A Christian Exodus from the Arab World

Violence, terrorism and the Islamists' growing influence pose a threat to Christianity in the Middle East. In some countries, members of an unpopular Christian minority are already fighting for their survival -- or fleeing for their lives.

In New Baghdad, the driver of a minibus, a Shiite named Ali, set out at 7 a.m. on the last Sunday before Christmas. A few hours earlier he had received a call on his mobile phone with instructions to pick up five passengers for a long trip outside the city. His first passenger, he had been told, would tell him who the other passengers were and what their destination would be. He was also told not to mention a word to anyone.

The first passenger was a 24-year-old man named Raymon, who was sitting on his suitcase a few blocks away. He directed Ali through the city's dreary east side, where having a Shiite as a driver is a smart move -- first to the Karrada district, where Amir and Fariz boarded the bus, and then to Selakh, where Wassim and Qarram were waiting. By 9 a.m., Ali had picked up all of his passengers and the bus left Baghdad and began traveling to the northeast -- for the 350-kilometer (218-mile) journey to Kurdistan, the only part of Iraq that is anything close to safe.

The five young men traveling in Ali's red Kia were the last seminary students at the Chaldean Catholic Babel College to leave Baghdad. Four priests have been abducted since mid-August, and two others were murdered. Father Sami, the director of the seminary, was kidnapped in early December. The community managed to raise $75,000 to buy his freedom, but after hesitating for weeks, Emmanuel III, the Chaldean patriarch, decided to withdraw the teaching institutions of his community from Baghdad. He ordered the evacuation of the city's four Catholic churches, the Hurmis monastery and the college in the city's Dura neighborhood, but chose to remain behind in the city as the lonely shepherd of a rapidly shrinking congregation.

A history that traces back to the Ottoman Empire

Present-day Iraq was still part of the Ottoman Empire when Iraq's Catholics opened their first priest seminary. They moved it from Mosul to Baghdad 45 years ago and, in 1991, untouched by then dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, they founded the Babel College for Philosophy and Theology in Dora. It would only exist there for 15 years, a flicker in the history of the Chaldean people. "I don't know when or whether we will ever return," says Bashar Varda, the man Father Sami has entrusted with running the seminary.

Christians have lived in the Arab world for the past 2,000 years. They were there before the Muslims. Their current predicament is not the first crisis they have faced and, compared to the massacres of the past, it is certainly not the most severe in Middle Eastern Christianity. But in some countries, it could be the last one. Even the pope, in his Christmas address, mentioned the "small flock" of the faithful in the Middle East, who he said are forced to live with "little light and too much shadow," and demanded that they be given more rights.

There are no reliable figures on the size of Christian minorities in the Middle East. This is partly attributable to an absence of statistics, and partly to the politically charged nature of producing such statistics in the first place. Lebanon's last census was taken 74 years ago. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who is himself part of a minority, was fundamentally opposed to compiling denominational statistics. In Egypt the number of Christians fluctuates between five and 12 million, depending on who is counting.

Given the lack of hard numbers, demographers must rely on estimates, whereby Christians make up about 40 percent of the population in Lebanon, less than 10 percent in Egypt and Syria, two to four percent in Jordan and Iraq and less than one percent in North Africa. But the major political changes that are currently affecting the Middle East have led to shrinking Christian minorities. In East Jerusalem, where half of the population was Christian until 1948, the year of the first Arab-Israeli war, less than five percent of residents are Christian today. In neighboring Jordan, the number of Christians was reduced by half between the 1967 Six Day War and the 1990s. There were only 500,000 Christians still living in Iraq until recently, compared to 750,000 after the 1991 Gulf War. Wassim, one of the seminary students now fleeing to Kurdistan, estimates that half of those remaining Christians have emigrated since the 2003 US invasion, most of them in the last six months.

Greater affluence

Demographics have accelerated this development. Christians, often better educated and more affluent than their Muslim neighbors, have fewer children. Because the wave of emigration has been going on for decades, many Middle Eastern Christians now have relatives in Europe, North America and Australia who help them emigrate. Their high level of education increases their chances of obtaining visas. Those who leave are primarily members of the elite: doctors, lawyers and engineers.

But there are deeper-seated reasons behind the most recent exodus: the demise of secular movements and the growing influence of political Islam in the Middle East.

It was a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq, who founded the nationalist Baath movement in 1940, a career ladder for Iraqi Christians until 2003 and still a political safe haven for many Syrian Christians today. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser had no qualms about paying homage to the Virgin Mary, who supposedly appeared on a church roof in a Cairo suburb after Egypt's defeat in its 1967 war with Israel. And former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, insisted on sitting in the first row in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during the annual Christmas service.

