Fighting for their Survival: A Christian Exodus from the Arab World

By Amira El Ahl, , Volkhard Windfuhr and

Violence, terrorism and the Islamists' growing influence pose a threat to Christianity in the Middle East. In some countries, members of an unpopular Christian minority are already fighting for their survival -- or fleeing for their lives.

Christians praying in Syria
REUTERS

Christians praying in Syria

In New Baghdad, the driver of a minibus, a Shiite named Ali, set out at 7 a.m. on the last Sunday before Christmas. A few hours earlier he had received a call on his mobile phone with instructions to pick up five passengers for a long trip outside the city. His first passenger, he had been told, would tell him who the other passengers were and what their destination would be. He was also told not to mention a word to anyone.

The first passenger was a 24-year-old man named Raymon, who was sitting on his suitcase a few blocks away. He directed Ali through the city's dreary east side, where having a Shiite as a driver is a smart move -- first to the Karrada district, where Amir and Fariz boarded the bus, and then to Selakh, where Wassim and Qarram were waiting. By 9 a.m., Ali had picked up all of his passengers and the bus left Baghdad and began traveling to the northeast -- for the 350-kilometer (218-mile) journey to Kurdistan, the only part of Iraq that is anything close to safe.

The five young men traveling in Ali's red Kia were the last seminary students at the Chaldean Catholic Babel College to leave Baghdad. Four priests have been abducted since mid-August, and two others were murdered. Father Sami, the director of the seminary, was kidnapped in early December. The community managed to raise $75,000 to buy his freedom, but after hesitating for weeks, Emmanuel III, the Chaldean patriarch, decided to withdraw the teaching institutions of his community from Baghdad. He ordered the evacuation of the city's four Catholic churches, the Hurmis monastery and the college in the city's Dura neighborhood, but chose to remain behind in the city as the lonely shepherd of a rapidly shrinking congregation.

A history that traces back to the Ottoman Empire

Present-day Iraq was still part of the Ottoman Empire when Iraq's Catholics opened their first priest seminary. They moved it from Mosul to Baghdad 45 years ago and, in 1991, untouched by then dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, they founded the Babel College for Philosophy and Theology in Dora. It would only exist there for 15 years, a flicker in the history of the Chaldean people. "I don't know when or whether we will ever return," says Bashar Varda, the man Father Sami has entrusted with running the seminary.

Christians have lived in the Arab world for the past 2,000 years. They were there before the Muslims. Their current predicament is not the first crisis they have faced and, compared to the massacres of the past, it is certainly not the most severe in Middle Eastern Christianity. But in some countries, it could be the last one. Even the pope, in his Christmas address, mentioned the "small flock" of the faithful in the Middle East, who he said are forced to live with "little light and too much shadow," and demanded that they be given more rights.

There are no reliable figures on the size of Christian minorities in the Middle East. This is partly attributable to an absence of statistics, and partly to the politically charged nature of producing such statistics in the first place. Lebanon's last census was taken 74 years ago. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who is himself part of a minority, was fundamentally opposed to compiling denominational statistics. In Egypt the number of Christians fluctuates between five and 12 million, depending on who is counting.

Graphic: Christians in the Arab World
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Christians in the Arab World

Given the lack of hard numbers, demographers must rely on estimates, whereby Christians make up about 40 percent of the population in Lebanon, less than 10 percent in Egypt and Syria, two to four percent in Jordan and Iraq and less than one percent in North Africa. But the major political changes that are currently affecting the Middle East have led to shrinking Christian minorities. In East Jerusalem, where half of the population was Christian until 1948, the year of the first Arab-Israeli war, less than five percent of residents are Christian today. In neighboring Jordan, the number of Christians was reduced by half between the 1967 Six Day War and the 1990s. There were only 500,000 Christians still living in Iraq until recently, compared to 750,000 after the 1991 Gulf War. Wassim, one of the seminary students now fleeing to Kurdistan, estimates that half of those remaining Christians have emigrated since the 2003 US invasion, most of them in the last six months.

Greater affluence

Demographics have accelerated this development. Christians, often better educated and more affluent than their Muslim neighbors, have fewer children. Because the wave of emigration has been going on for decades, many Middle Eastern Christians now have relatives in Europe, North America and Australia who help them emigrate. Their high level of education increases their chances of obtaining visas. Those who leave are primarily members of the elite: doctors, lawyers and engineers.

But there are deeper-seated reasons behind the most recent exodus: the demise of secular movements and the growing influence of political Islam in the Middle East.

The Christmas procession in Bethlehem: "A wave of emigration"
Getty Images

The Christmas procession in Bethlehem: "A wave of emigration"

It was a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq, who founded the nationalist Baath movement in 1940, a career ladder for Iraqi Christians until 2003 and still a political safe haven for many Syrian Christians today. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abd al-Nasser had no qualms about paying homage to the Virgin Mary, who supposedly appeared on a church roof in a Cairo suburb after Egypt's defeat in its 1967 war with Israel. And former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, insisted on sitting in the first row in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during the annual Christmas service.

But those days are gone. The last prominent Christians -- Chaldean Tariq Aziz, Saddam's foreign minister for many years, and Hanan Ashrawi, Arafat's education minister -- have vanished from the political stage in the Middle East. And since the election victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the bloody power struggles between Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq, the illusion that Christian politicians could still play an important role in the Arab world is gone once and for all.

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