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One IS member in front of an Iraqi church
Armenian church in Raqqa city in Syria after ISIS wrote its name upon its fence
Worshipers in Beirut celebrate Virgin Mary in St. George Cathedral
Saint Moussa Church in Menya following an attack from Muslim radicals
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris rings its bells for Iraqi Christian refugees
Late last week, Syrian activists announced that the Islamic State (IS) group had kidnapped dozens of Christians from a village on the outskirts of Homs. The Christians were abducted for having allegedly “cooperated” with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The missing citizens were among the few Christian families who had stayed on in the village, which had earlier been stripped of most of its Christian population. Earlier this year, IS also abducted around 250 Christian Syrians, mostly women and children, during attacks in northeast Syria.
The more recent episode brought back memories of the fall of the city of Sinjar – almost a year later – at the hands of IS, with shocking scenes of women and children being taken as slaves and men and women fleeing their homes to avoid the fate of slavery or death because they were not Muslims.
IS has also taken it upon itself to “clear” the Iraqi cities that it controls of non-Muslims. The Yazidis, a non-Muslim minority that for centuries has been living mostly in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, has been among the groups that has suffered most, along with Christians.
These episodes are perhaps the most graphic recent examples of discrimination against non-Muslims in Muslim lands, testified to by pictures showing people being blown up in churches, mothers throwing their children off cliffs to spare them from being taken by IS fighters, elderly people fleeing their villages to retain their Christian faith and women being sold as sex slaves for the self-styled fighters of Islam.
However, throughout history there have also been other shocking stories about the fate of non-Muslim minorities, first in the Islamic caliphate and then in the Muslim-majority countries themselves, with the plight of the Armenians massacred by the Ottoman Turks in the early years of the last century competing with the IS attack on non-Muslims in terms of horror.
“The plight of the Armenians under the Ottoman Turks has seen many versions. Of course, all the narratives reveal a humanitarian crisis, but they equally reveal a political story of discrimination rather than a religion-inspired story of bias,” Hesham Hellyer, a prominent researcher in the history of Islam and non-Muslim minorities, commented.
According to Hellyer, it would be “far too general” to talk about “discrimination against non-Muslims per se in the land of Islam.” Instead, he argued, “we are talking about a period of over 15 centuries, part of which was before the establishment of the nation-state and when the idea of citizenship was based on relations between groups, as was the case during the prophetic period.”
Individuals were recognised as being members of particular communities, these being based on an ethnic or religious identity. “So back then we are talking about agreements between communities that had to be respected, and consequently whatever went on was a matter of an agreed deal and not a question of Muslims exercising discrimination against non-Muslims,” he suggested.
It is in this context, Hellyer argued, that Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph after the death of the Prophet Mohamed, declined to pray in a church in Jerusalem. “He said he did not want to do something that might be imitated by other followers of his faith. It was about respecting others and setting rules for the treatment of two communities, in this case, Muslims and Christians, with each group having its own rights even if they were predictably different ones,” Hellyer said.
Throughout the history of Islam, Hellyer argued, there have been various accounts of different incidents. The case of Egypt, he added, includes examples of conflicting accounts between those who say that the early Muslims who arrived in Egypt under the leadership of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, during the caliphate of Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, forced Christians to convert to Islam, then sparing them from paying the jizziyah tax and being persecuted, and those who speak of the protection offered by the Arab Muslims to the Coptic Christians in Egypt who were being persecuted by followers of the then more powerful Byzantine Christian faith.
“This is a matter for historians to debate, but one thing that historians have already settled is that for the next 600 years after the arrival of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, Egypt remained predominantly Christian and did not immediately turn into a Muslim-majority country,” Hellyer argued.
He says that in the course of the years that followed, Christians who agreed to take part in the army to defend Egypt were immediately exempted from the jizziyah tax. This offers a sharp contrast to the Christian “re-conquest” of Al-Andalus (Spain) in the Middle Ages, when all Muslims were forced either to convert to Christianity or leave the country. “You could say this was similar to what IS is doing today,” he said.
When the Jews were forced to leave parts of Europe in the Middle Ages and later, Hellyer argued, they also knew they could go to the Muslim Arab countries where they could live prosperous lives.
Things only started to change with the establishment of the state of Israel in the late 1940s, “and here again it was an essentially political matter rather than a religious one,” he said.
POLITICAL CHOICES: The establishment of the Muslim caliphate is also told in different ways by different historians, with some suggesting that all the lands included in it were gained by the sword, and others arguing that it was a matter of political choice. Different peoples were faced with a choice between making an agreement with the Arab and Muslim leaders who had arrived in their countries or defying them.
