The Risks of Regime Change

Middle Eastern Christians might end up more repressed under democracy

than under dictators.

by Derek Hoffmann | posted 03/18/2005 09:00 a.m.

Recent U.S. Iraq policy has moved from toppling a genocidal autocrat  to seeking to create a pluralist, prosperous Arab democracy and inducing neighboring regimes to replicate it. The mainstream media discuss what this might mean for the region at large, but what about for Christians in the Middle East? What does this policy portend for them? If one  were to perform a risk analysis for churches as one does for corporations-something I do for a living-what would be the inherent risks for churches, particularly evangelical churches, in the Middle East at this time?

Minority of a Minority Evangelicals in the Middle East are primarily the legacy of American Presbyterian missionary efforts in the 19th century. They are  clustered in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian areas, and Egypt. In  Cairo's Shubra district alone, 40 congregations meet, in addition to Kasr  Dubara in the heart of downtown, which is the largest evangelical church in  the Arab world, and one of the largest in Africa. Its Sunday evening  worship service packs two thousand believers. Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, boasts seven churches, and believers populate other towns north and south, as well as some of the tiny villages nestled in verdant fields hugging the Nile.

In Damascus, Syria, one church's huge neon sign boldly proclaims Yesua Noor Al Alam (Jesus, Light of the World). The presence of this and six other evangelical congregations shows that the climate is considerably more permissive than when the apostle Paul had to sneak out of town in  a basket. A revival is taking place among Orthodox and Catholic churches in Syria and Iraq, and in Iraq, at least five evangelical churches dot the map.

Still, Middle Eastern evangelicals remain a minority of a minority. Believers in the ancient branches-the Copts, Syrians, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Roman Catholics, Maronites, Nestorians, Assyrians,  Chaldeans, and others-make up only about 20 million of the 450 million  inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa region. Evangelicals number only a million.

As a small minority, the churches of the Middle East face three principle risks due to the recent political changes in Iraq.

1. Increasing Intolerance Christians remain relatively safe under autocracies that allow some measure of discrimination while generally protecting Christians. Arab rulers are more interested in preserving their power than pursuing a religious agenda. They want to maintain social order-keep crime rates, political opposition, and social unrest to a minimum. If Islamist extremists start a campaign of violence against Christians, the average Middle Eastern autocrat often  intervenes to protect them.

The generally good relations between most evangelicals and their  Muslim neighbors in the Arab world prevail thanks to their shared ethnic and national identity (one exception to this is the periodic clashes  between Egyptian Muslims and Copts). And in most countries Christians are free to practice their faith, though governments differ on whether to allow church plants, with Egypt being very restrictive, Syria less so.

All Middle Eastern nations prohibit Christians from sharing the  gospel, yet interfaith dialogue does exist. In some countries, Christians can even legally distribute religious literature, provided they sell it.

With Arab regimes firmly entrenched, the status quo is likely to  persist for some time. But if democracy does become the norm in the Middle  East, some countries could elect Islamist regimes, which tend to repress Christians. Throughout the Middle East, whenever Islamist parties have stood for election they have usually won. And the Islamist parties are becoming more popular.

Then again, Islamism doesn't have to lead to an Iranian-style  theocracy, where an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam is enforced and Christians are subjugated. The best-case scenario for Christians in an Islamist state would be marginalization.

One example of what marginalization looks like might be seen in Egypt, one of the more moderate governments in the Middle East. One  evangelical in Cairo says that Muslims treat Christians well, but also says prejudice still exists. For example, some university professors dock  the students' grades when they notice their Christian names. Such bias  will continue to limit how high Christians can rise in society. It will  also prompt them to emigrate to the West.

The worst-case scenario is that Christians under a democratically elected Islamist regime would be persecuted by the state and possibly hindered from practicing their faith.

2. Greater Vulnerability to Violence Ironically, in a purely  democratic polity, Middle Eastern Christians would be much less protected from sectarian and terrorist violence than they are now. This is because popularly elected Islamist regimes would be less inclined to shield Christians from the sort of terrorist attacks and intimidation that prevail in Iraq's Sunni Triangle and that compose part of  international terrorists' global strategy.

Even Syria-one Arab regime that is not in the U.S. camp yet and in general incurs as much of Al Qaeda's wrath as does the United  States-is inclined to protect Christians and other religious minorities. In the case of sectarian tensions that might pit Muslim citizens against Christians, Islamists would probably be slower to intervene, more apt  to side with fellow Muslims, and even less sensitive to international criticism regarding human rights than Arab leaders are today.

Iraqi Christians, for example, are especially vulnerable to political and criminal violence now that Saddam has been deposed. David Mack,  vice president of Washington's Middle East Institute and a former diplomat  in Iraq, says that despite Saddam's severe repression of the Kurds and Shiite Muslims, "the Iraqi Baath Party reversed many of the discriminatory aspects of previous Iraqi government practice in  dealing with Iraq's various Christian minorities."

So far Iraqi evangelical churches have not been attacked, if you don't count recent threats to individuals and churches in Baghdad. They're fairly safe in part because there are so few of them and their places  of worship are relatively unseen. But the Catholic, Chaldean, and  Assyrian churches, whose buildings are more visible, have been targeted. The worst attacks fell on August 2, 2004, when terrorists affiliated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hit four Baghdad churches and one in Mosul,  killing 11 people and wounding more than 50 others. Criminals routinely abduct Christian hostages and threaten to kill them unless their families pay  a ransom. To them, Christians are an easy target: They are unprotected  by tribe or government, and they don't retaliate.

3. More Social Ostracism Many Middle Easterners already shun  Christians for their perceived links to Western values and policies. This is  unfair since many Arab Christians oppose U.S. intervention in Iraq as well as the West's decadent values. Although some Christians believe the American Iraq policy is divinely blessed because of President Bush's faith, most don't. Images of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded in the course of hostilities and the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison override any sense of God blessing the war. Many resent what  they see as President Bush's mixing of political and religious rhetoric, which has made it easy for Arab media to portray the war as a  "crusade."

Be that as it may, Middle Easterners continue to identify the United States as a Christian nation, and Christianity as a faith that  supports U.S. policies and social morals. Again, even if democracies are formed throughout the Middle East, it is likely Islamist governments will be elected. In that case, just as violence might increase against Christians, so would social ostracism for perceived links with the  West.

Uncertain Future Both Arab Christians and the U.S. government have benefited from the political status quo in the Arab world. But they also know that it is volatile. Some Middle Eastern Muslims are increasingly frustrated with regimes they feel are not sufficiently religious and are unable to deliver jobs. Regime changes eventually must come, and with them substantial risks for both Christians and U.S. interests. Washington hopes it can shepherd change by using Iraq as a model for a tolerant, economically viable Arab democracy that will protect the rights of its minorities, including Christians, and that other countries will view this success as a goal to emulate. In Iraq, many believe this venture will take years to achieve.

While Christians in the Kurdish and Shiite areas may be relatively safer, the situation in the Sunni heartland will continue to be extremely dangerous in the foreseeable future. Believers in Syria have reported that countless Iraqi Christians who have fled there from  their homeland are "sick at heart" over the prevailing chaos and wonder if they can ever return.

Yet at least one positive result of Iraqi Christians' hardships is  that growing numbers of them have reportedly been gathering to acknowledge their dependence on God, and seek his deliverance for their families  and their nation. They need our prayers too.

Derek Hoffmann is an Egypt-based risk analyst for TranSecur Inc., and will soon enter the U.S. Foreign Service.