The final outcome of the Arab Spring will not be known for years, perhaps decades, but in the meantime Christian communities across the Middle East continue to wither.
The latest to face a possible exodus are Syrian Christians, many of whom are on the wrong side of the deepening civil war there.
The birthplace of Christianity has held populations of denominations that predate Islam: Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean and Assyrian Christian.
But theses churches have never stopped shrinking, in early times because of conversions to Islam to escape discrimination or worse, and more recently from emigration, low birth rates compared to their Muslim neighbors and violence by extremists among them.
A century ago, Christians made up perhaps 1 in 5 of Middle East peoples. Today it’s not even 1 in 20.
Though criticized for their human-rights records, some authoritarian and secular regimes, such Syria’s Assads, ironhandedly crushed most religious strife.
But the toppling of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt exposed a tragic result: resurgent Muslim radicals making life harder on the Christians of those lands.
Iraq is the most extreme example; two-thirds of its original 1.5 million Christians have fled homes and churches since U.S. forces invaded nine years ago. In Tunisia, a mob in June beheaded a convert to Christianity. A recent news story reported: “Dozens of Gaza Christians staged a rare public protest … claiming two congregants were forcibly converted to Islam and were being held against their will.”
The Syrian Christians may regret allying with President Bashar Assad against the majority Sunni Muslims. Assad belongs to the ruling Alawite minority, a sect out of mainstream Islam seen by fundamentalist Sunnis as heretical. Alawites make up about 12 percent of the Syrian population, same as Christians.
Some Christians have refused to take sides or have already fled to Lebanon. In Wadi al-Nasara, or the Valley of the Christians, west of Homs, some are fighting beside Alawite loyalists.
“Many Christians in Syria believe that there’s no alternative to the Bashar Assad regime,” Jesuit Father Paulo Dall’Oglio told the Wall Street Journal after being expelled by the government in June. Retribution is expected from the rebel groups supported by radical Wahhabist Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
“We have been leading a life that has been the envy of many,” said Isadore Battikha, who until 2010 served as the Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Homs, Hama and Yabroud. “But today fear is a reality.”
A shift in Egypt
Cairo’s once-crowded Coptic quarter is now home to fewer than 50 of their families.
“We know many Christians have left,” said Mounir Ramsis, speaking not only about his quarter but about all of Egypt. “But we love this country and will stay until death.”
An estimated 8 million Christians live among more than 70 million Muslims, but not easily.
Under Mubarak, special presidential permission was needed for churches to be built. That kind of discrimination led Christians to demonstrate alongside Muslims.
The first free elections handed power not to moderates, however, but to Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafi candidates, who won nearly 70 percent of seats in the parliament and left near-panic in ancient Christian communities.
“If people try to rule the country with the Qur’an, with Shariah law, that means they look to us as second-class people,” said Mina Bouls, a Copt who has fled to America.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks a nation run on Qur’anic law, has said Egypt would respect the rights of religious minorities. The Salafis, Muslim fundamentalists who want a complete application of Shariah law — seen as generally denying equal rights to women and minorities, also assure Copts of their safety.
Coptic Church Bishop Pachomius criticized President Mohammed Mursi, who had pledged to include Copts but swore in a Cabinet with only one. The bishop characterized that woman’s portfolio, scientific research, as a “semi-ministry.”
“In the past, there were fewer ministries,” he said, “and there were two or three Christian ministers.”
He also accused security forces of “standing with their arms crossed” while Muslims attacked Christians outside Cairo. Last year, when Copts protested the failure to investigate the fatal New Year’s Day bombing of an Alexandria church, security forces ran down the Cairo demonstrators with military vehicles, killing 17 more, Human Rights Watch said.
About 13 million Christians account for 4 percent of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, the smallest share of its population that is Christian of any other major geographic region, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Ancient communities face extinction even in Israel, where Christians make up only 2 percent of the population. Nor can the most famous Holy Land towns escape being squeezed and drained by ongoing tension between Israelis and Palestinians. Jerusalem is now 1.5 percent churchgoers, leading some to foresee what would amount to an empty Christian theme park for Western visitors.
