For most American Christians, Christmas has come and gone. True, some sticklers will keep their trees up until Epiphany, but, for most of us, the routine of daily life has resumed. For most Mideast Christians, though, the holiday is just beginning. Armenian Apostolic Christians will celebrate Christmas, according to ancient custom, on January 6. In Egypt, Coptic Christians, the largest Christian communion in the Mideast, numbering perhaps 12 million, will celebrate on January 7, as will Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem itself. (Mideast Catholics celebrated on December 25, along with their Western counterparts). The traditional processions are scheduled for Manger Square.
For Christians, Christmas is a joyous time. But, for most Mideast Christians this year, the holiday is an uneasy one. Mideast Christians are undergoing one of the worst persecutions in their long history. In Egypt, Islamist violence against Copts has become routine. Just last month, terrorists bombed the Coptic cathedral compound in Cairo; 25 people, mostly women, died. A few years ago, 21 Copts died in the New Year’s Eve bombing of a church in Alexandria.
Atrocities like these are only the most visible trials. Low-level violence against Copts occurs all the time, as do incidents of non-violent, but nonetheless pernicious, discrimination by state authorities. The Hoover Institution’s Samuel Tadros explains:
Despite proclamations of equality by the state, a Copt has never been an equal Egyptian citizen in the eyes of the law. Egyptian laws are, in fact, designed to remind him of his second-class nature. For him, building a church remains a herculean task. He must follow Islamic inheritance laws, and cannot adopt children. Egypt’s blasphemy laws almost exclusively target him. Legally, he is not barred from being appointed to any position. But functionally, this is the reality. The exclusion of Copts from important government positions is pervasive: The current government has only one Coptic minister, and not a single Copt serves as a governor, university president, or university dean. An unofficial one percent quota for Copts is maintained in the military, police, judiciary, and foreign service, while no single Copt is allowed in the state security or intelligence services. Even his history is not immune to discrimination, with Coptic history and the contributions of Copts to Egypt through the centuries excluded from the country’s textbooks.
Copts placed great hopes in the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and who has gone out of his way to express public support for their community, even appearing, to enthusiastic applause, at Christmas liturgies. Yet many Copts now express disappointment in him, in the face of routine sectarian violence and the inability, or unwillingness, of the police to offer any protection. Instead of punishing the aggressors in these attacks, Tadros writes, Sisi’s government typically forces Coptic victims into “reconciliation” sessions with them–thereby emboldening others who might wish to attack the community.
In Iraq, the campaign to recapture Mosul from ISIS offers Christians some reasons for hope. A few Christians have returned to their homes; some, fighting ISIS against long odds, never left. Christian militias provide protection in Christian areas, apparently with American training and support. Some aspire to establish a Christian homeland in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain—a new, semi-autonomous province in a decentralized Iraqi state. But, after more than 10 years of war and dislocation, many Christians have left Iraq and are unwilling to return. They do not feel comfortable, they say, living alongside Sunni neighbors who refused to help when ISIS miltiants dispossessed them. And the Iraqi government, to say nothing of the Kurds, will no doubt object to an autonomous Christian region in the heart of the country.
And then there is Syria. Not long ago, Christians made up about 10% of that country’s population. Many lived in Aleppo, where there were thriving Christian communities, including the descendants of Christians who fled Turkey during the last great persecution of Christians in the region, the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Now, according to the US Government, Syria’s Christians once again face genocide, this time at the hands of ISIS.
With ISIS on the other side, most Syrian Christians have had no trouble supporting Bashar Assad, some enthusiastically, notwithstanding his own human rights violations. With the help of the Russians—Vladimir Putin is also popular among Syrian Christians, for offering protection when other foreign governments did not—the Assad regime has now reasserted control in Aleppo, and seems to have turned the tide of Syria’s civil war. But the peace Assad and the Russians have restored is the peace of the desert, and many Christians are among the millions of refugees who have left the country since the war began. It’s unlikely that most will return.
This is how things stand for Mideast Christians this Christmas. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the reasons for this most recent campaign of persecution against them. After that, I’ll discuss how America might most be able to help.