Middle East: An Arab Spring and Christian Autumn

Religious wars in Egypt

The sectarian clashes on October 9 that killed dozens of people in the heart of Cairo were the bloodiest since the popular uprising in January and February.

The conflict was caused by a Coptic Christian demonstration over construction of a church in the village of El-Marinab near the city of Aswan.

Reports say Muslim radicals protesting construction of the church stole sacred objects from the church and then set fire to it. The police arrested 13 people in the attack on the church, but the governor of Aswan Province told the village’s enraged Coptic Christians that the church had been built without a permit and will not be restored.

In response to this incident, Christians demanding protection for the rights of Christian Copts demonstrated in all of southern Egypt’s major cities. Protests were also held in the country’s capital, where about 10,000 Christian Copts led by a youth group called the Maspero Youth Union staged protests and chanted slogans like “Raise your head high, you are a Copt” and “Down with Tantawi.”

I have written about the difficult interfaith environment in Egypt for New Eastern Outlook in the past.

Although the official Egyptian media has constantly stressed that the country’s Christian population enjoys the same rights as the Muslim majority, anyone who follows social and political life in the land of pyramids knows very well that both the previous government and the current military government strongly idealize the interfaith environment in Egypt.

Religious clashes have occurred regularly in Egypt in recent years.

It is noteworthy that immediately after the unsuccessful previous color revolution during the 2005 presidential elections radical Islamists grew significantly stronger in Egypt, as did anti-Western and, consequently, anti-Christian sentiments. And they reached the boiling point after the uprising this past January and February, as is apparent from what happened on October 9.

However, it has happened not just in Egypt, but throughout the region, including even in such an interfaith “oasis” as Syria.

The Syrian cross

Syria appeared to be an island of stability in the sea of dechristianization that has swept across the Middle East in recent years.

Syria’s regime belongs to the Alawite faith—a religious movement that combines elements of Shi’ism, Christianity and pre-Islamic astral cults. Incidentally, orthodox Sunni Muslims contemptuously refer to the Alawites as “Nusairis”, or “little Christians” (the origin of the faith can truly be said to be Christian to some extent, but that is a separate issue).

Until recently, the Assad clan remained in power by forming a coalition of religious minorities through which they created a counterweight to the country’s Sunni majority.

The Syrian government gives its citizens extensive cultural and religious freedom. For one thing, major Christian festivals are national holidays, and Christians are not required to work on Sundays. Also, electricity is provided free of charge to Christian churches and monasteries, as it is to mosques.

However, the invasion of Iraq by the Americans and their allies caused problems for Christians in the country. In 2004, two Christians were killed by Muslims who called them Bush supporters.

Attacks on Christians have become more frequent since the current instability began in Syria. In April, for example, a group of armed men fired on worshipers in the Church of the Holy Cross in the disgraced city of Homs. A similar incident occurred that same month in Damascus’s Christian district — Bab Touma.

The current mass protests in the country frequently take place under evocative slogans—” Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut!”

There is no sign so far that the rocky sectarian situation in Syria is improving. That will be especially true if the Anglo-Saxons and their European allies put the squeeze on Russia and China and overthrow the Alawite regime in accordance with a well-developed script.

Therefore, we can understand Archbishop Cyril Afrem Karim, head of the American branch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who despairingly said history shows that Christians have always had more secure lives and better treatment by so-called “dictatorships.” He said, “Our feeling is, if the regime falls, the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood will seize power and that is bad news for us.”

Judging by how radicalized “post-revolutionary” Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have become, the same Islamist fate awaits Syria if the Assad regime falls.

From a Christian Autumn to Islamist Winter

It seems that the initial rapture over the so-called “Arab Spring” is gradually waning. It is becoming obvious that while members of the secular opposition are, as usual, vying for the title of the most important democrats in their own countries, Islamist organizations are increasingly gaining ascendancy in Middle Eastern politics.

In Egypt, Islamist slogans are growing louder and gaining popular support in the run-up to the November-December election campaign, and society itself is becoming increasingly Islamist.

Moreover, the Egyptian army recently has been undergoing creeping Islamization, as manifested by the growing influence of the Wahhabis and Salafis, who practice a strict form of Islam modeled after Saudi Arabia.

Many people believe the intensifying attacks on Christian churches in Egypt, Libya and Syria are an important component of the regional strategy pursued by Saudi Arabia, which uses its petrodollars to put Islamic radicals in power throughout the region, followed by the large-scale expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.

Everything is going as planned for the radicals, judging by the fact that about 100,000 Christian Copts have already left Egypt since the government was overthrown in February, according to some reports.

Moreover, influential radical religious leaders have returned to Egypt and Tunisia, and hundreds of prison inmates convicted of involvement in Islamist organizations have been released from prison—even members of organizations like Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, whose members were implicated in assassinating Anwar Sadat in 1981, organizing a series of terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s (the largest being the November 1997 attack in Luxor that killed 58 foreign tourists) and collaborating with Al-Qaeda.

Add to that the proclamation of an Islamic Emirate led by former Guantanamo detainee Abdulkarim al-Hasadi in the Libyan city of Derna, as well as the abrupt rise of Islamists in the Libyan rebel forces, which allowed Abdul Hakim Belhadj, leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, to demand that at least half the positions in the country’s future government go to Islamists.

Another big question is whether the Greater Middle East can be “democratized” as a result of the “revolutions” that were fueled by the West and some Persian Gulf countries.” There is, however, every likelihood that “the cradle of Christianity” will be dechristianized.

Apparently, the lessons of the detestable Iraq campaign taught the post-Christian civilization nothing.

But could it all have been intentional?

Source: New Eastern Outlook

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