Rights and Revolutions

Religious Freedom Sidelined by Arab Spring

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Recent events have amply confirmed worries about the threat to Christians in North Africa and the Middle East following the regime changes in recent times. 

«Who will save my beloved Syria?» This was the impassioned plea by the Jesuit Bishop Antoine Audo, president of Caritas Syria, published in the Caritas blog on June 21. He lamented the situation of ongoing violence, economic crisis and instability.

A short time later came news of the killing of Father Franҫois Mourad, a Syrian hermit, who was a guest at the Franciscan monastery of St Anthony of Padua in Al-Ghassaniyah, Syria. According to a June 24 report by Asia News it is uncertain whether he was killed by a stray bullet or if it was a deliberate killing by Islamic fighters who had attacked the monastery.

His death followed a vigil held last Saturday for the two archbishops kidnapped in Syria in April, whose fate is still unknown. The Patriarch of Antioch, John Yazigi, led around 300 people in the vigil near the Lebanese city of Tripoli to call for the release of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, according to a report by Reuters on June 22.

This is taking place while NATO countries are moving to supplying the insurgent forces in Syria with arms. At the same time, according to a June 22 A1 report by the New York Times, there is strong evidence that arms from Libya are being sent to rebels in Syria.

«The flow is an important source of weapons for the uprising and a case of bloody turnabout, as the inheritors of one strongman’s arsenal use them in the fight against another,» the article noted.

Meanwhile, Christians are caught in the midst of this conflict and their fate does not seem to be of concern to those who are supplying arms.

Coptic Christians

The situation in Egypt is also proving difficult for Christians. In recent months the New York Times has published several articles referring to attacks on Christians. 

«The leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church accused President Mohamed Morsi’s government on Tuesday of ‘delinquency’ and ‘misjudgments’ for failing to prevent sectarian street-fighting that escalated into an attack on the church’s main cathedral after a funeral mass over the weekend, leaving at least six Christians dead,» was the opening paragraph of an April 9 report by the New York Times.

Amnesty International has also entered the debate, with a June 11 statement criticizing the increase in blasphemy cases. 

The press release referred to a couple of recent court decisions, where Coptic Christians were convicted of blasphemy. It also said that there have been «numerous recent reports of others accused and convicted of blasphemy in Egypt.»

«Bloggers and media professionals whose ideas are ‘deemed offensive’ as well as Coptic Christians – particularly in Upper Egypt – make up the majority of those targeted,» according to Amnesty International.

Human Rights Watch, another prominent rights organization, had previously expressed concern over the Arab Spring in its World Report 2013, published in February.

In his introduction to the report Kenneth Roth, the organization’s executive director, commented: «Two years into the Arab Spring, euphoria seems a thing of the past.»

There are fears that the biggest winners of the uprising, the Islamists, will limit human rights, he added.

He also said there are doubts about the role of Sharia law in Egypt and what this will mean for human rights, including religious freedom.

NATO powers faulted

Regarding Libya, Roth observed that there is a weak government, incapable of ensuring that human rights are respected. In part this is due to local factors but he also blamed the NATO powers for having simply declared victory and then left, instead of helping to build institutions after the overthrow of Gaddafi.

Another report, this one by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has concluded that restrictions on religion have continued to increase. The June 20 report «Arab Spring Adds to Global Restrictions on Religion» noted that the already high levels of control regarding religious freedom have augmented.

As well as restrictions imposed by governments the level of social hostility has increased, the Pew Forum commented. 

The Middle East is certainly not the only region where religious liberty is under threat, the report noted. In fact, in the period 2007-2011 the number of countries with high levels of restrictions rose from 10 to 20.

Christians continued to be the group with the highest number of reports of harassment or intimidation, in 105 countries. Nevertheless, North Africa and the Middle East stood out as the area with the highest levels of both government restrictions and social hostility.

Overthrowing nasty dictators and authoritarian regimes seems an attractive path to take and is also popular with public opinion. The consequences of such actions are, as we are seeing now, not always so attractive.

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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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