The birthplace of Christianity, Bethlehem, is often cited as a parable. Followers of Jesus once made up 90 percent of its people; now it’s 14 percent. The Israeli security wall and checkpoints isolate the city from Christian sites in Jerusalem, just seven miles away. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has been accused of stealing West Bank land from Christians.
Only in Lebanon, where Christians were once dominant, do they retain considerable political power. After a civil war from 1975-89 largely along religious lines, relations amid the patchwork of religious communities remain delicate. The constitution dictates that the president is always Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker Shia Muslim.
In Jordan, nine of the 110 parliamentary seats are reserved for Christians, who have slipped to just 3 percent of the population.
A hundred yards or so from taxiing airliners, Iraqi archaeologist Ali al-Fatli shows a visitor around the delicately carved remains of a Christian church that may date back 1,700 years.
The church, a monastery and other ruins emerging from the sand with the expansion of the Najaf airport has excited scholars who think it may be Hira, a legendary Arab Christian center.
“This is the oldest sign of Christianity in Iraq,” said al-Fatli, pointing to the ancient tablets with designs of grapes that litter the sand next to intricately carved monastery walls. The site’s stone crosses and larger artifacts have been moved to the National Museum in Baghdad.
Legend traces Christianity in Iraq to Thomas, one of the Twelve Apostles who fanned out to spread Christ’s word after the crucifixion.
Historians believe Hira was founded around A.D. 270. It grew into a major force in Mesopotamia centuries before the advent of Islam, and it reputedly was a cradle of Arabic script.
A professor of early Christianity at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Erica Hunter, spoke of evidence that by the early third century, the faith was well established in what is now southern Iraq by the Lakhmid dynasty, an Arab kingdom whose final ruler converted to Christianity.
For centuries Hira was an important center of the Church of the East, sometimes known as the Nestorian church, whose modern offshoot is the Assyrian Church of the East.
It’s clear that Christianity at Hira continued to thrive alongside Islam until at least the 11th century. “In fact, Muslim historians talk of 40 monasteries in the vicinity,” Hunter said.
Eventually the region’s Muslim rulers began persecuting the Christians, and Hira’s churches were abandoned.
History seems to be repeating itself. Many of the people now struggling in Iraq’s Kurdish north came in the wake of a 2010 suicide attack at Our Lady of Salvation Church. That atrocity left 50 worshipers and two priests dead and turned the church into a graveyard of scorched pews and shattered stained glass.
Christian families in Baghdad grabbed clothing, cash and a few other provisions and headed north for the Christian communities along the Nineveh plain and Kurdistan’s three provinces. They joined tens of thousands of other Christians from the capital, Mosul and other cities who traced similar arcs after earlier attacks and assassination campaigns.
“They traded everything for security,” said the Rev. Gabriel Tooma, who leads the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in the Christian town of Qosh, which took in dozens of families.
“We were in the worst of times,” says Younadam Kanna, a Christian in Iraq’s parliament. To him, the discoveries at Hira provide some hope.
“It shows we can live together in peace with Muslims — because we did for centuries before,” he says. “When Islam first came to Iraq, the Christians here welcomed them.”
This article was compiled from a Religion News Service story by Oren Dorell and Sarah Lynch of USA Today; the Wall Street Journal; the Associated Press and other news services.
A region’s 2,000 years of turmoil
Syria was an important backdrop to the development of the region’s once deep Christianity, long before Mohammed’s followers emerged from the deserts of Arabia. Some highlights and low points:
• Antioch, then considered part of Syria, was the scene of early conversions, some by Peter himself, and where the term “Christians” was first tried out.
• The vast Roman Empire was bureaucratically divided between east and west in 285, reunited by Emperor Constantine in 314, then divided again in 395 by Theodosius I. Power shifted from Rome to the wealthier, Greek-oriented Constantinople; Eastern Christians began to grow away from the Roman Church.
