Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Mosul may mark a critical moment in the region’s history

The exodus of Christians from Mosul in recent days has provoked greater awareness of their plight in a rapidly changing Middle East. Yet, while the event was in itself deplorable, the decline of Christianity in Iraq and the region has been a reality for some time, with no signs that the trend will be reversed.

The Christians of Mosul left the city in response to a deadline set by the Islamic State group, giving them one of three choices: to pay a tax (or jizya), to convert to Islam or to be killed. The jizya was paid by religious minorities under Muslim rule until the 19th century in return for exemption from military service. It contradicts the notion of equal citizenship under the law in a modern state.

Long before Mosul, however, the Christian presence in Iraq was affected by the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003. Whether because they were caught up in sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, or because they were targeted by extremist groups, several hundred thousand Christians left Iraq. Estimates are that between 200,000 and 400,000 remain in the country, from a population of 1.5 million before the invasion.

At the best of times Christians throughout the Arab world, in Iraq, Syria and Egypt above all, have been tolerated minorities. In Syria and Iraq, Christians tended to back supposedly secular Baathist leaders, because these were seen as keeping the Islamists at bay. But there was little more: under both dictatorships, everyone faced equal oppression.

Today, with the conflicts in Iraq and Syria descending into violence and sectarian animosity, the long-term presence of Christians is seriously threatened. While Christian suffering is no less acceptable than that of non-Christians, we could be at a critical stage in the region, where effectively the centuries-old Christian presence will soon be no more.

In Syria, numerous Christian communities exist, but the continuing conflict has already forced many to flee the country. Aleppo, the city with the largest concentration of Christians, has been extensively destroyed, making their return highly unlikely in the near future. As the war continues, the possibility of recreating a Christian presence will diminish as Christians settle permanently elsewhere, especially in the West.

Underlying Arab Christian attitudes is a perpetual sense of doom, a feeling that events will be defined almost entirely by the Muslim majority. This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that there is no future for Christians in the region. Such an attitude has pushed Christians in many countries to emigrate (if they are lucky) or to flee their country (if they are not), accelerating the process of regression.

Standing out as an exception, albeit an increasingly questionable one, is the destiny of Christians in Lebanon. These Christians, especially their largest community, the Maronites, have held genuine political power as a bloc, unlike Christians in other Arab countries. According to an unwritten agreement between the Lebanese communities, major posts in the state are divided along sectarian lines, with the presidency reserved for a Maronite and half of the seats in parliament set aside for Christians.

But even Lebanon’s Christians find themselves in a dire situation as demographics kick in. The higher birth-rate among Sunnis and Shia, coupled with Christian emigration during the civil war years, has reduced Christian numbers. Today, while there are no official population estimates, Christians are believed to make up around a third of the Lebanese population.

In parallel to this, Christian political power has eroded. The powers of the presidency, once paramount, were substantially curtailed in the last major constitutional rewriting in 1989. Politics have been increasingly driven by Sunni-Shia dynamics. While Christians still play an important role, their ability to set the national agenda continues to shrink.

In several Muslim-majority districts where Christians once had an active presence, their numbers have gone down. Making matters worse, Lebanon’s Christian – particularly Maronite – political forces remain perpetually divided, making it easier for the major Muslim parties to exploit their internecine rivalries.

And yet it is improbable that Muslims in Lebanon would welcome the disappearance of the Christians. Given relations between the Sunnis and Shia, Christians often play an essential balancing role between the two major Muslim sects. And many Muslims regard the more westernised Christian lifestyle as a key aspect of Lebanon’s culture, allowing them to pursue such a lifestyle themselves against their own radicals’ preferences.

There was a heartening reaction in Iraq to the fate of Mosul’s Christians. Condemnation of the Islamic State’s actions has been widespread – actions all the more embarrassing for being justified by a warped interpretation of Islam.

And yet mere words will not be enough to alter Christian behaviour. The only way Christians will remain in their countries is if pluralistic, democratic systems are introduced that allow minorities to feel secure, thrive economically, and enjoy an adequate level of political representation. Yet in most Arab states even Muslims have trouble achieving this.

That is why the problem of Christians in the Middle East has much more to do with the dismal reality of Arab societies than any specific sectarian challenges. Religious prejudice is on the rise, many Arab states are fragmenting, and all Arabs are paying a price. For Christians, however, this has taken on an existential quality, because once they depart, it is rare for them to return.

State fragmentation shows something else. Most Arab countries seem unable to establish social contracts that ensure communal coexistence.

The consequence is that states are breaking up into more cohesive sectarian entities, where minorities, particularly Christian minorities, are left by the wayside. Mosul was awful, but it may well be left by the wayside in the new Middle East.

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