The global media circus has moved on from Cairo, Alexandria and the Egyptian seaboard. Soon the current rapt attention to the terrible bloodshed in Damascus, Houla, Aleppo and Homs will similarly pass.
Yet for the nine million Egyptian Coptic Christians and the two million Syrian followers of Christ, whose lineage goes back to St Paul’s proselytising in the first century AD, these are desperate times. Religious minorities often find their most assured protection under dictatorships. Forget all the talk about liberators fighting against the existing regime in Syria, or of democrats and progressives triumphantly taking the reins in Egypt. The unspeakable truth is that the sizeable Christian communities in these trouble-torn states are at greater threat of ethnic cleansing from their ancestral homes than has been the case for generations – often at the hands of the self-styled freedom fighters so feted by the Western press.
Events in Iraq provide us with a timely example. During this year’s Easter celebrations, St Joseph’s Chaldean Church in central Baghdad was surrounded by concrete barriers and army checkpoints. Amidst savage bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the story of Iraq’s Christian population is one that is rarely told. But since the invasion it is estimated that half their number has desperately been driven to exile outside the country. Some 330,000 Iraqi Christians have fled in the past decade to Syria alone (where Christians have been largely protected by the Assad regime). Others have found safe haven in Jordan and naturally some have come to these shores. Under Saddam Hussein, some Christians had risen to the top of politics, most notably Tariq Aziz, Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister. Yet since the dictator’s fall, violence against the Christian minority, who were often associated with the ‘crusading invaders’, has included kidnappings, the beheading of a priest, the bombing of ancient churches and forced conversion to Islam.
Similarly, I am now regularly contacted by constituents dismayed by the upsurge in violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Attacks against this minority – who account for over ten per cent of Egypt’s 82 million population – are not a new phenomenon. Copts have long complained about alleged state discrimination in holding top posts as well as attacks from the Muslim majority. Yet the erstwhile President Mubarak was broadly sympathetic to the Coptic community, freeing up rules on new church building and sending some important signals of tolerance, such as making Christmas a national holiday. Indeed the Copts’ spiritual leader, the recently deceased Pope Shenoudah, resolutely supported the President until his fall. Since his death, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are now more fearful than ever since they lack a leader to guide and represent them as their nation comes to a new constitutional settlement.
Governments in the West have given the impression of naivety in heralding at face value the chain of events that commenced some eighteen months ago in Tunisia. Indeed where we (rightly in my view) intervened militarily – in Libya – we have also added to a legacy of distrust and cynicism that will be difficult to overcome. In the minds of many in the Middle East the lesson of Colonel Gadaffi’s demise is that in future Arab leaders should never trust Western leaders. Their reading of this episode is chilling. Having given up his stocks of weapons of mass destruction at the end of 2003, the former Libyan leader was initially embraced by Western leaders who, within nine years, had ousted, hunted down and executed their new ally. It will not prove easy in future to negotiate with leaders in this region and we should not be surprised that many will see the speedy acquisition of nuclear capability as an essential insurance policy against Western interference in their internal affairs.
The West’s failure (and its complicity) over recent decades to encourage even rudimentary democratic institutions to take hold in much of this region may be something we assuredly will regret in the years ahead. History teaches us that democratic freedoms need to be developed carefully and tend to flower only over a prolonged period. To the political class in these countries democracy still means no more than the holding of elections – and thereafter reaping the benefits of exercising power and patronage. Yet elections can only ever be a starting point. To the general population in this region democracy needs to be underpinned by the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press and a political culture that enables the individual to hold government and state institutions to account once the voting is over.
Modern democracy also means enshrining citizens’ right to religious freedom – never more important than in a region torn for millennia by religious tension. In Tunisia’s Ennahda and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, we now have political parties holding power which define themselves primarily in narrow ethno-religious terms and base their policies around the tenets of sharia law. Indeed Tunisia’s constitution now explicitly prevents Christian candidates from standing as president.
This is the backdrop to the fate that I fear will within a decade or so befall the long established Christian population in this region. My own mother as a pre-school age young girl, in common with millions of other ethnic Germans, was forced to flee westwards from Breslau in January 1945 as the Red Army advanced. My own forefathers had lived in this region of Silesia (German since 1242) for at least nine generations that I know of. The forced repatriation (in a process that might now be called ethnic cleansing) of my mother’s family and millions of other civilians from groups whose nationality would in future be inextricably linked to their ethnicity, was largely overlooked in the euphoria that swept the world as formal hostilities ceased at the end of World War II.
If we wish to avoid a similar scale of civilian displacement, we must ensure that the banishment from their homelands of Middle Eastern Christians over the years ahead is not a dark derivative of this surge in Arabian people power.