• The lands ruled by the Byzantines included those Jesus walked. It was Constantine who restored the name Jerusalem to the Roman town Aelia Capitolina, built atop the ruins of David’s temple. Constantine’s mother, Helena, arrived in 326 to find the “True Cross” and pull down the temples to the old pagan gods. With this kind of royal Eastern Orthodox attention, the town prospered, although not so much the generally mistreated Jews.
Egypt, where Joseph and Mary took Jesus to escape Herod, was regarded as the second Holy Land by the Byzantines. St. Anthony, believed to be the first monk, resided on the Red Sea. Other early monasteries were built where the Holy Family touched down, including St. Mary in Maadi (now a Cairo suburb), where baby Jesus boarded a boat on the Nile.
• The largest church in Lebanon is the Maronite Catholic, traced back to a fourth-century Syrian hermit monk, St. Maron. Another ascetic saint from near Aleppo, Syria, was Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pillar for 37 years.
• The fellow we know as Santa Claus, that is, fourth-century Saint Nikolaos, built his reputation by leaving gold coins in shoes in Myra (on today’s south coast of Turkey). Beloved by children, sailors and prostitutes, the bishop was credited with many miracles, including resurrecting three children who had fallen afoul of a cannibalistic butcher.
• Constantinople’s crown jewel, the Sofia Hagia cathedral, was finished by Emperor Justinian soon before Rome’s fourth sacking, by the Ostrogoths, in 546.
• By 634, things began to go sour for the Byzantines. Having won a draining war against the Persians, a weakened Emperor Heraclius lost a crucial battle to Arabs south of Damascus. Withdrawing to Antioch, he noted: “Peace be with you Syria. What a beautiful land you will be for our enemies.” It wasn’t long before Jerusalem also fell.
• A small Arab army attacked the Byzantines in Egypt, and by 641, their general reported back to Medina: “We have conquered Alexandria. In this city there are 4,000 palaces, 400 places of entertainment and untold wealth.” The Coptic Church began its long decline.
• In Damascus was a Christian basilica (recycled from a temple to Jupiter) dedicated to John the Baptist and said to still contain the saint’s head. Once Damascus became the seat of a caliphate that ruled from India to Spain, the structure was converted again, to the current Umayyad Mosque. Its tallest tower is the Minaret of Jesus, said by Muslims to be where he will descend to battle the Antichrist in the End Days.
• Although the Byzantine Empire recovered somewhat and held sway in the Balkans over the next centuries, it never retook Asia Minor from the Seljuk armies.
• In 1052 came the Great Schism of Christianity. Rome, restored as the power center of the Catholic world, tried to impose Latin rites on Greek churches in southern Italy; Latin churches in Constantinople were shuttered in retaliation; Pope Leo IX excommunicated Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, who in turn did the same to Leo.
• Christian armies, exhorted by Pope Urban II, arrived with the First Crusade and in 1098 captured Antioch. (During this siege, Crusaders discovered the sweet reeds known to Arabs as sukkar (sugar). The next year, the Europeans breached the walls of Jerusalem, herded Jews into a synagogue and set it on fire.
• By 1187, the gains of the first Crusades were largely wiped out by the great Kurdish commander Saladin, who entered Jerusalem on the anniversary of Mohammed’s ascent to heaven. Five years later, he would foil Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade to retake the Holy City. (Saladin died soon after and was buried in a Umayyad Mosque garden.)
• In 1204, the French of the Fourth Crusade, assigned to recapture Egypt, pillaged Constantinople instead, a disaster from which the city never recovered. Antioch was ruled by Christians until 1268.
• Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and Justinian’s great church, the Hagia Sophia, was converted to a mosque.
• The Ottoman Empire lasted until it chose the wrong side in WWI. While it allowed freedom of religion, Christians had second-class status. Whole communities, such as those of the Assyrian Church in southeast Turkey and Maronites in Lebanon, were subjected to massacres in the 1800s.
• During World War I, the Turks tried to exterminate Armenian Christians; one notorious death camp was at Deir el-Zour in the Syrian desert, once famous for its Christian monasteries.