic camps, it is easy to overlook the plight of the Middle East’s minorities.

Among them are the Coptic Christians. Not only are they fleeing in large numbers – two million Christians called Iraq home before 2003 and just one million live there now – those who remain are experiencing increased persecution.

Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and countries have all changed in some way during the recent unrest and those once semi-stable regimes are radically different.

The fallen governments in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and – soon perhaps – Syria, were for many minorities comparatively benign in comparison to today’s states. Strongmen dictators Muammar Gadhafi of Libya and Egyptian Hosni Mubarak at least ruled their countries with a firm rule, providing some protection to these groups.

Now, as once-maligned Sunni Islamic groups ovee into the halls of power, those minorities are feeling less welcome in their own homes and cities.

Four Christians were arrested in Libya earlier in March for proselytising, while a few days earlier an Egyptian Coptic Church was torched in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. A prisoner exchange is being proposed, but the incident highlights the disturbing ethnic reality in the Middle East.

Tensions betwen neighbours

Old tensions between Egypt and Libya are also heating once again and Coptic Christians are stuck in the middle.

Under Gadhafi, for instance, the regime maintained strict control. Because of the heavy state hand, Muslims and Christians lived in only a wispy husk of peace. Today about 1%of Libyans are Christian, many of them immigrants.

But as Libyan law forbids promoting any other religion beside Islam, the largely unbridled militia groups still roaming Libyan cities are arresting Christians accused of proselytising. The protective husk has already blown away in the winds of change.

Many other Coptic Christians in the Middle East have already heeded the warnings. Some departed to explore distant, friendlier places such as Scandinavia, Australia or Canada in favour of their deteriorating home countries.

Others are receiving stilted assistance from new state governments – in Iraq for example, where artificial ethnic communities offer relative peace.

Still others are being co-opted into the bloody wars of independence in Syria as “natural” allies against spreading Sunni Islamism and rebellion.

These erstwhile friends, of the militant Hezbollah and Alawite types, are unlikely to divide any political spoils with Coptic Christians if they eventually defend Syria from rebels. In the long run the alliances of convenience will probably be detrimental to the Middle East’s Christian minorities.

It appears while much has changed on the surface, thousands of years of ethnic history and religious feuding is, unsurprisingly, still unable to be purged.

The problem is compounded in Libya, where state control is weak and unregulated militias without constructive employment release their frustration on Christian minorities. And because most Christians there are Egyptian immigrants, the political tensions between Tripoli and Cairo may well increase.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi remains involved in helping solve Libyan apprehension of Coptic Christians. After all, he needs to avoid more internal upheaval from yet another disaffected minority group.

Even though Egyptian Coptic Christians are not known for militancy or retribution, they comprise more than 11% of the population and could easily become a nasty headache for Cairo. Mr Morsi is struggling to effectively lead Egypt, constantly dealing with political challenges from all sides.

Christians have faced steadily diminishing protection by Cairo since dictator Mubarak was ousted. And while it is politically wise to defend them today, ultimately the hardline Islamist groups are the key to continued rule by Mr Morsi’s government.

Choosing sides

The central story running through the Middle East is of Islamist groups who feel emboldened by the sweeping success of the Arab Spring.

Without dictators to protect minority groups, many of the larger Islamist political movements are taking the opportunity to begin the latest phase of religious warfare with all the passion that comes from years of simmering tension.

Political leaders from Egypt to Syria will be of little help for persecuted Coptic Christians. If pressured to choose between ethnic groups, the new governments are more likely to associate with powerful Islamist movements, leaving Christians at the mercy of religious vigilantism and militancy.

In this light, it is no wonder these Christians are leaving the Middle East in droves.

But it will be the region which ultimately suffers. Many of these people leave with human capital of education and ideas, along with real material goods.

Once the dust truly settles in this broken part of the world, it might be culturally far less dynamic. It certainly will not be a progressive and prosperous home to a melting pot of communities.

Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict

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