Christians in the Middle East have been facing much discrimination, harassment and persecution in recent years, and very often the perpetrators are members of the Muslim majority. The number of Christians in the Middle East has been declining continually over past decades, and there is fear that in some countries, such as Iraq, there is a real push to drive out the whole Christian community.
On 25 October the Palestinian columnist, `Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar, wrote a column for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, focussing on this persecution of Christians in Arab countries. `Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar, himself a Muslim, warned that the expulsion of Christians and the attempt to denounce them as “infidels” was causing great damage to the Arab culture, of which Christians are an essential and original part. In his article he criticised the fact that no one dared to come to the help of persecuted Christian minorities in the Middle East and he condemned the unwillingness of Arab intellectuals, the elite, non-government organisations and leaders of the private sector to act on behalf of Christians. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a non-profit organisation that translates and analyses the media of the Middle East, translated the article into English and published the following excerpts on its website.
"In Iraq, a crime is currently being committed – another in a series of iniquities brought by the winds of change that came in the wake of the [U.S.] occupation, which sought to impregnate Iraq with the seed of democracy. [But] the [resulting] fetus emerged deformed and weird. The worst outcome of this situation is, possibly, the carnage against ethnic communities and minorities that has swept through Iraq. Neither Sunnis, nor Shi`ites, nor Christians, nor Kurds, nor Turkmen, nor [members of] other [groups] have managed to escape it.
"However, the string of murders and expulsions of Christians, which has been going on for several months, is by far the most grievous – [and] it [must be taken as] a warning that hostility and crimes against minorities may spread to the neighboring countries [as well].
"Christians are being persecuted not only in Iraq, but in most Arab countries, regardless of their numbers there. They are subjected to every possible kind of discrimination, as well as expulsion. The problem is that it is not only Arab officials who are remaining silent [in the face of these crimes] – [they do so] because their primitive mentality is centered on the cult of the ruler – but, alarmingly, so are Arab intellectuals, the elites, non-government organizations, and leaders of the private sector. All these groups look on at these unprecedented [acts of] folly without apprehending the danger with which these crimes are fraught.
"Statistics show that in 2005 the number of Christians in Iraq was as high as 800,000. By early 2008, it had dropped by half, [indicating] that 50 percent of Iraqi Christians had been expelled from their homes and lands.
"Today, this problem is also rampant in Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, and Palestine – and while the situation may be slightly different in Palestine, the trend is the same.
"Let us be honest with ourselves and courageously say out loud that Palestinian Christians are taking many severe blows, yet are suffering in silence so as not to attract attention. I do not refer here to the suffering caused by the occupation... but to actions of the past 20 years at least – that is, since the beginning of the occupation in 1967 – involving the confiscation of Christian property, especially in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Al-Birah.
"What makes things worse is that those who are plundering [the Christians`] property are either powerful [in their own right] or are backed by various elements, among them high-ranking military officials or influential members of large clans.
"Attempts by the political leadership to partially rectify this situation have failed. Nor has the judiciary system been able to [resolve] many of the problems, which we still face today. Over the past few years, several of my Christian friends have told me of the harm they have suffered, including various threats, even death threats, for trying to gain access to their lands after they were taken over by influential Bethlehem residents.
"Furthermore, there has been an attempt to marginalize Christian culture in Palestine, even though it is rich and deeply rooted [there]. This began with [accusations] of unbelief [against Christians] – a move that ultimately harmed Palestinian society as a whole...
"Despite all the injustices [against the Christians], no one has seen or heard of any constructive action to curb it and to [defend] the Christians` rights – whether by the elites, by any of the three branches (executive, legislative, and judiciary), by non-government organizations, or even by the political factions themselves. [Such action should have been forthcoming] not out of kindness and compassion, but [due to] regarding Palestinian Christians as indigenous to this land, and [therefore] no different from us, with the same rights and obligations [as Muslims].
"But the most fundamental problem here may be related to culture. We continue to instill a horrific culture in our children, one that sees Christians as infidels... and as `the other.` We need an injection of humanistic and national awakening; we must raise an outcry and stand up to restore the Christians` rights, of which they have been deprived – [and we must do this] in order to preserve the demographic balance, which will safeguard the unity of our homeland and the justness the Palestinian cause.
"[Let us] remember that the tribes of Arabia were Christian. The best writers and poets were Christian, as were [many] warriors and philosophers... It is they who bore the banner of pan-Arabism. The first Palestinian university was established by Christians.
"Enough [examples]! It is not words that we need, but progressive attitudes, and the truth, so that it can be presented to tyrannical rulers, and so that clerics and old men will not be the only Christians left in the Holy Land and in the city of [Jesus`] birth."
It is very encouraging to read words like these and to known that Muslims are speaking up on behalf of Christians who are persecuted and discriminated against in Muslim-majority contexts. It gives hope that the peaceful co-existence of Christians and Muslims is possible and that mutual respect is a key element to preserving a culture to which both Muslims and Christians have contributed over centuries.