Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Future of Middle Eastern Christians

Juan Cole presents an optimistic picture of Christianity in the Middle East:
There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.
In fact, despite all the hype about the rise of Islam in Europe, Muslims in that continent have on the whole much less potential influence than Christians in the Middle East. About 5% of the French electorate is Muslims, the largest proportion in Europe. But Christians are 10 percent of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and 22 percent of Lebanon. Even in Israel, they are 2 percent of the population, a little less than the percentage of contemporary Italy that is Muslim...
The old Middle Eastern dictatorships often exploited Christians or subordinated them. The Christians were deprived of a voice and of the chance for autonomous political action just like everyone else. But now, they are potentially in a position to organize, speak out and vote as never before. And they are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before. From the point of view of a social historian, these days could be the beginning of an unprecedented efflorescence of Christianity in the region– not Western-missionary, Christianity, not evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but Coptic Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other indigenous and ancient strains. There are no guarantees in life, but let us give them a chance, on this day when their religion was born.
Cole is right to dismiss Lebanon as a useful paradigm for looking at Arab Christianity more generally, but then he includes South Sudan, which it is really a stretch to call Middle Eastern.  Its politics and demographic profile far more closely resemble conditions in sub-Saharan East Africa.  He also underestimates the role of Iraq in influencing the narratives of Christian decline in the region.  This is what is influencing discussion of Syria in particular, which shares with Iraq of the past decade a violently fractured society which is encouraging minority emigration.

I think he's right, however, that the Red Sea basin, apart from the obvious cases of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, could see a rebirth of Christian influence.  If there is ever a revolution in Jordan, that would probably parallel Egypt, where conditions are far from settled and given their weight in the population, could form an important constituency.  This is far from guaranteed, as the Arabs of Israel could attest, but it is perhaps telling that they were seen as a key voting bloc putting Ahmed Shafiq into the second round of the presidential election, and even people friendly to Muhammad Morsi see his failure to attend the enthronement of the new Coptic pope as a significant blunder.

Cole's view is grounded in hopes, but those hopes are realistic, and Christmas is a time for optimism.



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