Can Mideast Christians survive under surging Islamist movements, especially now that Egypt’s large Coptic Church must live under the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom on June 26 hosted a forum for religious freedom experts, including Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna.
Schoenborn reviewed the early history of Muslim conquest in the Middle East, noting Christianity survived in Egypt but died elsewhere in North Africa. Given current disturbing trends, the remaining Christian communities in the region may yet replicate North Africa’s eradicated church.
“It would be a deep wound to lose Christianity’s own homeland and land of origin,” Schoenborn said. Islam and Christianity are both called to “universal mission” but must live together. “Religion is an essential part of society,” he observed, as the Islamist resurgence proves. But policy makers ignore religion’s importance.
Disputing Israel’s existence is “out of the question,” Schoenborn declared. “I clearly stand for the right of existence of the Jewish people in their own homeland.” He regretted both Iraq wars’ impact on Iraq’s once-relatively-large Christian population, much of which has since emigrated.
Survival for Mideast Christians, Schoenborn insisted, requires secular states to guard religious freedom. “No state can assume the Kingdom of God, which is not identical with any political reality,” he warned. America’s desire to export democracy has “good intention” but must help Christians “breathe,” since they are “landmarks” for pluralism. Egypt and Syria must not follow Iraq’s example, he implored.
Schoenborn described the “new presence of Christians coming from Asia,” as laborers in wealthy Arab states. He urged American influence for protecting the 1 million Catholics in Saudi Arabia.
Following Schoenborn was Lebanese professor Habib Malik. Himself a Christian, he observed a “persistent plague” of dictatorships’ collapsing, creating a “jumble of disturbing outcomes.”
Young “Facebook liberals” networked with each other but not the countryside. Their push for human rights was “hijacked by illiberal Islamists,” and “liberalism is giving way to defiant shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar.’”
Malik said for many Christians the Arab Spring “sounds like a black joke.” Long-accustomed to social subordination, and without any Arab democratic model, they want equality and freedom for all. But liberalism in the Arab world suffers from “endemic weakness.”
Denouncing the “immoral argument” for a “resigned and lazy attitude to Islamists coming to power,” Malik urged the West to “draw a thick red line to protect meager freedoms” in the Mideast. Potential oppressors should be forewarned they will be “watched like a hawk.”
Following Malik was Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who lamented that the U.S. first enabled radical Islam with President Jimmy Carter “pulling the rug out from under the Shah,” allowing Islamist rule in Iran. Egypt’s large Coptic Church with many millions creates a “different magnitude” of possibly intense persecution, Land warned. “We’re it,” Land reminded Americans. “We’re the last line of defense these people have.”
“When the U.S. loses its backbone and becomes an invertebrate, the persecuted of the world suffer,” Land declared. “Fascist religion in Iran and Syria is not as scary as the Soviet Union,” he recalled, against which President Reagan waged a war of rhetoric. Land surmised: “If we can back down the Soviet Union we can back down the clowns in Iran and Syria.” And he concluded, “We are accountable to God for how we use our sphere of influence.”
It remains to be seen how conscious most Americans, much less policymakers, are of their providential responsibility to advocate in defense of the persecuted.
— Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.