UNITED NATIONS — The winds of change continue to swirl throughout the Middle East as the region enters the third year of the socio/political phenomenon optimistically dubbed as the Arab Spring.
While political scientists debate the ebb and flow of freedoms and anarchy in the region ranging from Egypt to Libya and Syria, the ancient Christian communities which have lived in the Holy Land are buffeted by daily events and by the enduring fear of the future.
One has only to consider Egypt where a fairly large but successful Coptic Christian community coexisted reasonably well in President Hosni Mubarak’s secular Egyptian state. Mubarak the autocratic but pro-American leader was toppled only to be replaced by deeper societal division, economic decline, and discord of Mohammed Morsi’s mendacious Muslim Brotherhood regime.
The Coptic communities, up to 8 million in a land of 86 million, have come under assault as have many Muslim Egyptians who supported the 2011 revolution only to be bypassed by the radicalism of the fundamentalists who assumed control in Cairo. Many Egyptian Christians are nervous according to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, (CNEWA), “Christians are watching the new government with doubt and fear.”
Egypt’s Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac said rising social and economic troubles since the revolution are leading to the despair and emigration of the country’s Christians and Muslims alike. In remarks to Catholic News Service (CNS), the Patriarch stressed, “Our children are emigrating out of Egypt, and it is no longer emigration in search of work. It is emigration in search of security, and out of fear.”
In Syria, the Assad family dictatorship holds on in a sanguinary struggle which has taken over 70,000 lives and has churned out over two million refugees from a population of 22 million. Yet while a nebulous gaggle of Islamist, jihadi, and nationalist militias battle on the Road to Damascus, the fate of the country’s ancient Christian community of 2 million hangs in the balance. Interestingly according to British intelligence, hundreds of European Muslims, and at least 100 Brits, are fighting alongside Syrian rebels.
Syria’s civil war has reached a boiling point. The United Nations Refugee agency asserts that there are 2 million internally displaced people within Syria; a further 1.1 million have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) states that is providing food assistance from 2 million Syrians in March and the number is expected to jump to 2.5 million in April.
While humanitarian challenges confront the international donors, the UN warns that while $519 million is needed for assistance inside Syria and a further $1 billion for refugees outside the country, serious funding shortfalls are plaguing the programs which have only 20 percent of needs.
The Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, SJ stated that up to 30,000 Christians have fled the besieged Syrian city. While Bishop Audo stressed the strife is primarily a “confessional conflict” between minority Alawite Muslims and the Sunni Muslim majority, the Bishop insisted Christians have not been targeted as Christians per se, but remain at risk.
“I await a future for Syria with greater democracy and the rediscovery of the art of living together peacefully,” with other ethnic groups and religions, Bishop Audo told the Catholic News Service.
Smaller states such as Lebanon the Kingdom of Jordan face a fragile future too, as they are so close geographically to the political precipice. Lebanon once a prosperous former French colony, historically had a near 50/50 Christian/ Muslim population. But the civil war of the 1970’s and the nearly thirty-year long Syrian military occupation which only ended in 2005 saw massive disruptions.
In 1970 55 percent of the population was Christian; today it is 39 percent but still 1.6 million people of this small country.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan hosts over 270,000 Syrian refugees according to the UN High Commission of Refuges (UNHCR). Jordan’s pro-Western King Abdullah, has opened the Kingdom’s doors to refugees which have become a flood. Now Jordan, swamped with the costs of providing humanitarian assistance, needs help.
Recently when President Barack Obama made a short stopover in Amman, the Jordanian capital as part of a wider official trip to Israel, the President asked for an additional $200 million in U.S. humanitarian aid, pending Congressional approval, to assist refugees. The aid package is well warranted both on humanitarian and strategic grounds.
Jordan has historically been a close and reliable American friend in a region of widening chaos and mistrust. Jordan’s population may be nearly ten percent Christian.
Christians throughout the world have, for the most part, not actively followed the fate of their faith in the Middle East. Now early in his Pontificate, the Easter season provides Pope Francis the opportunity to make an impassioned appeal to protect Christianity, and its believers from persecution in the Holy Land.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.