Mideast Christians struggle to hope in Arab Spring, some see no spring at all

June 23, 2011

(A Muslim holding the Koran (top L) and a Coptic Christian holding a cross in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the period of interfaith unity on February 6, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks. Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.

Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists — a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region’s now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes — have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.

(Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib in Venice, 21 June 2011/Tom Heneghan)

“If things don’t change for the better, we’ll return to what was before, maybe even worse,” Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib said at a conference this week in Venice on the Arab Spring and Christian-Muslim relations. “But we hope that will not come about,” he told Reuters.

The Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, feared the three-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spelled a bleak future for the 850,000 Christians there. “If there is a change of regime,” he said, “it’s the end of Christianity in Syria. I saw what happened in Iraq.”

In Egypt, where the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic minorities are under heavy pressure from Salafist Muslims, methods the state used to keep Christians in line before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled haven’t changed. When there is a conflict between a Muslim and a Christian, the police still have them hold a “reconciliation session” that usually ends in the Muslim’s favour, said participiants at the conference organised by the Oasis Foundation led by Venice Cardinal Angelo Scola.

Fr. Milad Sidky Zakhary, head of the Catholic Institute of Religious Sciences in Alexandria, said that laws proclaiming legal equality for all Egyptians are not enforced. “As a Christian, I must hope. But I must recognise that there has been no real progress,” he said. Referring to one of Venice’s best-known musicians, he added: “The great Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi wrote the beautiful symphony The Four Seasons. For us Christians in Egypt, there are only three seasons. There is no spring.”

Read the full analysis here.


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