Christine M. Flowers: The very real persecution of Christians in the Arab world

IF THE "Arab Spring" bathed the Middle East in some much-needed sunlight, there's at least one group that sees ominous clouds on the not-so-distant horizon. That would be the region's embattled and apprehensive Christians, who've lived a kind of double life for many decades.

While nominally citizens of the countries they inhabit, most non-Muslims, the majority of whom are Christian, are treated as second-class members of society because so many governments in that part of the world adhere to sharia, and anyone familiar with the Islamic legal system knows that it codifies discrimination.

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Naderkhani

For example, while Christians are free (and in some cases pressured) to convert to Islam, Muslims are barred from converting to Christianity. In a notorious case now in the headlines, Yusuf Naderkhani, a Christian pastor, has been sentenced to death in Iran for refusing to renounce his faith, to which he'd converted as a teen.

And Gabriel Said Reynolds recently wrote in Commonweal that an Egyptian Christian who petitioned the government to allow his daughters to receive a Christian education was forced into hiding after receiving death threats when his request was made public.

So Christians in the Middle East can be forgiven if they don't embrace the Arab Spring with as much fervor as their Muslim brothers and sisters because - to put it bluntly - the devil they know is at least more predictable than the devil they don't - which is, without a doubt, Islamic fundamentalism.

And in many parts of the Middle East, that's the only form of Islam there is, despite what you hear from organizations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations.

While Christians were as oppressed as the next citizen in countries when secular tyrants like Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein ruled the roost, at least they weren't prey to the sectarian hostility rampant in other places such as Iran and Afghanistan, hotbeds of jihadism.

It's true that Egyptian Christians were always treated poorly by the government, but so was the Islamic Brotherhood, which was crushed into submission by the iron will of Mubarak and his military junta. Christians were merely as persecuted - or as tolerated - as any other group that the government didn't like.

But now, as the tyrants topple like dominoes, Christians have good reason to worry that they will be unique and tragic victims of this Arab awakening.

To its great and unexpected credit, the New York Times actually publicized that fear this week in a front-page, above-the-fold article about Syrian Christians who are ambivalent about the campaign to overthrow Hafez al-Assad.

The reason for this ambivalence is simple: Like Mubarak and Hussein, Assad continues the proud tradition of secular despotism, persecuting those who wear the cross, the hijab and the kippah with equal fervor. Those who say religion is the root of all evil in an attempt to maintain the devout wall between church and state conveniently overlook secular societies such as Syria and Baathist Iraq that terrorized their citizens in a religious vacuum.

However, they would be right about one thing: Godless regimes generally treat all victims equally, whereas those founded on a specific creed play favorites. And while it's hard to find very many nations where Christianity is the official state religion, and fewer still where they persecute nonbelievers, there's really only one country in the Middle East that provides equal rights to all its citizens, of whatever creed: Israel.

In fact, if you speak to Israeli Arabs, they will tell you that, while they may disagree with government policy in Palestine, they're not afraid to bow toward Mecca in the streets of Jerusalem, or attend Christian services in Bethlehem. In short, they're not forced to live their faith in the shadows.

That's clearly not the case in much of the Arab world, and Syrian Christians know it. So do their Lebanese Maronite friends, who've spent the last decade watching with increasing anxiety as Hezbollah and its Islamist members have infiltrated Beirut, making it difficult even to wear a cross or be seen going into a Catholic church.

To Americans, this might all seem exaggerated. We who preach diversity and make sure our Muslim brothers and sisters feel safe can miss this real persecution because we've spent so much of our lives focusing on civil - as opposed to religious - rights. And so we really don't pay much attention to the cries of Christians in the Middle East.

But we'd better start listening before it's too late.


Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.

Email cflowers1961@yahoo.com.