“In each case, there is an independent story with different details, and the honest implementation of the agreement depended on whether or not there was a good wali (governor).
“A bad one would be bad for everyone, though perhaps at times particularly bad for minorities from smaller religious and ethnic groups, because they were fewer and possibly weaker. But this was a pattern of bad rule of the type that is still prevalent in our world today,” Hellyer argued.
While ruling Egypt as part of the Ottoman Empire, for example, Mohamed Ali granted minorities much greater rights than their counterparts would have had in other parts of the Empire in the 19th century.
Obviously, there are arguments to be made about the discrimination that non-Muslims suffered under the rule of Mohamed Ali and his heirs, but there was also discrimination meted out against Muslim Egyptians until the end of the rule of the Mohamed Ali family in the 1952 Revolution as well.
According to Hellyer, the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early decades of the last century created a new political scene, though “it has to be remembered that resistance against Ottoman rule in, say, the Arab countries was an act that brought together both Muslims and Christians who shared equal socio-economic and political grievances against the rule of the Ottomans and who equally perceived them as occupiers.”
After the end of the Ottoman Empire, the beginnings of the modern nation-state were seen, along with the Western colonisation of the Muslim-majority Arab countries.
“Today, we are no longer different communities. We are one community brought together within the framework of the nation-state. Our rights may continue to be different, but at least in theory they have to be equal,” Hellyer suggested.
During the colonisation of the Arab countries, he added, it would have been hard to say that the non-Muslims in these countries could be qualified as “non-Muslim communities in Muslim lands” because, while these countries remained predominantly Muslim in terms of population, they were effectively under non-Muslim rule.
Muslims and Christians also came together to free their respective states from occupation, often despite the attempts of the colonising power to secure the affiliation of non-Muslims through socio-economic privileges. “At this point we are talking about compatriots and not members of different faiths or ethnic-based communities,” Hellyer argued.
The end of the colonisation of the Arab and other Muslim-majority countries should have allowed for the establishment of modern democratic states that observed good governance, but what actually happened was not exactly that. The dreams of equal citizenship that marked the post-colonial era were not fulfilled, despite a brief moment of optimism, Hellyer said.
“At this point it has to be said that the definition of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries could mean different things,” Hellyer argued. For example, the European communities that had been established in Egypt from the 19th century were at one point privileged over the nationals of the country. They were later prompted to leave, after the liberation of Egypt and with the nationalisation policies adopted by then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
“This was also a political story,” Hellyer stated, who argues that a similar question mark needs to be put over the history of Jewish emigration from Egypt and other Arab countries in the wake of the establishment of the state of Israel. There again, he argued, this was a political story and not one of discrimination.
THE MODERN PERIOD: Meanwhile, after the early years of the post-colonial period the call for equal citizenship was undermined in practice.
“This was true for everyone who did not subscribe to the political clique in power, however. If we take the example of Iraq, we find that Muslims — both Sunni and Shia — who did not subscribe to the ruling Baath Party were subject to gross violations, and maybe more than those submitted to by Christians, from a regime that wished to make appeals to secularism, even if this was not genuine,” he argued.
The top leaders of the Baath Party in Iraq came from diverse backgrounds. Their point of strength was their affiliation to the same political group as the head of the state and the army.
“We are now talking about authoritarianism or dictatorship, and not just in Iraq but also in other countries that were Muslim-majority societies,” Hellyer said.
Authoritarian rulers in modern times, as has always been the case, exercised discrimination according to a political agenda, “and minorities, except in cases of economic strength, were often but not always the targets of authoritarian attacks.”
It is this that prompts Hellyer to question the “oversimplification and excessive use of the idea of second-class citizenship” to refer to non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. Deciding who is a second-class citizen, he argues, is not only about access to certain jobs or being allowed to build places of worship. There are also other factors relating to economic, social and political rights.
Sometimes, dictators find it beneficial to discriminate against certain minorities in order to assume a certain religious or political profile in the face of the opposition to them. The elements of this unfortunate equation could all be Muslims, as in the case where Shia leaders discriminate against Sunnis in order to avoid being seen by the opposition as ready to compromise from within the Shia camp.
At other times, a Sunni leader could force the social marginalisation of Bahais in order to avoid being criticised by the opposition. The case of the Christians of the Arab-Muslim world is particularly significant given that in a sense they are the biggest religious minority, Hellyer said.
He added, however, that there are ethnic minorities in this Arab-Muslim world who are also Muslim but who have also suffered a great deal, “like the Kurds of Iraq, for example, who have suffered much more than the Christians of Iraq ever did.”
