While Abu Dhabi’s most famous hotel put up an extravagant Christmas tree worth millions of dollars during the holiday period – demonstrating a certain degree of religious openness, many Orthodox Christians and Copts who celebrate Christmas today have braced themselves for another wave of attacks, following last week’s deadly explosion in Alexandria, Egypt, that killed 21 people during a New Year’s midnight mass.
The western media might focus on Sunni-Shi’a rivalries when it covers the Middle East but the story of Arab Christians, too often relegated to church council newsletters in the West, should not be overlooked. Egypt’s Copts, who represent between 6 and 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population suffer – aside from barbarous attacks like last week’s – frequent discrimination in their work and in the streets.
The situation is no better in Iraq. Of the 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq in 2003, only half a million remain today, due to heavy assaults on their churches (43 Catholics were killed in a church in Baghdad last October), kidnappings and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad neighbourhoods. Even in Palestine, the birthplace of Christianity, the Christian community has decreased from 20 per cent of the population at the start of the 20th century to 2 per cent today.
In Lebanon, a beacon of light for Christian minorities across the region, its Christian population is also dwindling, though no one knows by how much. The government’s power-sharing structure, built at a time when the Christians were the majority, precludes the country from holding another census for fear of upsetting the balance of power. But the changing demographic was expressed in the last few days by Labor Minister Boutros Harb’s recent draft law, which proposes to ban the sale of property between Christians and Muslims for a period of 15 years. He fears large amounts of land owned by Christians are being sold to members of Hezbollah through suspicious companies. Though his proposal has been attacked, Harb insists it would actually stop demographic segregation and ensure coexistence. He also said the draft law was echoing a concern many Christians voice privately.
The situation of Christians in the Middle East may appear dire, but the Copts’ protests this week in Cairo and Alexandria prove they are ready to fight back. Lina Tarazi, a fervent Greek Orthodox from Syria, says, “Christians in the Middle East are not in particular danger today, they have been persecuted for the past 2000 years and they have always survived.“ She is probably right, but it would be nice to see more signs of openness and tolerance, as we start off the new year.