Western assumptions about cultural uniformity combined with Islamists bent on purging other faith groups are threatening the future of the Christian church in the Middle East.
The line about the American general meeting the Arab Christian isn’t as familiar as it should be. “When did your family convert?” the general asked. “About 2,000 years ago,” the Arab answered wryly.
The general’s ignorance is widely shared. Take but one example from closer to home. Over-zealous teachers in London have recently been pulling Syrian Orthodox refugees out of school assemblies in London, on the basis that Arab children must by definition be Muslims. The truth, of course, is that Christianity is an import from the Middle East, not an export to it. Christians have formed part of successive civilisations in the region for many centuries – they were, as Rowan Williams has pointed out, a dominant presence in the Byzantine era, an active partner in the early Muslim centuries, a long-suffering element within the Ottoman empire and, more recently, “a political catalyst and nursery of radical thinking in the dawn of Arab nationalism”.
Today, though, the religious ecology of the Middle East looks more fragile than ever, as the Arab spring gives way to Christian winter. Ignorant western assumptions about cultural uniformity are mirrored by Islamists bent on purging other faith groups from their lands. Such intolerance has grown steeply since 9/11 of course, but its roots long predate the disastrous policies of George W Bush.
In Egypt, large numbers of Coptic Christians have moved abroad in response to a tide of discrimination and outright oppression. Though still numbering at least 5.1 million of an 80 million-strong population (according to government estimates disputed by the Coptic church), Copts face many professional glass ceilings, and scores of their churches have been attacked by Salafist extremists. About 600,000 Copts – more than the entire population of Manchester – have left their homeland since the early 1980s. If Mohamed Morsi’s new constitution is implemented, the second-class status of Christians will be set in stone. Egypt will stagnate still further in consequence.