Middle East Christians remain hopeful for the future despite ISIS violence in 2016

While Christian exodus from Syria continues, one needs only to look next door to Lebanon for positive signs of Christian and Mus­lim coexistence.

Iraqi Christians pray during Christmas mass at an Orthodox church in Bashiqa, east of Mosul, Iraq, on December 25th, 2016. (Reuters)

2017/01/15 Issue: 89 Page: 22

The Arab Weekly
Amr Emam

Cairo - Christians in the Middle East appear to be cling­ing to a renewed sense of hope in the new year as the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant Islamist groups lose ground.

“Most Middle East Christians un­derwent tragic experiences in 2016 as they continued to escape, espe­cially from restive countries like Syria and Iraq, in pursuit of safety in Europe,” said Sameh Fawzi, a for­mer adviser to the Egyptian Coptic pope.

“True, there is still fear within Christian circles in the region that the same suffering will continue in the new year but there is hope as well,” he added, recalling the De­cember bombing that killed 26 peo­ple in a Coptic church in Cairo. The attack was claimed by ISIS.

Christians, the largest religious minority in Egypt, represent almost 12% of the population. Egypt’s new parliament has 36 Christian mem­bers, out of a total of 596, the larg­est Christian representation ever.

Adding to the Christians’ op­timism has been the Egyptian government’s approval of a long-awaited law to allow them to build churches. The law removes many hindrances that stymied church construction and renovation in Egypt.

“The law has had a positive effect on Christians and showed them that they live in a country that views them as equal to their Mus­lim compatriots,” said Christian re­searcher Ishaq Ibrahim. “Such laws contribute to the empowerment of this country’s Christians.”

In the occupied Palestinian ter­ritories, Muslims and Christians displayed greater unity against the Israeli occupation last year and inside Israel itself Christians and Muslim Arabs often fight the same anti-discrimination battles.

Prolific attacks against Christians in restive Arab countries gave rise to international calls for labelling atrocities committed against them as genocide. Some Christian chari­ties and Western politicians ex­pressed fear for the future presence of Christians in war-torn countries Syria and Iraq.

While the Christian exodus from Syria continues, especially in areas occupied by militant and radical groups fighting the army of Presi­dent Bashar Assad, one needs only to look next door to Lebanon for positive signs of Christian and Mus­lim co-existence.

Lebanon is the only Arab country that has a Christian president and a Christian army commander, po­sitions guaranteed under the Taif peace accord and the constitution.

“Historically, Lebanese Chris­tians have contributed to the Arab renaissance and proved that they were able to play a (positive) role in modernising this region,” said Lebanese Christian politician Fares Souaid. “They have partnered with Muslims, who share with them this common space.”

However, the challenge for re­gional governments in the new year will be to protect Christians and other religion minorities against attacks by ISIS and other radical groups, experts said. It is highly likely that ISIS will target the weak­est segments of Arab societies, namely minorities, as it suffers de­feats, experts warned.

To alleviate the potential suffer­ing of the Christians, regional gov­ernments need to initiate school curricula reform so Christians will be viewed as full-fledged citi­zens, not as religious minorities, they warned.

“This will be the real challenge for these governments in the new year and in the years to come,” said the Rev. Poules Halim, the official spokesman of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. “School curric­ula reform will greatly improve the standing of Christians in the region, even if they continue to be targeted by radical groups like ISIS.”

Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.

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