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The Long, Withdrawing Roar

Christianity on the retreat in the Middle East.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By LEE SMITH
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“We don’t want foreign support,” says Habib Efram, by which he means a Western military adventure on behalf of the Christians. “We don’t want the West thinking of Christians as puppets of the West, using us for their agenda. We are from the Middle East and belong here.” 

What they want, he says, is something like a Marshall Plan for Middle East Christians—“Some money to build schools and other programs.” “The United States,” he continues, “can also ensure that Christian minorities are fairly represented in their parliaments. The Copts make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and yet there are only 2 or 3 elected Coptic representatives and another few named by the government. The Copts should have at least 40 seats out of the 500-seat parliament. In Iraq, even with only 3 percent of the population the Christians should have 14 members of parliament.” Instead, they have only 2.

It is a fantasy of U.S. omnipotence familiar in the region. It would take U.S. troops, of course, to ensure the safety of U.S.-backed programs; nor could a more robust representation of Christians in weak Arab assemblies—even if the United States had a way of bringing it about—prevent the murder of Christians by mobs or terrorists. Efram’s hazy plan seems the wishful thinking of a minority under fire with nowhere to turn. 

Efram attributes the rise in anti-Christian violence to the virulent strain of radical Islam that began with the Muslim Brotherhood and now comes in both Sunni and Shia variants. Arab security services fight Islamist groups when it suits regime interests—and it is dangerous for regimes to be perceived as siding with Christians against the Muslim majority. Thus, every day brings a fresh outrage against Egypt’s Copts, while the Cairo government’s notoriously active, and vicious, security services sit idly by. In Iraq, some Christians even long for the reign of Saddam Hussein and his Christian deputy, Tariq Aziz, who protected them. 

That notion of “protection” has a particular history. Since the Arab conquests beginning in the mid-seventh century, Christians and Jews under Muslim rule were recognized as “people of the book.” In theory, they were protected minorities, or dhimmi. But they could not enjoy equality with the Muslim, typically Sunni, majority, and the lot of dhimmis varied with the disposition of the rulers. That Saddam, for instance, “protected” Christians to some degree did not ensure that his sons would have done the same. 

And as for the glory days of Middle Eastern coexistence that supposedly preceded the rise of the present extremists, the Ottomans’ slaughter of the Armenians and other Christians belies it. As long as believers are without legal rights guaranteed by governments willing and able to enforce them, the Christian presence in the region will be in peril.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.


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