The Remnant

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.

Mark L. Movsesian

Mark L. Movsesian is Frederick A. Whitney Professor and Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University Law School.

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  1. nobody.really says

    Delighted to have Movesian as the January Guest Blogger. I had come to think of him as a resident blogger, but why be stingy with titles?

    I can’t help thinking about the plight of Mideast Christians from the perspective of Movesian’s last post here: The rise of nationalism—or, as I rephrased it, the rise of tribalism. In an era when the economy is expanding for everyone, people are more willing to venture forth from their tribe and embrace abstract principles such as equality and justice. But in an era of perceived scarcity, people circle their wagons to hoard resources for the benefit of their tribe against all others. Equality and justice for others become luxuries we can no longer afford.

    Thus, Mideast Christians—much like Jews and Kurds, historically—are now preyed upon by their more powerful/numerous neighbors. For years, elitist governments in Egypt and Turkey sought to impose a pro-Western liberal norms on their countries. But populism has arrived at last, and the governments are now responding to the popular demand to promote the interest of “ordinary folk” at the expense of all others. Politicians to seek to defend the interests of minorities are deemed elitist and disloyal.

    If we could find ways to increase the welfare for all, we might have a chance of corralling the runaway tribalism. Perhaps not coincidentally, various nations around the world are experimenting with government-provided minimum income guarantees. But I’m not aware of any Mideast government pursuing that option.

    • gabe says

      C’mon, nobody! (Must admit, however, that the esoteric part of your post is quite funny – one could even say *clever*).

      You are not seriously asserting that a “guaranteed minimu income” will erase centuries of Islamist hate / repression / annihilation of both Christians / Jews and, for that matter, Zoroastrians in the Middle East.

      While Mohamed was a brigand and certainly enjoyed his wealth and political power, there was clearly something more sinister in his *gospel* and that was enhanced by his followers.

      Also, funny isn;t it that far too many of these wretched jihadists come from middle class backgrounds. The scandinavian dole announced today of $587 / month is more than likely beneath these “freedom” fighters – Oops, I forgot, you called them “tribalists” didn’t you.
      How right you are – albeit 7th century tribalists. And what are we to expect from the 7th century?

      • nobody.really says

        1. I have insufficient basis for evaluate or explain the relative propensity of different social groups to engage in violence/terrorism. It seems to me that we can find examples of many social groups acting violently toward others.

        2. That said, gabe’s words prompt me to reconsider my suggestion that a minimum income guarantee might help alleviate people’s propensity toward violence. Yeah, it might help some–but as gabe observes, plenty of violent people seem to come from middle-class families, if not middle-class circumstances.

        Instead of talking about income, I should have talked about jobs–or, rather, about social roles. I suspect that people are less willing to engage in terrorism against a society when they perceive that they have a meaningful role in that society. Traditionally we speak of this as a job. But one reason for the high rate of out-of-wedlock births among the lower classes is that motherhood provides a social role to people who might otherwise have no role to speak of; even lower-class men adopt a more respectful posture toward a woman when she is accompanied by her children.

        On the other hand, recall the waves of terroristic attacks that washed across Northern Ireland throughout The Troubles. I suspect a major part of the dynamics that brought that conflict to an end was the growing economy (the “Celtic Tiger,” remember?) that offered young men an obvious alternative use for their time.

        Ever more people in the US are experiencing what people in the developing world have been experiencing for a long time: a feeling of underemployment, irrelevance, and disrespect from their better-employed compatriots. People in search for a meaning for their lives are the most vulnerable to the terrorist’s pitch.

        • gabe says

          Fair enough; and there is much truth in the concept of a social imprimatur for “motherhood”, etc.

          I would, however, be remiss were I to not take note of a particular *oversight* in your narrative regarding the ameliorative effects of a “social status” / job.

          could it not also be that some people, some *tribes* as you are wont to describe them, may be motivated by ideological or religious prompts? Would it be unfair to say that a tribe that professes hate for all members of another religious sect / tribe is more apt to engage in this wretched behavior?

          Let us not confuse what may be termed fertile soil for the *actual* motivating impulse. all too often we mistake economics for root cause determinants when in fact it may prove to be nothing more than a convenient point of embarkation.

          • nobody.really says

            could it not also be that some people, some *tribes* as you are wont to describe them, may be motivated by ideological or religious prompts? Would it be unfair to say that a tribe that professes hate for all members of another religious sect / tribe is more apt to engage in this wretched behavior?

            Let us not confuse what may be termed fertile soil for the *actual* motivating impulse. all too often we mistake economics for root cause determinants when in fact it may prove to be nothing more than a convenient point of embarkation.

            Gabe poses a question of causation: Should we say that ideology causes people to engage in terrorism, or economic circumstance, or something else?

            Alas, causation is a famously ill-defined concept. You could say that the Big Bang caused certain people to become terrorists; after all, in the absence of the Big Bang, the universe as we know it would not exist and thus none of the people who became terrorists would exist.

            Helpful? Probably not. So sometimes we refine our question to say that we’re looking for a proximate cause. But this term is just as ill-defined as simple causation, and it feeds our conceptual bias that says that more recent events have more explanatory force than earlier ones. Thus we praise or blame the player who made or failed to make the final “winning” score of the game—while ignoring the fact that the game’s outcome reflected the cumulative effects of all the scores made or missed by all of the players throughout the game. A basket at the buzzer and a basket at the beginning all count the same on the scoreboard.

            Bottom line: You can’t separate a question about causation from the questioner. You need to identify a hypothesis and THEN identify/collect the data relevant for testing the hypothesis.

            So how ‘bout this hypothesis: Does Islam’s ideology/religion cause adherents to become terrorists? Here we encounter two cognitive biases: Believing that people’s professed intention is a strong guide for their behavior, and believing that memorable examples are representative of groups.