Hellyer also says that the case of Arab minorities in Iran is no better than that of other minorities, especially the Sunnis, and it may even be worse.
Historically, and also in modern times, there have been many cross-ethnic and cross-faith alliances and affinities in the Arab world. “When the great Algerian mujjahid Abdel-Kadir Al-Jazari went to Syria in the late 19th century, he helped to rescue the Christians of Syria from the attacks of the Druze, who are ultimately considered Muslims, for example,” he said.
During the Arab Spring revolutions, Hellyer said, the issue of minorities and majorities was sidelined. “Think of the images of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and think of the early days of the Syrian Spring,” he said. However, failed hopes of democracy brought the matter back to public consciousness.
Hellyer admits that democracy in and of itself will not eliminate all the issues facing non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-majority countries. “But it could certainly set up a basis for equal citizenship,” he concluded.
‘This is where we belong’
“Where I pray is not about who I am,” says Nadia, a Coptic women in her forties. She is speaking from the comfort of the large reception area of her Zamalek apartment in Cairo, overlooking the Nile.
Nadia is happily sharing a collection of family photographs in elegant old-fashioned albums that have the initials of her grandfather engraved on them in gold letters. Many of the photographs were taken in the same room where she is seated, including the same sofa, the same piano and the same oil paintings.
“This apartment belonged to my grandparents, and then it was inherited by my mother. However, she decided she wanted to move to a house in Kattamiyah, and I moved to the apartment a couple of years ago from my other Zamalek apartment that I got married in,” Nadia explains.
“It is not just that this apartment is larger and overlooks the Nile. It is that I really wanted to keep this place, and I hope that one of my children will want to as well.”
Nadia, is an Orthodox Copt. “My father was evangelical, but when he married my mother he moved to the mainstream Church to avoid the complications of what was ultimately a mixed marriage,” she says.
However, she never thought of herself as a Copt when she was growing up. “I always thought of myself as simply a woman, and the rest was a matter of detail. Where I pray is not about who I am. Why should my going to church a few times a year make me any different from Lamia, the daughter of our neighbours?” she asks.
Nadia and Lamia have shared the best part of their lives together. They attended the same school, went to the same university — one studied business and the other studied literature — and go to the same social and sports club.
“We both got married in the mid-1980s, after our graduation, and we both had our weddings at the same hotel. I have three children, all boys, and she has two girls. I would say that this is the main difference between us,” Nadia adds with a smile.
Neither Nadia nor Lamia joined the demonstrations of the 25 January Revolution. Neither had been a great supporter of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, but they both felt that it was unwise to take a leap into the unknown.
“No, I was not thinking that if Mubarak went then the rights of the Christians would be undermined. I was not thinking of the issue of the Christians at all. I did not think that was the point. However, I later realised that some Copts feared the revolution would allow for the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they feared this would mean they would be subject to harsh discrimination, but I was not thinking of that at all,” Nadia said.
During the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi, Nadia was not worried about herself as a Copt. “I only thought of the matter when the cathedral was under attack, but I somehow knew that Egypt could not be a country where Christians could be eliminated just like that,” she says.
“We have always been here, and I believe we should not think that anything will make us go. We are Egyptians, and this is our country.”
With the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government, Nadia did not feel that the lives of Christians got better or worse. “They shouted a lot, but honestly I am not sure they could have done anything serious to harm anyone. They did not like opposition, but Mubarak did not like opposition either. We are not a very democratic country,” she argues.
For Nadia, the election of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was not about the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood or the improvement of Christian rights. “I voted for Al-Sisi because I thought he would make a good president for Egypt, in the sense that I thought he had the support of the state and could bring stability,” she says.
“His position on Christians is not something that I worry about very much, though I thought it was nice that he attended part of the Christmas Mass [earlier this year]. However, I don’t think this makes any difference to the lives of Christians in Egypt.
“I don’t think the situation or rights, or whatever you want to call it, of Christians in Egypt today is different from what it was under Mubarak, and I honestly don’t think that the problems related, for example, to the limitations on the construction of churches, or access to certain top jobs, is something that a president can change. It would need the evolution of society as a whole,” Nadia argues.
According to Nadia, the images of the killing of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) group is not something that could happen in Egypt.
“Not in a million years: we are different. I mean, we are really different. As a people we might disagree, but we are united beyond our differences,” Nadia says.