But those days are gone. The last prominent Christians -- Chaldean Tariq Aziz, Saddam's foreign minister for many years, and Hanan Ashrawi, Arafat's education minister -- have vanished from the political stage in the Middle East. And since the election victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the bloody power struggles between Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq, the illusion that Christian politicians could still play an important role in the Arab world is gone once and for all.

Egypt's Coptic Christians, numbering at least 5 million, are by far the Middle East's largest Christian minority. The Coptic Christian Church, which dates back to St. Mark the Evangelist, begins its calendar in 284 A.D., the high point of Roman persecution of Christians. Its spiritual leader is the 83-year-old Pope Shenouda III.

Coptic activists have been complaining about discrimination at the hands of the Egyptian state for years. Yussuf Sidham, editor-in-chief of Watani, a Coptic weekly newspaper, says that unlike the 1970s, there is little open violence between Muslims and Christians today. "Instead," he continues, "we are now struggling against the sick ideas of Islamic fundamentalists. There is an ever-widening gap between liberal and fundamentalist forces."

When Egyptians elected a new parliament in 2005, the ruling National Democratic Party included only two Copts on its list of 444 candidates -- and today only one cabinet member, the finance minister, is a Coptic Christian. Sidham faults the party for promoting this way of thinking. "The party says that candidates were elected because of their religious affiliation. Copts stand less of a chance. So why put forward Copts as candidates in the first place?"

This sort of persecution is nothing new in Egypt. When Napoleon's troops advanced into the Nile delta in 1798 and occupied Egypt, they noticed strange customs. Coptic women were required to wear one blue and one red shoe. The men were permitted to ride on horseback, but only facing backwards. The French quickly realized that the Copts were subjects "de troisième classe" -- third-class citizens. Some continue to feel that way today.

When Christians apply for an identification card in Egypt, they are occasionally registered as Muslims -- without their knowledge. Once the record is official, it can take up to a dozen visits to the relevant government agency to amend the entry.

For decades, obtaining a permit to build a new church in Egypt was a true test of patience for Coptic Christians. Under an archaic Egyptian law from the Ottoman days, no less than the president's approval was required for a project as insignificant as repairing a church roof. Hosni Mubarak, the current president, only abolished the law last year.

Coptic women who work for the government and refuse to wear a headscarf are routinely harassed, as are Coptic men who find themselves working for the wrong company. A 31-year-old employee of a major American software company says that his boss faces daily harassment. His problem, says the employee, is not that he is a poor supervisor, but simply that he is a Copt.

Life is even more difficult for the estimated 100 Egyptian Muslims who convert to Christianity each year. Violence erupted in Alexandria in October 2005 after a play was performed about a Copt who regrets his conversion to Islam. A number of Muslim demonstrators were killed and a church was damaged. Abandoning one's faith is a serious crime in the eyes of most Muslims. But for Christians who want to convert to Islam, the government has even introduced a streamlined procedure. About 1,000 Copts convert to Islam each year.

Trouble for Lebanon's Maronites

When Christian missionaries were about to embark on a mission to convert the Saracens, St. Francis of Assisi told them: "The Lord says: Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. Begin neither quarrels nor disputes." Nothing could be further from the thoughts of Nasrallah Sfeir, 86, than to preach about missionary work. Sfeir, the patriarch of the Maronites, Lebanon's largest Christian community, faces an entirely different problem: His flock is abandoning him.

Sfeir shuns the bustling streets of Beirut, choosing instead to reside in a magnificent sandstone palace in the Cedar Mountains, where he lived in the summer during the war with Israel. He is still wrestling with the consequences today. Sfeir is both a religious leader and a politician. Black limousines are regularly parked in front of his estate, mainly those of wealthy Christians seeking the patriarch's religious and political advice.

His visitors enter a long hall lined on both sides with ornamental wooden benches. The Maronite patriarch sits beneath a portrait of Pope John Paul II. He looks tired, as an advisor whispers into his ear. Then the old man speaks, quietly but clearly and with sharp language. He criticizes Iran and Syria for abusing Lebanon as a proxy battlefield, and Hezbollah for having established, with Iran's help, a state within a state. These things are unacceptable, says Sfeir. "We are the smallest and weakest state in the Arab world!"

The patriarch's voice is melancholy as he discusses the consequences of political upheaval, especially the growing numbers of Christians now leaving Lebanon. According to Maronite church leaders, more than 730,000 emigrated during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, with another 100,000 abandoning the country this past summer.

According to Sfeir, other Christian denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Armenian Christian communities are also dwindling, leading to a decline in Christian political influence in Lebanon. "It is unlikely," says Sfeir, "but if Hezbollah were to assume power one day, the Christians in this country would emigrate in even greater numbers."

