Obama Ignores the Fears of Middle Eastern Christians

President Obama loudly proclaims his enthusiasm for democracy in the Middle East as he did in his second inaugural address:  “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.” But those lofty words ring hollow when one surveys the plight of minority Christian communities in the Middle East, which in the aftermath of 9/11 and the “Arab Spring,” are increasingly besieged under the watchful eyes of so-called democracies.  President Obama is turning a blind-eye to the Christian plight, perhaps due to a combination of arrogance and embarrassment at how events turn out the opposite of his rhetoric.

The American enterprises to establish democracies with the use of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been blessings for Christian communities in either country.  Iraq has seen open warfare initiated against the Iraqi Christian community leading to a mass exodus of Christians from the country.  Incidents like the bloody suicide bombing in 2010 of Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, which killed 50 Christians and two priests, have terrified Iraq’s ever decreasing Christian population.  Iraqi Christians have been embattled by both Sunni extremists linked to al Qaeda as well as discriminated against by Iraq’s Shia majority, largely in control of the Iraqi government.  Iraq’s Christian population before the 2003 war was about 800,000 to 1.4 million has been reduced by the climate of fear to less than 500,000 today.

The Christian community in Afghanistan in comparison to that of Iraq is miniscule. Afghanistan’s constitution, which was adopted in 2004,  “guarantees” freedom of religion.  Alas, such is not the case.  As reported by the New York Times, Christians in Afghanistan today are compelled to worship in secret least they be accused of apostasy for converting to Christianity from Islam, a charge punishable by death. If Christians in Afghanistan suffer so while the American military is still in country, the persecution is poised to get even worse after 2014 when American soldiers are largely gone.

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The so-called Arab spring that began in 2011 has further tightened the sieges against Christians in the Middle East.  These are happening in countries like Egypt and Libya that have had revolutions and profound changes in government in the Arab spring, as well as in countries swirling with the fallout of the Arab spring but have still managed to hold on to their polities even in the face of violent domestic unrest such as in Lebanon and the Gulf states.

The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime in Cairo is less willing and able to protect Egypt’s sizable Christian Copt community than its authoritarian predecessor Hosni Mubarak.  An Egyptian Coptic church in Cairo was set ablaze by Islamists in 2011 and many Copts—an estimated ten percent of Egypt’s 85 million people—live in fear that Egypt is on the path to an Islamic regime governed by Sharia or Islamic law.

The fallout from the Arab spring is still taking shape, but prospects for increased violence against Christian communities elsewhere in the region such as in Libya, Tunisia, and Syria are growing.  Some observers judge that the uprising in Syria has become dominated by Islamists, who—should they gain power—would set out to persecute Syria’s Christian community.  About 300,000 Christian Syrians have already fled Syria and are now refugees. Meanwhile, chaos has reined in Libya since the uprising against and murder of dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  Libya’s small Christian community—primarily Copts from neighboring Egypt—was horrified by the late December 2012 bombing of a church in Misrata.  The bombing killed two Egyptian Copts and raised alarm bells that the Islamists were growing in power and influence in Libya and preparing a wider campaign against Christians.

On the sidelines of the Arab spring, Christian communities also are under siege.  Some in Lebanon’s Christian community have put expediency over religious beliefs and politically cooperate with the Shia Islamist group Hezbollah, the most disciplined and well-armed militia in the country and even more powerful than Lebanon’s national army.  While other Lebanese Christians are fleeing because they foresee the time coming when Hezbollah fully controls the government in Beirut and makes its dream of turning Lebanon into an Islamic state a reality.  Christians are now less than forty percent of Lebanon’s population and Christians fear that their declining community will encourage Muslim demands for increased political representation in Lebanon’s government.

Christian Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continue to be squeezed out of Palestinian society, economy, and land.  The Christian Palestinian community has been reduced to almost insignificance and lost in the fray between the Israelis and the secular Palestinian Authority and the Islamist Hamas Palestinians.  The Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem worries that the Holy Land is fast becoming a “spiritual Disneyland” with holy sites as theme park attractions but empty of local Christians to worship.

