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10 December 2011

An 'Arab Winter' Chills Christians

2011-634410681183369095-336.jpgThe plight of Iraqi Christians since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been agonizingly personal for Aram Butrus Matti.

Hanging on the wall in his parents' home here in northern Iraq are photographs of his cousin Yonan, his cousin's spouse and their three-month-old son, who were among some 50 worshippers killed by suicide bombers in a Baghdad church in October 2010.

At least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and at least 905 Christians killed in acts of violence since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In the wake of a series of attacks, Iraqi police, pictured, guard St. Barbara Church in the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq, a region to which Christians are being encouraged to relocate.

There also is a photo of his older brother, Noel, a pharmacist. Six years ago, Aram and Noel were kidnapped together in the nearby city of Mosul. Noel, then 44, was murdered. Aram was released only after his parents paid a ransom.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Matti, now 27, fled Mosul with the rest of his family to their ancestral village. Bartella is now ringed with trenches, earthen berms and checkpoints manned by local security forces to ward off attacks.

Mr. Matti is eager to leave Iraq for good.

With the Arab Spring now bringing political turbulence to many other countries in the region, Christians throughout the Middle East are worried that what happened in Iraq may be a harbinger of misfortune to come in their own communities. While many remain supporters of the uprisings, others fear that the toppling of their autocratic rulers could uncork sectarian violence against Christians and other minority groups in their own nations.

The sectarian violence that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and fall of Hussein in 2003 has been brutal for all Iraqis, including Muslim Shiites and Sunnis. But for the nation's fragile Christian communities, it has been catastrophic.
At least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and at least 905 Christians killed in various acts of violence since the U.S. invasion toppled Hussein in 2003, according to Archbishop Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Sulimaniya. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled. A report on Iraq released Tuesday by Minority Rights Group International said that about 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2003.

"It's a hemorrhage," Archbishop Sako says. "Iraq could be emptied of Christians."

Iraq's Christians aren't the only ones under pressure. In Egypt, long-simmering tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians have flared into violence. Christians, who account for about 10% of Egypt's about 80 million people, worry that the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamic groups will erode some of the protections Christians had carved out under a succession of military-dominated governments.

In Syria, where Christians make up more than 5% of the population, minority groups of all sorts worry about the stability of the country's ethnic and sectarian patchwork. If President Bashar Assad is overthrown, they say, those communities could turn on each other.

Lebanon suffered through 15 years of sectarian fighting in a civil war that ended in 1990. Although some Lebanese Christian leaders say they are hopeful about the Arab Spring's promise of democracy, many also worry about the potential fallout for Christians.

(…) Some Christian leaders in the region say Christians are better off under authoritarian but secular regimes such as Mr. Assad's in Syria. "I fear that extremist groups will put in place a worse rule," says Patriarch al-Rai of the Lebanese Maronite Catholic Church.

In Egypt, many Coptic Christians took part in the demonstrations that led to the February collapse of President Hosni Mubarak's regime and the subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, dozens of Coptic Christians have died in violent clashes with Islamic extremists and the Egyptian ruling military, most recently on Oct. 9.

Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire businessman and one of Egypt's highest profile Copts, founded a secular political party this year to counter what he describes as the threat of a "new dictatorship" by Islamist parties. Partial results released Sunday from last week's parliamentary elections show Islamists garnering almost 60% of votes.

Cherbel Eid, head of the student league of the Lebanese Forces, a militant Christian political party supporting the Syrian uprising, rejects the argument that Christians in the Middle East are better off under authoritarian rulers. "It's wrong for us [Christians] to preach servitude while others come forward to demand freedom day and night," he said during a visit to northern Iraq last month.

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