Nadia is not unaware or indifferent to what she qualifies as “certain forms of discrimination” to which Copts are “particularly subjected,” however. “But I think that the way to fix these matters is to aim for a democratic state in which all citizens would have relatively equal rights. These things are always relative because not even in the Scandinavian countries do they have full equal rights,” Nadia says.
And at the end of the day, she adds, “there are always some from within the minorities that are more privileged than some from the majority —maybe because of economic conditions and maybe because they are born into higher social strata.”
Samira, also a Coptic woman in her forties, says, “I accept being a second-class citizen. I hope it will not get any worse.”
In her small living room, annexed to two smaller bedrooms in a house of around 90 square metres in the Ain Shams district of Cairo, Samira sits on a sofa next to a wall that has a large picture of Jesus on it. She has just come back from her shift as a cleaning lady at a hospital.
“I am grateful for having a job at the hospital. I used to clean houses, but I am now in a better position. Of course, I would not have got that job had it not been for the fact that the owners of the hospital were from us [Christians]. I would not have been employed otherwise. It is not because they don’t want Copts especially, just that they prefer Muslims,” Samira says.
For Samira, it was important to get a job, even if only as a cleaning lady, at a hospital rather than in people’s houses. “The income is not much better, but it is a more prestigious situation, at least my children think so,” she says.
“They are graduating from college, both of them, and soon they will be getting jobs, and it is better for them to have their mother working at a hospital than in someone’s house.”
Samira is not willing to hide her unease at her living conditions and those of her small family, with her husband working as an office assistant at one of the factories in the new industrial zones. But the economic side of things is not the worst of Samira’s grievances. It is the fact that she is Copt that makes her feel particularly unfortunate.
Samira is a dedicated follower of the Orthodox Church, and her faith is solid. It is this faith, Samira said, that is subjecting her and her family, and for that matter “the vast majority of Christians,” to unfairness.
“We cannot get jobs easily. We cannot build churches, and we cannot be perfectly safe because we know that in the minds of some it is perfectly legitimate to attack Christians. We know that anti-Christian sentiments are much wider in scope than just among the Muslim Brotherhood,” Samira says.
Having been born and brought up in the Middle Egyptian governorate of Minya, Samira has led a segregated life in which she has not mingled with non-Christians, except at limited social events.
“It is not that we don’t like them, or that they don’t like us. It is just that we led separate lives,” Samira explains.
When she came to work in Cairo some 15 years ago, when her husband got a permanent job, Samira had hoped for a significantly better life. “I thought maybe the fact that we were Christians would not be a big issue in Cairo. But it only seemed to be the case: at the end of the day it is exactly the same.
“We are Christians, and we are expected to stay on one side and not try to step out of the frame that the majority has decided for us,” Samira says.
According to Samira, this frame is decided by the creed of the majority. “Muslims — apart from a few exceptions — think that anyone who is not a Muslim is a second-class human being. This belief is reflected in how they treat everyone,” Samira argues.
“The Copts have always been in Egypt, long before the Arabs and Muslims came. This is our country, and we know no other one. We cannot go to any other country, though I hope my sons find a way out. However, that is for them and not for us. We were born here, and we will die here, even if we know we will remain lesser human beings.”
The reason Samira thinks she is a second-class citizen is what she thinks of as economic and religious discrimination. “The officials keep on saying that they look at all Egyptians are equals, but of course we know this is not true and this is not going to be true,” Samira says.
Had this been true, her relatives in their small village near Minya would have been able to build the church they have been trying to construct for some 35 years, “since my younger sister was born.” But the request to construct the church was declined under Mubarak and under Morsi, and it has still not been passed.
“The good thing about getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood was that our position would not get any worse, which was bound to happen as they said openly they hated us. Now we are back to the way things were under Mubarak, but we are still a minority that is expected to be on one side, except of course for some rich families and businessmen who cannot be excluded because they are economically strong,” Samira says.
She added that she was very happy to see President Al-Sisi go to the cathedral for Christmas Mass. “It was a moment of joy, but to tell you the truth it made no difference. Everything is still the same, and I don’t think that even if Al-Sisi wanted to change things he would be able to because the Muslim faith is against it,” she says.
Samira’s ideas about what Islam thinks about non-Muslims is based on what she hears from Muslim clergy who appear on TV, or who speak during Friday sermons. “They keep saying that Christians are infidels and that we are going to be sent to hell,” she contends.
Samira says that this is not just the case of Christians in Egypt, since she recalls accounts of elderly Christians elsewhere being forced to leave their homes and abandon their belongings just to keep their faith.
