It is hard to believe that at one time nearly the whole of the Middle East and much of north Africa were predominantly Christian. Think of the great Christian cities such as Alexandria, Damascus, Edessa, Constantinople and Carthage. Monasticism, the great civilising force, in both east and west, took its rise to the dusty end of the Mediterranean and some of the church’s greatest theologians came from there.
What changed the picture? In a word, Islam. The arrival of the newly Muslim Arabs disrupted the flow of history in the Middle East and beyond. The Christian cities capitulated one by one. Some communities were destroyed in the conflict, others were dispersed. For those that remained, a system of discrimination was set in place: they had to pay special taxes, wear distinctive dress, they could not build new churches. In due course, they were excluded from holding office.
From time to time there were riots and massacres. These, as well as the process of attrition brought about by living under the dhimma (the system by which certain non-Muslims were allowed to live in the Islamic domains), progressively reduced the strength of the Christian communities.
In spite of the strictures, Christians were able to maintain their relative strength, in some cases for centuries. In Egypt, the Coptic population did not fall below 50 per cent until after the pogroms of the 14th century. Christians were able to make notable contributions to science, philosophy, government, architecture and the arts. But all the while their mentality and that of their rulers were formed by the unequal relationship.
When, under intense western pressure, the dhimma was relaxed in the 19th century, there were still significant Jewish and Christian communities throughout the Ottoman empire. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948, as well as the wars of 1967 and 1973, meant that the Jewish communities of the Middle East and north Africa migrated to Israel, leaving the Christians as the only substantial minority in many of these countries.
Their new status as fellow citizens with their Muslim compatriots allowed these Christians to make a contribution, out of all proportion to their numbers, to the emergence of nationalist states which were defined not so much by religion as by a shared language, culture and history. Even then, those communities that did not fit in with nationalist aspirations, such as the Armenians and the Greeks in Turkey, faced persecution, execution or exile.
All of this informs the current situation. It has been, however, the rise of radical Islamism from the 1950s onwards which has defined the place and treatment of minorities in the region. The Islamists have been keen to continue the disadvantages suffered by these communities in, for instance, repairing church buildings, and they have pressed for the introduction of fresh restrictions.
The desecration of cemeteries in Libya, the murder of clergy in Iraq and Syria, the attacks on churches in Egypt and their forcible conversion into mosques there and elsewhere are all contemporary outrages which remind us sadly what mobs and despots have done to these communities in the past.
The changes are not, however, just the doings of an angry mob. In Iran and Pakistan, separate electorates were introduced for non-Muslims so they could vote only for the small number of parliamentary seats allocated to them (Pakistan has since then, to its credit, reintroduced joint electorates). This is a barely disguised attempt to revive the dhimma, albeit dressed in ‘democratic’ clothes. It is well known that the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Kuwait and elsewhere have had a chilling effect on freedom of speech, and non-Muslims or ‘heterodox’ Muslims have suffered disproportionately because of these laws. Even when ‘apostasy’ is not a crime on the statute books, jurists will regularly try people for it under sharia. Such a practice completely negates the basic freedoms of belief and expression guaranteed under the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This litany of persecution is long but what, people will ask, can be done about it? There is an urgent need for governments and the UN to promote Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of belief and expression. This element of international law must be to the fore, and all states should be expected to adhere to it.
Syrian army armoured personnel carrier roles along a street leading into Maalula, one of the most renowned Christians towns in Syria, where many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Photo:AFP/Getty
Many are hopeful that the second revolution in Egypt will produce an atmosphere of tolerance. During my recent visit there I observed a kind of near euphoria among Christians, women and other groups. But without vigilance, the current optimism could evaporate and we could be back to the status quo ante. Christians have many friends in Egypt, but also significant enemies.
In spite of the greater openness to the West since President Rouhani came to office in Iran, there has been no corresponding easing of the situation with regard to minorities. In fact, reports from Tehran suggest a tightening up of controls. This is where the international agenda and the domestic need to be addressed together. A totalitarian Iran will not be a reliable partner globally. Every opportunity must be taken by our leaders to raise the issue of fundamental freedoms with their Iranian counterparts.
The sovereignty of states has, of course, to be respected. But from time to time there have been interventions when there has been danger of genocide, the collapse of state apparatus or unwanted foreign incursion. There have been sanctions, no-fly zones and even ‘boots on the ground’ to protect ethnic or religious groups from their oppressors.
So why not now? If Muslims need protection in the Balkans, the Kurds in Iraq or indigenous communities in the Americas or Australia, why not Christians in the Middle East and beyond? Such protection need not always be military or undertaken through the threat of economic sanction. It can often be achieved simply through raising awareness of the situation in which these communities find themselves. It can also be provided through advocacy and campaigning as well as diplomacy and negotiation. But sanctions and military means will sometimes be needed to deter the oppressor and to give confidence to the oppressed. After all, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Michael Nazir-Ali was Bishop of Rochester from 1994 until 2009.