Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A familiar and sad story

Another piece from Der Spiegel -- on the continuing hemorrhage of Christians from the Middle East. Fighting for their Survival: A Christian Exodus from the Arab World. Apart from the usual catalog of harrasment, discrimination and emigration, the article gives helpful profiles of Christians in the major Arab countries ... some with a surprise, such as Syria and the Kurish area of Iraq
Many Christians currently see a ray of hope in neighboring Syria. Since the fall of Baghdad, the regime in Damascus, isolated by the United States, has taken in many thousands of Iraqi refugees. In doing so, it has demonstrated to the West the long-forgotten merits of the Arab nationalist Baath Party's non-denominational doctrine. "Nobody here cares whether we are Sunnis, Shiites or Christians," says Farid Awwad, a souvenir vendor who fled Iraq.

Awwad's 12-year-old daughter was killed in an attack on a Chaldean church in Baghdad two years ago. "No one can take away our pain," he says. "But at least we can live here, where we are treated like brothers."

The number of Christians within the Syrian Baath Party organization is disproportionately high, although most are non-practicing. Their presence in government service, including the military and intelligence agencies, is unprecedented in the Arab world. President Bashar Assad recently opened a conference of Arab law associations under the motto: "The fatherland is for everything, but religion is a matter for God" -- words that would be alienating if not impossible in countries with a stronger Islamic influence. In Saudi Arabia, for example, which has no Christian minority of its own but employs tens of thousands of Christian guest workers from the Indian subcontinent and Africa, Christian church services are banned and punishable with severe penalties. Bibles and crucifixes are routinely confiscated. The Wahhabite religious police, the Muttawah, have even been known to raid private religious services.

Other Gulf states are more liberal, although religious freedom in the Western sense is virtually nonexistent in Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The Islamist opposition in Damascus, especially the banned Muslim Brotherhood, disparages the country's unpopular Christians as "worshippers of a godless regime."

There is only one other region of the Middle East where Christians enjoy freedoms comparable to those in Syria: the Kurdish Autonomous Zone in northern Iraq.

Several Christian parties recently introduced an unusual bill in the regional parliament in Arbil, the Kurdish capital. They proposed the establishment of a Christian autonomous zone in the eastern portion of the Iraqi province of Nineveh, the traditional homeland of Assyrian Christians and now partly controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Under the bill, the Chaldean, Syrian and Assyrian Christian minorities would be granted official status under the constitution -- first by the Kurdish regional parliament and then by the National Assembly in Baghdad.

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