            Islam is a religion practiced by 1.7 billion people that has been around for roughly 1500 years. If I were looking for a variable to explain a surge in terrorism among a few thousand people in the past decade or so, Islam would seem to be a spectacularly bad fit. If it’s an explanatory variable, it must be about the most lagging variable in history.

            If you asked me to guess whether any given Muslim at random engaged in terrorism, I’d guess no—with a high probability of accuracy. That doesn’t reflect anything about the Islamic religion; it reflects the fact that most people regardless of religion don’t engage in terrorism. Yes, some passages in the Koran exhort adherents to act violently. But far from supporting gabe’s thesis, this fact eviscerates it—because, as we all know, the vast majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims do NOT engage in violence. Plus, there are plenty of accounts demonstrating that people who join ISIS are not especially devout Muslims. Devout Muslims tend to have tight social networks. In contrast, ISIS recruits are often people who drink, smoke, have extramarital sex, have adopted Western styles of dress and speech, and gain most of their knowledge of Islam on the web.

            In short, professed ideology is a TERRIBLE predictor of behavior. (If you need additional proof, go visit a Weight Watchers meeting.)

            Now, this doesn’t mean that ideology has NO bearing on this issue. Perhaps evidence would show that 0.000008% of people engage in terrorism, but 0.000009% of Muslims do. So even if the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, it might be true that a disproportionate share of terrorists might be Muslims. In a regression analysis, it could be the case that being a Muslim correlates positively with being a terrorist—but weakly.

            So if we were trying to predict who would become a terrorist, we would quickly conclude that the variable Muslim, like the variable human, would correlate positively, but so weakly as to be almost useless. Now, what if you had a variable such as unemployed? Socially disconnected? Lacking career trajectory? Failing to achieve expectations/failing to reach living standards of his upbringing? I suspect those variables would correlate more strongly.

            Of course, anyone who becomes an Islamic terrorist will then claim to have been motivated by ideology. Similarly, anyone who becomes a professional athlete will say that he couldn’t have succeeded if he didn’t believe in himself. But once you observe the vast percentage of amateur athletes who profess to believe in themselves and yet never become professionals, you’ll recognize that such protestations of belief have almost no predictive value.

          • gabe says

            Yet nobody would have us believe, using his figures that there is nothing more than an insignificant correlation between Islam and terrorism.

            Perhaps, one should also ask, as has world renowned polling operations, “How many Muslims support terrorism – Answer: above 35%; How many support imposition of Sharia Law, even in the face of local opposition: Answer (in the UK recently) upwards of 75%.

            All depends on what one seeks to ask. so perhaps one cannot separate a polling result from the questioner.

            Oh, and as for obtaining MY information about Islam from the web, I assure you that is not the case. If you would like I can refer you to numerous scholarly studies on the long and sullied history of Islamic oppression, brutality and its inherent urge (demand?) to dominate. Does not the very word itself provide a clue – it is submission!

            BTW: Does the web still proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace? I’d like to know as I ain’t very “webby.”

  2. nobody.really says

    This is the second time in a row that I’ve responded to one of Movsesian’s posts by misspelling his name. My sincerest apologies!

  3. gabe says

    Update on the percentages cited by nobody:

    From Gatestone:

    “More than 100,000 British Muslims sympathize with suicide bombers and people who commit other terrorist acts, according to a 615-page survey. Only one in three British Muslims (34%) would contact the police if they believed that somebody close to them had become involved with radical Islam. In addition, 23% of British Muslims said Islamic Sharia law should replace British law in areas with large Muslim populations.”

    Perhaps, nobody really knows where the decimal point should be in the above citations.

    • nobody.really says

      “More than 100,000 British Muslims sympathize with suicide bombers and people who commit other terrorist acts, according to a 615-page survey.,,,,

      Perhaps, nobody really knows where the decimal point should be in the above citations.

      You haven’t provided enough information–but I hope you do. So, let’s say 100,000 British Muslims answer a questionnaire saying that they feel certain sympathies. Now, what percentage of these people then go on to become terrorists? I look forward to seeing the relevant data–then we can perform the calculation. I have a strong suspicion what we’re going to discover, but I’m happy to await your evidence.

      • gabe says

        Hey, brudda!

        It all depends upon how one chooses to define terrorist doesn’t it. If one simply limits the term to those who commit some spectacular outrage, i.e., such as what we have witnesses both here and in the EU / Israel, then your numbers may suffice, although they are still low.
        However, if you include in that the numbers of *average* Muslims who participate in the daily persecution of Christians and Jews in Muslim countires, treatment which includes beatings, killings, etc, then the number must be substantially higher.

        However, anyone who has served in the Armed Forces knows the following:

        It takes (or did in my day) 7 support personnel to support one individual Infantryman. Doubtless, with current technological requirements, it may indeed require more than the 7 who had my back by providing food, ammunition, transport, aid and intelligence

        Were these 7 not soldiers? did they not fully participate in the endeavor? could that *grunt* have survived without their support?

        What if anything is the difference between Army logistics personnel and the logistics support provided by terror networks and their hangers-on?

        BTW: That same survey I cited was also conducted on a worldwide basis and the 35% number held true.
        Yes, some will only look on and CHEER but as I suspect a rather large number of them will also provide both active and passive assistance to these wretched 7th century tribesmen.

        BTW2: One can reasonably suggest that with the type of *education* being provided by Islamists to their youth, such as depicted in that video, and in countless classrooms in Palestine, that the number of *actives* is destined to rise.

        Then again, how many people in Nazi Germany were actually members of the SS? Still we ended up with a rather scary situation didn’t we. But let’s not call them Nazis – that would be to paint with a broad brush and we do not want to offend, now do we?

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