He goes on to discuss what outsiders might do to help. The experience of Christians in Iraq is hardly encouraging, either. The kidnapping and murder of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho by Muslim militants in early 2008 is emblematic of what Iraq’s Christian community has suffered since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The population of Iraqi Christians has declined from around two million to around 400,000 since the Gulf War of 1991, which weakened Hussein’s rule. Under the dictatorships of Mubarak, Assad, and even Hussein and Qaddafi, all of them unsavory to be sure, Christians enjoyed relative security, though it was sometimes bloodily interrupted and usually attended by pervasive social discrimination. Arab authoritarianism was a leaky shelter but it was nevertheless a roof over their heads.
But however dangerous Arab Christians’ fate now may be, going back to the good old days of dictatorships is not an option. The surge of democracy-demanding youth, popular impatience with corruption and economic stagnation, and a religious reawakening over the past generation all serve to block such a backslide. Of course, for other minorities and for Muslims at odds with their regimes, the good old days were not good at all. They were not good for the residents of Hama, Syria, 10,000 of whose inhabitants were murdered by the current president’s father, Hafez al-Assad; and they are not good for protesters of the son’s dictatorship, over 2900 of whom the regime has killed by now. They were not good for democracy activists or traditional Muslims in Egypt, over 20,000 of whom Mubarak held in his jails. Arab authoritarianism was a model that could not last. Apart from suppressing the dynamism of democracy and the free market, such regimes were repressively secular, creating legions of religious discontents and radicalizing traditional Muslims, often in the direction of violence. Ultimately this shelter for Christians proved to be not only leaky but rotten at its foundations.
The position of today’s Arab Christians is indeed precarious. Among the possible outcomes, Islamist regimes that afford Christians little freedom to practice their faith or participate in politics are entirely plausible. But this outcome is far from inevitable, no more inevitable than was the persistence of dictatorship. Only this past week, elections in Tunisia, the country that ignited the Arab Spring, gave a plurality of votes to an Islamic party, but one that is relatively liberal and that will rule in coalition with non-religious liberal parties. In Egypt, too, the possibilities are more complex than secularist safety and Salafist violence. When Christians are attacked it is not always at the hands of Muslims. The shooting of Christian demonstrators in Cairo this past October 9th was carried out by the army. When Muslims have attacked Christians, far more have defended them. Just after Muslim terrorists slaughtered 25 Coptic worshippers and injured some 100 others in Alexandria on New Year’s Day of this year, thousands of Muslims across the country gathered in candlelight vigils and formed human chains around Coptic churches during worship. Today, Egyptian Muslim office-seekers are divided among proponents of a strongly Islamic state and supporters of liberal rights, including religious freedom for Christians. The scenario of religious freedom, then, is plausible, too.
Image: Egyptian Christians celebrating Easter.