The recent abductions of Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and his Greek Orthodox counterpart, Paul Yazigi, reflect not only the increasing brutality of Syria’s civil war, but also the escalating crisis for Christians across the Arab world — one that could end up driving them away altogether.
According to the International Society for Human Rights, 80 percent of all acts of religious persecution worldwide last year were directed at Christians.
This surge in discrimination against Christian communities in countries where they have lived for many centuries can be explained largely by increasing Islamist militancy and the rise of political Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring. As Islamist parties have taken power in the region, a wave of intimidation and discrimination has been unleashed on Christian minority populations.
For example, on Feb. 26, at a garment market in Benghazi, Libya, members of a powerful Islamist militia rounded up dozens of Egyptian Coptic Christians — identified by crosses tattooed on their right wrists — whom they then detained, tortured and threatened with execution. Among the victims was a Coptic priest, whom the captors beat severely before shaving his head and mustache.
Priests have also been assaulted in Tripoli, and churches have been torched. All of this sends a clear message: Non-Muslims are not safe in Libya.
While Libya has no significant religious minority, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians live and work in the country, where Christian proselytizing is illegal — and where one can be accused of proselytizing simply for possessing a Bible.
However, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government does not seem particularly eager to protect its Christian citizens in Libya; it offered only a half-hearted call for the release of its detained citizens.
This reflects the similarly deteriorating situation for Christians in Egypt, where they account for about 15 percent of the population. Early last month, a funeral at St Mark’s Cathedral (the seat of the Coptic Church in Cairo) for four Christians killed in sectarian riots days earlier descended into chaos, with thousands of mourners attacked as they tried to leave after the service. Police fired tear gas into the compound, standing by as those outside the cathedral launched petrol bombs, hurled rocks and shot at those inside. At least two died and 80 were injured in the five-hour clash.
Christians blame the Muslim Brotherhood not only for allowing Muslim Egyptians to attack them with impunity, but also for permitting — and delivering — incendiary anti-Christian rhetoric. For example, at an open rally for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last year, the cleric Safwat Hegazy warned that Egyptian Muslims would “splash blood” on Christians who “splash water” on Morsi’s legitimacy.
In February, Egypt’s Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, sharply criticized the country’s leadership in a televised interview, calling the new constitution discriminatory and dismissing Morsi’s “national dialogues” as an empty gesture.
This unusually assertive stance reflects rising frustration among Christians, as well as the secular and liberal opposition, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s power monopoly.
Syria, which once welcomed thousands of Christians fleeing war-torn Iraq, is experiencing an analogous change, as the country’s increasingly sectarian civil war generates fear and mistrust throughout the population.