“Luckily, we are not in as bad a position as those in Syria and Iraq, and we pray that the Islamist terror groups in Sinai will be expelled by the army so that we will not be like Syria and Iraq,” she says. “I accept being a second-class citizen, but I hope things will not get any worse.”
The fate of Middle East Christians
The dilemma of the Christians of the Middle East can only be resolved through a new political reality for the countries of the region, argues a recent book on the fate of Arab Christians.
“The Christians of the Arab world are deeply rooted in this part of the world, and they have been here for over 2,000 years. Since Islam came to the region, these Christians, throughout the years, had proven able to live with their Muslim brothers, making considerable contributions to the [collective] civilisation.” This is the main thesis of Arab Christians… Where to? by Syrian author Samir Abdou.
Issued in the early months of the Syrian call for democracy that started in March 2011, Abdou’s book examines the history of a problem that he says is slowly but surely eradicating the Christian presence in this part of the world where Jesus Christ was born.
In fewer than 200 pages, Abdou draws a full and detailed picture of the early years of the history of Christianity in the Middle East and the beginning of its early churches. He examines the diversity within Christianity prior to the first years of the Arab-Muslim conquest of the countries of the region, which remained Christian-majority countries for a few centuries after them.
Abdou dedicates the largest part of his book to examining the history of today’s dilemma, proceeding from the time when Christians, and also Jews, were in charge of the translation of books of science and philosophy from the Greek and Latin and the financial administration of the caliphs, to the time when they had a clear presence in modern states.
He finishes his account with the present-day, when many Christians have been forced to leave their homes by radical Islamist groups.
Excluding the case of Palestine, where the Israeli occupation has prompted wide and mostly forcible eviction of the population, both Christian and Muslim, Abdou’s book argues that there are three main causes for the plight of the Christians of the Middle East.
The first is that while Islam, at least according to the dominant Sunni sect with its four main schools of theology, acknowledges the right of non-Muslims who follow the Holy Books to enjoy freedom of faith and freedom of worship, considering Christians and Jews to have equal status as human beings, it does not see them as equal citizens.
The caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, known to have established the basis for contractual relations between Christians and Muslims, criticised some of his walis (governors) for taking Christians as senior aides.
The second reason, according to the book, is that in practice, and away from theories of Islamic governance, the lives of the subjects of Muslim rulers throughout history were often subject to the whims of rulers, with the worst episodes of anti-Christian discrimination occurring under eccentric Muslim caliphs in the 10th and 11th centuries.
Considerably better conditions were in place under modernising rulers like Mohamed Ali, in the case of 19th-century Egypt.
Abdou’s book argues that the third reason for the current plight of Christians in the Middle East is the rise and expansion of radical Islam, especially in the wake of the 1967 defeat, and worse still in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the willingness of authoritarian rulers to accommodate the views of the radicals.
In some cases, like that of Syria, for example, Abdou argues that the regime comes across as firmly secular but in reality this is only a superficial secularism as it is perpetually challenged by a public sentiment that for years has been sliding towards radical Islamist thinking.
Abdou argues that with the weakening of the control of authoritarian rulers in the Arab countries, the radical Islamist groups have had the perfect opportunity to bring about what could amount to one of the worst episodes of discrimination against the Christians of this region.
He warns that the period could be reminiscent of the horrors that Christians in Egypt faced under the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, or those faced by the Armenians and Assyrians of Turkey under Ottoman Sultan Abdel-Hamid II at the end of the 19th century.
The final piece of evidence that Abdou puts before his readers is the unprecedented decline in the percentage of Christians in the Middle East as a whole, with the exodus of three million Christians during the last three decades, either as a result of direct oppression or because of fears of declining political and economic conditions.
During the attacks mounted by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi Kurds in the early 1990s, Abdou says, several Christian Assyrian villages and churches were destroyed. Later, in the wake of the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, it was a still harsher time for the Christians of Iraq because of the beginning of targeted attacks against their churches and houses, he adds.
According to Abdou, things reached the point where priests began wearing nonclerical clothing to avoid being identified and attacked by militants. Written before the recent plight of the Christians of Syria, Abdou’s book notes that the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped from 1.5 million in the late 1970s to around a quarter of a million today.
The book offers more than just glimpses into the history of the social and political fortunes of the Christians of the Middle East, however. It also introduces the reader to the many Churches of the region. It is a valuable contribution to the debate about the challenges that the Christians of the Middle East face today.
And like most other academic contributions, it insists that the only way out of this dilemma is for democratic rule to provide security and equal rights to all citizens.
Samir Abdou, Arab Christians… Where to? alMaaref Forum, 2012, Damascus