A delicate balance: Religious groups in Lebanon

If that happened Lebanon, traditionally a safe haven for minorities, would lose one of it oldest religious communities. In the ninth century the Maronites, whose name is derived from St. Maron, a Syrian monk, fled into the mountains of Lebanon to escape Muslim persecution, and in the 12th century they joined the Roman Catholic Church.

"We even survived the Crusades," says the patriarch. "Now the war is driving people away. They are losing hope. But we have also seen the opposite taking place. We have had Christian heads of state in Lebanon since the 1940s -- the first time this has happened in four centuries -- and our Muslim fellow citizens have had no objections."

Sfeir is referring to Lebanon's fragile proportional system of government, under which the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. But the system, put in place in 1943, has long since been rendered obsolete by demographics. Sfeir senses that the political balance of power has also changed -- and does not favor Christians.

Hope in Syria and Iraq's Turkish Autonomous Zone

Many Christians currently see a ray of hope in neighboring Syria. Since the fall of Baghdad, the regime in Damascus, isolated by the United States, has taken in many thousands of Iraqi refugees. In doing so, it has demonstrated to the West the long-forgotten merits of the Arab nationalist Baath Party's non-denominational doctrine. "Nobody here cares whether we are Sunnis, Shiites or Christians," says Farid Awwad, a souvenir vendor who fled Iraq.

Awwad's 12-year-old daughter was killed in an attack on a Chaldean church in Baghdad two years ago. "No one can take away our pain," he says. "But at least we can live here, where we are treated like brothers."

The number of Christians within the Syrian Baath Party organization is disproportionately high, although most are non-practicing. Their presence in government service, including the military and intelligence agencies, is unprecedented in the Arab world. President Bashar Assad recently opened a conference of Arab law associations under the motto: "The fatherland is for everything, but religion is a matter for God" -- words that would be alienating if not impossible in countries with a stronger Islamic influence. In Saudi Arabia, for example, which has no Christian minority of its own but employs tens of thousands of Christian guest workers from the Indian subcontinent and Africa, Christian church services are banned and punishable with severe penalties. Bibles and crucifixes are routinely confiscated. The Wahhabite religious police, the Muttawah, have even been known to raid private religious services.

Other Gulf states are more liberal, although religious freedom in the Western sense is virtually nonexistent in Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The Islamist opposition in Damascus, especially the banned Muslim Brotherhood, disparages the country's unpopular Christians as "worshippers of a godless regime."

There is only one other region of the Middle East where Christians enjoy freedoms comparable to those in Syria: the Kurdish Autonomous Zone in northern Iraq.

Several Christian parties recently introduced an unusual bill in the regional parliament in Arbil, the Kurdish capital. They proposed the establishment of a Christian autonomous zone in the eastern portion of the Iraqi province of Nineveh, the traditional homeland of Assyrian Christians and now partly controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Under the bill, the Chaldean, Syrian and Assyrian Christian minorities would be granted official status under the constitution -- first by the Kurdish regional parliament and then by the National Assembly in Baghdad.

The plan, which is everything but Christian folklore, has a good chance of succeeding. Units of the 750-member Hamdaniyah Brigade -- a Christian militia that defends its churches with the same tactics Sunni and Shiite militias use in central Iraq to defend their mosques -- are already patrolling the streets of Bartalla, a fast-growing Christian settlement 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Mosul, the violence-ridden provincial capital. Bearded men wielding Kalashnikovs stand guard at a barrier in front of the town's Syrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary. Photography is strictly forbidden.

"What else can we do?" asks Ghanem Gorges, the 43-year-old mayor of Karamlis, a Chaldean village a few kilometers south of Bartalla. Armed men, presumably mujahedeen from nearby Mosul, forced their way into the village four times this fall. Two weeks ago they kidnapped and murdered Shakib Paulus, a 25-year-old crane operator, whose body was found on the street in Arbil a few days later.

Anyone wishing to attend services at St. Peter's Cathedral in Arbil must first pass a guard carrying an automatic pistol. A huge new building, to be used as a dormitory for the Babel College students who fled Baghdad, was dedicated at Christmas on the cathedral grounds, which are surrounded by a tall fence.

At this year's Christmas service, Pastor Sisar did not deliver his sermon in Aramaic, the old church language of northern Iraq's Christians, as is customary in Arbil. This time the mass was held in Arabic, because, like the pastor, the 400 men and women attending the service are all from Baghdad.

Sisar ended his sermon with the words "Barakat Allah aleikum" -- "May the blessing of the Lord be with you."