In response to criticisms of the mistreatment of Palestinian Christians in Israel and the Israeli-controlled Palestinian Territories, I am often asked, “Don’t Christians also suffer persecution at the hands of Muslims in the Arab Middle East?” There is no simple answer.
Yes, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom lists Saudi Arabia as “a country of particular concern” for “egregious violations of religious freedom.” Guest workers, foreign contract workers and other internationals cannot practice their faith openly there. Worship is possible only in embassy compounds and, clandestinely, in private homes. It is illegal to carry a Bible or to wear a cross or other Christian symbol. The people affected number in the hundreds of thousands. The picture in the rest of the Middle East, especially in countries with historic Christian presence, is mixed; but the overall trends are worrisome.
It used to be that Arab Christians were better off in secular countries, even when their governments were manifest tyrannies. Baathist Syria and Iraq, for example, allowed considerable freedom for many Christians, though not for Assyrians, once termed Nestorians, who are members of the ancient Church of the East. They were persecuted on ethnic and linguistic grounds. But in postwar Iraq, despite the provisions of the interim constitution for religious freedom, all bets are off until a new political culture takes hold. As to Syria, the New York Times’s veteran Middle East correspondent Neil MacFarquhar has reported that as the government attempts to ride the wave of Islamic fervor, it has initiated worrisome support for fundamentalist Muslim madrasas.
Though Islam is the official religion of Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom has been supportive of Christians. Prince Hassan, the uncle of the king and a member of a Sufi brotherhood, has been a consistent patron of interreligious dialogue, and the government, including King Abdullah II, continues to seek ways to strengthen the Christian population. Bishop Salim Sayagh, the Latin patriarchal vicar in Amman, has said of his Jordanian flock, “We are the luckiest Christians in the East.” Jordan, however, is an exception to the adverse trends in the rest of the region.
In Egypt the government is secular, but Islam is the official religion, and Christians are far more constrained. Churches may not be built or even repaired without high-level government approval, which is very hard to obtain. Discrimination in employment is widespread, and denial of police protection is said to be common. Egyptian Christians, however, do not like outsiders to meddle in their problems, though once they emigrate Copts are among the most vociferous activists on behalf of religious liberty.
Lebanon, established by the French as a Christian foothold in the Middle East, decades ago lost its Christian majority. Though they make up a third of the native population, Lebanese Christians are an even smaller part of the total population when one adds in the more than one million Syrian guest workers and 400,000 Palestinian refugees to the Muslim total.
At the same time, native Lebanese Muslims and Christians have a common interest in the future of the Lebanese state. The Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nazrallah Pierre Sfeir, is the country’s most vocal spokesperson for the Lebanese cause and receives support from many of the country’s Muslims. After the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who attempted to drive Christians from the south of Lebanon during the civil war, praised the patriarch for a statement a couple of years ago, a political cartoonist depicted him vested in bishop’s vestments.
In daily life, despite the Special Assembly for Lebanon of the Synod of Bishops and the initiatives of Pope John Paul II, the situation is less certain. Many Christians fear their Muslim neighbors, and some Christian political factions continue to nurture antagonism toward their Muslim compatriots. As a result of political uncertainty and economic stagnation, both Christians and Muslims emigrate, but because of their smaller numbers, the loss affects the Christians more gravely.
It is in Israel and the Palestinian Territories where the situation is most confusing. While the number of Israeli Christians quadrupled between 1948 and 1990 through natural growth, the Christian population in Israel, located mostly in Galilee, feels under threat. The five-year-long struggle over the attempted construction of the Shehab al-Din Mosque in Nazareth, in the shadow of the Basilica of the Annunciation, has left the Christians shaken and suspicious. Ostensibly a show of force by the northern arm of Israel’s Islamic Movement, the effort to build the mosque was supported at the highest levels by three successive Israeli governments. It also embroiled Israel’s security services. The head of police for the Northern District, for example, declared publicly that high-level instructions prevented him from intervening for three days in 1998 to protect Christians from rioting Muslims.
The al-Aqsa intifada has also muted the protective role the Palestinian Authority had usually shown to Christians. President Yasir Arafat sometimes seemed effective in calling off Muslim militants who used the Christian villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour for attacks on Israeli West Bank settlements, like Gilo, and sometimes not. Newsweek’s Joshua Hammer, in A Season in Bethlehem: Unholy War in a Holy Place, (2003) showed the pressure militants in Bethlehem placed on the Christian townspeople: a pattern of extortion, theft, kidnapping and killing. Most of the pressure came not from religious Muslim militias like Hamas, but from local brigands turned militia leaders who were incidentally Muslim. The net effect on Bethlehem’s Christian residents, however, was the same: demoralization, insecurity and a readiness to emigrate. For reasons of solidarity, Palestinian Christians, like Christians in Egypt, are reluctant to speak openly about this intra-Palestinian strife.
Future relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, then, are quite uncertain. If the religious liberty provisions of the Iraqi basic law are retained and implemented under a new constitution, they could provide a new model for the region. Should there be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, that would greatly improve the general atmosphere not only in Israel and Palestine, but in neighboring countries like Syria and Lebanon. Both the Holy See and the local hierarchies work at promoting good relations, but without improvement in the general situation, their efforts are like seed cast on rocky soil. In addition, unless political leaders, in situations as different as Syria and Israel, are willing to look beyond their short-term political interests to show respect for religious minorities, Christians can expect troubled times ahead.
Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, has counseled his people that theirs is a difficult vocation that stands under the sign of the cross. His Lenten message this year recalled the advice of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “Do not rejoice in the cross in time of peace only, but hold fast to the same faith in time of persecution.” For the foreseeable future, the suffering and anxieties of Christians throughout the Middle East will be shrouded in the mystery of the cross.