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By Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo Two years ago, as Islamists were growing in strength and political influence in the wake of the “Arab Spring”, the picture was extremely bleak for Christians in the Arab world and Middle East, who were being increasingly marginalized and targeted by violent Islamic extremists. But as the fallout from that extraordinary movement continues to shake the region, a number of positive – and unexpected – developments are raising hopes of better times ahead. There have been many political twists and turns in the region since the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in early 2011. Following the toppling of dictator upon dictator, nascent democracies emerged as countries rocked by the movement staged free and fair elections. But “democracy” did not deliver electoral success for those secular and liberal voices that had hailed the revolutions. Islamist parties, which were long-established and therefore better organized, instead emerged victorious, effectively hijacking the revolutions. Until a few months ago, they seemed unstoppable, especially in Egypt. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate may have been democratic, but his rule was certainly not. Mohammed Morsi quickly set about consolidating his power base; he pushed an Islamist agenda, silencing opponents and those who held different views about society and the state. The secular or Christian voice was inaudible in his Egypt.
So it was remarkable that in June this year, the Egyptian people – Muslims and Christians together – defied the harsh new regime and took to the streets once again. Morsi’s undemocratic, dictatorial, Islamist rule had not been the goal of their uprising two-and-a-half years before, and their numbers spoke volumes: an estimated 33 million people took part in the second revolution, nearly three times as many people as had voted for Morsi. Recognizing the will of the people, the powerful Egyptian military stepped in to remove the president. An interim government is now seeing Egypt through to new elections, expected early next year. The cabinet reflects the largely liberal and secular character of the mass movement that led to Morsi’s ouster. There are three Christians and no Islamists.
The government in Tunisia, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, had seemed more stable than its Egyptian counterpart. But in another extraordinary development, it agreed to step down last month and hand over power to a caretaker, non-partisan administration ahead of new elections. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda was forced out by people power. Discontent had been brewing in Tunisia over concerns that the government was intending to impose a strict Islamist agenda on a country that has been one of the most secular in the Arab world. This exploded into mass street protests following the assassination of two secular opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi in July, and intensified following the fall of Morsi as Tunisians became more emboldened by events in Egypt. Political Islam is now in a state of disarray, as the people who initially rose up in the Arab Spring revolutions have realized that Islamist parties have betrayed the democratic ideals that inspired the movement. This is an extremely positive development for Christian minorities in those countries. Islamic regimes have given way to more secular-minded ones that are more likely to uphold the rights and freedoms of all sections of society. There have also been encouraging changes in countries not directly affected by the Arab Spring. In the Iranian presidential elections in June, the people voted for the most moderate of the six candidates, Hassan Rouhani, in a clear move away from the hard-line rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During his election campaign, Mr. Rouhani promised to free political prisoners, who reportedly number around 800, and to uphold the rights of religious minorities. He also called for more constructive relations with the international community and pledged greater transparency on the contentious nuclear issue. Mr. Rouhani has started to deliver on these promises. Last month, he freed scores of political prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, including two Christian women, and told the UN General Assembly that Tehran was prepared to engage in talks regarding the country’s nuclear program. There is a long way to go for Iran to lose its status as a pariah state, and there is much for it to do regarding its human rights record, especially the treatment of Christians and other perceived dissidents. But Mr. Rouhani has made some small steps in the right direction, and this is to be welcomed.
Muslims defending Christians
In the midst of the ongoing political tumult, Arab Christians have been suffering unprecedented violence, especially in Syria and Egypt. But this horrific violence has sparked
a debate in the region and beyond about the plight of Christian minorities. It has been extremely heartening for me to hear Muslims denouncing the violence and speaking up for the rights of Christians and others; in doing so, they are putting themselves at great personal risk of extremist violence. In Syria, Christians are being deliberately targeted by the Islamist militants within the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. They are being kidnapped and killed with extreme brutality, forced to convert to Islam, and their communities and churches are being destroyed. The Muslim Brotherhood has scapegoated the Christian community in Egypt for the fall of Morsi and has orchestrated a campaign of violence against them. Scores of churches, Christian institutions, homes and businesses have been torched and several Christians killed. Death threats issued against the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, have forced him to go into hiding. But during the worst of the anti-Christian violence in Egypt, there were a number of reports of Muslims helping to protect Christians and churches from the Brotherhood attacks. And following the worst-ever attack on Christians in Pakistan, a double suicide bombing at All Saints Church in Peshawar last month, Muslims rushed to hospitals and donated 400 pints of blood to help save the lives of wounded Christians. Many Pakistani Muslims condemned the incident, some even saying that they felt ashamed to be Muslim. And they have continued to show their solidarity by forming human chains with Christians around churches in a movement organized by Pakistan for All, a group that campaigns against attacks on minorities. As well as ordinary citizens showing their support for Christians, Arab leaders have also come to their defense. Last month, King Abdullah of Jordan convened a conference to address the marginalization and violent persecution of Christians, especially those in Syria and Egypt, since the Arab Spring. He stressed that “Arab Christians have played a key role in building Arab societies,” and that the protection of their rights was "a duty rather than a favor". There is a growing recognition of the plight of Christians in the region and a simmering movement to address the issue of the deep-rooted inequality in Arab societies. This is a debate that has rarely, if ever, been had before. In an article for Gulf News earlier this month, “With friends like these, Islam needs no enemies,” Aijaz Zaka Syed, a Muslim commentator on Middle East and South Asia affairs, referred to recent attacks by Islamic extremists on Christian and Muslims. Condemning the violence and challenging the rationale behind it, he called for a robust response from “the socalled sensible majority” of the world’s Muslims. The article is well worth reading in full, but here is an extract:
What was the crime of those innocent people quietly in communion with their God? What have Pakistan’s Christians got to do with the West’s crimes? What did the Kenyan shoppers have to do with what the West and its African allies have been doing in Somalia? What did the young Nigerian students do to deserve such brutality at the hands of Boko Haram lunatics? Or for that matter, what did so many Muslims do to be casually massacred on a daily basis, from Pakistan to Iraq, at the hands of the defenders of faith? More to the point, what message does this send out to the world? We may go on righteously protesting that this has nothing to do with faith. But like it or not, such reasoning does not cut it. The world judges us by who we are, not by what we claim to be. If we stand for peace and salvation, our lives must attest to it and our actions must show it. It is as simple as that. The only way to defeat Islamist violence is to confront the ideology that drives it, and this response must come from within the Muslim community. Thank God that this is happening, and pray that more moderates like Aijaz Zaka Syed will contend for a peaceful Islam to prevail. October 25, 2013 Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo is International Director of Barnabas Aid and Chairman of the Westminster Institute.