Over in the Gulf, Christians face a mixed bag of challenges.  Christian communities, especially among immigrate workers mostly coming from Asia, are quietly able to practice their faith in the small, rich Arab Gulf states.  Qatar, for example, has allowed the construction of a Catholic church—Our Lady of the Rosary—in the country’s capital Doha that serves the 150,000 Catholics, mainly expatriates from Asia working in Qatar.  And in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, churches are quietly seen as a way to encourage more expatriate labor to the countries.  The small Arab Gulf states, especially in Bahrain, have brutally suppressed domestic unrest sparked by the Arab spring revolts in Tunisia and Egypt for now.  But should they succumb to street protests, the successor so-called democratic regimes assuredly would not be as protective of Christian communities in their midst.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia still does not allow the construction of a church in the kingdom to support its large foreign expatriate communities.  The Saudi regime bans open worship of faiths other than Islam even though the number of Catholics in the country hoovers around 800,000 people, most immigrant workers from the likes of the Philippines and India.  Saudi talks with the Vatican for the establishment of a church are nothing more than a grand diplomatic stall dressed-up to look like serious negotiations.   The Saudi royal family is unlikely to confront the country’s Wahhabi religious establishment on which it depends for political and religious legitimacy.  The militant Wahhabis would create a political-religious firestorm should the royal family allow the construction of a church in the kingdom, which they believe would desecrate the lands that spawned Islam.

The tightening siege of Christian communities in the Arab Middle East comes on top of longstanding, and more recently intensifying, pressure against Christian communities elsewhere in the greater Middle East.  These countries include Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan.  Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution, for example, has steadily besieged its Christian community.   The Assyrian Christian population in Iran has decreased from about 100,000 in the mid-1970s to about 15,000 today.   More than 300 Christians have been arrested by Iran’s Islamic regime since mid-2010, churches operate in fear, and Christian converts face persecution.  Iran violently put down popular uprisings in the so-called “Green Revolution” in 2009, but should the movement reawaken and someday oust the Islamic republic, it remains to be seen how tolerant Iranian society would be of Christian or other minorities in the country.

Turkey, to take another example, often is hailed in the West as a democratic success story in the Muslim world, and the government in Ankara is routinely described in the western media as “moderately Islamic.”  But look more closely and one sees a steady erosion of democratic rights of free speech in Turkey as evidenced by the increasing imprisonment of journalists.  Turkey’s regime too has seen violent attacks against Christians.  A Catholic bishop was stabbed to death in southern Turkey in 2010, and several years earlier a Catholic priest was murdered in a Turkish town along the Black Sea.  Attacks like these raise concerns about the security of roughly 100,000 Christians living in a country of seventy-one million Muslim Turks.

Farther to the east in the greater Middle East, Pakistan competes neck-and-neck with Saudi Arabia as one of the least tolerant countries in the world for religious freedom.  Pakistan’s blasphemy laws increasingly are wielded more broadly and deeply against Christians.  Pakistani officials who have spoken against the imprisonment of Christians under blasphemy laws have themselves been assassinated.  Christians only make up some two percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people and that Christian minority is under growing fear of persecution and economic discrimination.

President Obama is fond of saying that Islam is a tolerant religion.  As he said in his famous Cairo speech in 2009 that “…throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.”  Obama has often repeated this assertion, and other American politicians and world leaders have followed suit and made similar claims.  The repetition and echoing of a claim, however, does not make it a fact.  As we often teach our children, listen to what people say, but even more importantly, watch what they do.  A steely-eyed look at the greater Middle East where countries have predominately Muslim populations—whether they be Sunni or Shia Islam, be in north Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, or South Asia—shows that Christian communities are under unofficial societal, if not official government, sieges.  President Obama ought to look over his teleprompter to see that the realities on the ground in the greater Middle East today bear little resemblance to the words in his well-rehearsed speeches.


  • Richard L. Russell

    Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A Catholic convert, Russell holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and specializes in foreign policy and international security. He is the author of three books: Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press); Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge); and, George F. Kennan’s Strategic Thought (Praeger). Follow him on Twitter @DrRLRussell.

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