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Middle East Christians and the Arab Awakening

by Elias D. Mallon

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The Middle East is where history is measured in millennia. But recently it has become a region where history is measured by the hour — changes are occurring there at a dizzying pace. Though the birthplace of Christianity and the center of the first Christian faith communities, the Middle East has become inhospitable to Christians — emigration has been a reality for more than a century.

From 10 to 24 October 2010, Pope Benedict XVI presided over a Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops. The assembly brought together patriarchs and priests, archbishops and religious from the Middle East and beyond to discuss the situation of Christians there.

Orthodox Christians and Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders were invited to address it as well.

The main themes of the assembly were communion among the different Catholic churches of the Middle East; relations between Catholics and Orthodox; relations among Catholics, Muslims and Jews; and the general situation of Christians in the region.

The assumption at the time of the assembly was that these topics could be dealt with in the relatively stable societies of the Middle East.

In Lebanon, Christians form a large and historically powerful community. While their influence has waned, the assembly knew that Christians continued to dominate certain sociopolitical and economic sectors.

In Egypt and Syria, Christians make up about 10 percent of each country’s population; in Egypt, that adds up to some eight million people, while in Syria Christians number some two million. In Egypt, Christians of all denominations — Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical — had for years suffered discrimination from the government despite the fact that the Egyptian Constitution guaranteed equal rights. And random acts of violence directed at Christians — especially in rural areas — were routinely ignored by the police.

Meanwhile in Syria, Christians and other minorities were protected by the Alawi-dominated regime of the al-Assad family, provided they remained politically subservient.

In Jordan, Christians formed up to 6 percent of the population and enjoyed freedom from violence and systemic discrimination.

At the time of the assembly, the situation of Christians in Iraq was already beyond critical. Once protected by the dictatorial Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein, they have become targets of terrible sectarian violence since the advent of “democracy.”

After the U.S.-led invasion and the ensuing chaos, church leaders estimated that at least half of Iraq’s Christians left the country; many had been displaced within the country as well.

Stable societies in the Middle East are increasingly rare in a region now engulfed in violence. Middle East Christians face massive challenges and problems not foreseen by anyone in October 2010.

Since the assembly, the situation of Christians — in fact for all minorities in the region — has dramatically deteriorated.

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