Consequences of the Arab Spring

Christians Increasingly Under Pressure

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The conflict in Syria continues and in other countries that underwent regime changes, such as Egypt, the fate of Christians remains a matter of great concern.

This week two Christian archbishops, the Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, were kidnapped by what Reuters, in an April 22 report, termed “a terrorist group» in the village of Kfar Dael.

In September last year Archbishop Ibrahim told Reuters that “Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways and their relatives have paid big sums for their release.»

Initially reports came that the two archbishops had been released. Later, however, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, the Greek-Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, denied they had been released, Asia News reported April 24.

The very day of the kidnapping, April 22, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a special report titled “Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria.”

Syria has traditionally been a religiously diverse country of some 22 million people, the report observed. Sunni Muslims account for around 75% of the population, but there are substantial minorities of Alawites, Christians and Druzes.

The ongoing conflict “threatens Syria’s religious diversity, as members of the smallest minority communities are either fleeing the country or face an uncertain future in a post al-Assad Syria,” the report commented.

The commission’s report called upon both the United States and other countries to implement programs that support minority rights and religious freedom.

The U.S. agency admitted that conditions were certainly not ideal prior to the current uprising, commenting that “Syria offered a modicum of freedom of religion, including worship, particularly for Syria’s smallest religious minority communities, including Christians.”

“However, the government controlled the selection of Sunni Muslim imams and limited their religious freedoms,” the report noted.

Deepening hostility

The report also blamed the regime for a decades-long policy of repressing the Sunni majority and for deepening hostilities among the religious minorities.

At the same time religious communities that have remained neutral during the violent uprisings are being seen by opposition forces as being supportive of the government.

“As these sectarian fissures deepen, it is increasingly likely that religious communities will be targeted not for their political allegiances, but solely for their religious affiliation,” USCIRF warned.

It is clear, USCIRF’s report stated, that “that sectarianism is increasing and religiously-motivated attacks are being perpetrated by the al-Assad regime and its proxies, as well as at times by opposition forces seeking his overthrow, resulting in severe violations of religious freedom.”

“These violations also threaten Syria’s religious diversity by increasing the likelihood of religiously-motivated violence and retaliation continuing in a post-al-Assad Syria, where religious minorities will be particularly vulnerable,” it warned.

Egypt is another country where Christians are under threat. There are fears that the newly approved constitution fails to protect the rights of Christians, the BBC reported on January 3.

An Egyptian mother and her seven children were given lengthy jail sentences for illegally changing their names on official documents, the news service Russia Today reported January 16.

The family wanted to revert to their Christian names following the death of their Muslim father.

Nadia Ali Mohamed was born Christian but converted to Islam when she married her husband Mustafa Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, the report explained. When he died in 1991, she wanted to go back to being a Christian.

In 2004, after the family became Christians once more and replaced their Muslim names on their identity cards with Christian names. The family was sentenced to 15 years in prison for violating the laws regarding name changes.

Attacking buildings

Meanwhile Islamic groups continue to attack Christian buildings with little action by the police or security forces. On January 16 the Assyrian International News Agency reported that hundreds of Muslims destroyed a social services building belonging to the Coptic Church while chanting Islamic slogans. The building was located in the village of Fanous, in the Tamia district of Fayoum province, 130 KM south west of Cairo.

Earlier this month a mob attacked Cairo’s St Mark’s Coptic cathedral, throwing rocks and fire bombs, the New York Times reported on April 8.

“The police are not trying to protect us or do anything to stop the violence,” said Wael Eskandar, a Coptic Christian activist. “On the contrary, they are actively aiding the people in civilian clothes” attacking the Christians, he said according to the article in the New York Times.

The attack followed several days of conflict, which included a gunfight in which four Christians and one Muslim died.

The Coptic Pope Tawadros II accused President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of failing to protect the cathedral in what a report published April 18 in the Washington Post said was “an unprecedented direct criticism.”

Tensions continue, with the Aljazeera news agency reporting on April 22 that 10 people have now died in recent weeks during the clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt.

In many Middle Eastern countries the outlook for Christians continues to be very troubling, but neither Western governments nor international institutions seem to consider it to be worth much attention.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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