Endangered Species?


The Arab Spring began with the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia (a name stemming from Tunisia’s national flower). The immediate cause of the revolution in Tunisia was a tragic act of protest by Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man from a small town in the neglected interior of the country. Bouazizi lit himself on fire on December 17, 2010, after he was fined for operating an illegal vegetable cart and humiliated by the police. He died of his burns on January 4.

The protests in Tunisia were initially contained to Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi’s town, but they soon spread. As they did, they became about something more than Mohamed Bouazizi. The protesters began to cry, “The people—want—the fall of the regime!” The Young Tunisians who led the protest movement (that became known in some quarters as a “Facebook Revolution”) blamed the government for its failure to create jobs, for its refusal to tolerate opposition or free elections, and for the repeated acts of violence by its secret police. To the world’s surprise, the movement brought that government down in a matter of weeks. On January 14, Zine El Abidene Ben Ali—the “president” who had ruled Tunisia as a dictator since 1987—fled Tunisia for Saudi Arabia, and was quickly replaced by a provisional government.

The success of the Jasmine Revolution was in no small part due to its spontaneous nature. There was no established organization, political party, or religious movement that Ben Ali’s secret policemen could infiltrate and destroy. The Tunisian protests were a movement against the government, but they were not for any particular opposition group, or indeed any particular ideology. They were motivated by certain social and political demands: economic reform for all citizens, freedom of expression for all citizens, and a democracy that respects the will of all citizens. These are the sorts of demands with which all segments of Tunisian society could sympathize. Even Islamic fundamentalist groups could join this movement, and they did.

These were also the demands made at a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East held at the Vatican months before, in October 2010. The synod’s call for justice on behalf of the Christian minorities in the region was repeatedly expressed in terms of citizenship. The special assembly’s instrumentum laboris did not ask that Christians merely be tolerated by the Muslim majority. It asked that Christians be treated as citizens, no better and no worse than their Muslim co-citizens:

Catholics, together with other Christian citizens and Muslim thinkers and reformers, ought to be able to support initiatives at examining thoroughly the concept of the “positive laicity” of the state. This could help eliminate the theocratic character of government and allow for greater equality among citizens of different religions, thereby fostering the promotion of a sound democracy, positively secular in nature, which fully acknowledges the role of religion, also in public life, while completely respecting the distinction between the religious and civic orders.

There are in fact very few Christians in Tunisia, and so the question of Christian rights was hardly relevant there. But in Egypt, the site of the next wave of protests, there are approximately 8 million Christians (more than the entire Jewish population of neighboring Israel). By January 25, 2011, protests against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak began to spread. These protests, inspired by the success of those in Tunisia, were marked by the same dynamics: a people united by economic woes and the lack of individual freedoms: a dictatorial regime that made a mockery of the democratic process and suppressed opposition groups.

The most striking manifestations of unity were perhaps the scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians marching together, holding aloft crosses and Qur’ans side by side. Indeed the protest movement in Egypt was a remarkable moment of Muslim-Christian solidarity. In al-Tahrir Square in Cairo, the center of the movement, Christians regularly formed a circle around Muslims during the times of Islamic prayer, so that the police would not use those moments to infiltrate the ranks of the protestors. When Mubarak resigned the presidency and fled Cairo on February 11, both Muslims and Christians rejoiced.

Since then, however, Egyptian Christians have had cause for concern. On March 19, a national referendum was held in Egypt on a new constitution, drafted by the interim military government of the country. The constitution does include changes (such as term limits) meant to prevent a new Mubarak from dominating the country. Yet it does not change the second article of the earlier constitution, according to which Islam is the state religion, and sharia (Islamic law) is the main source of legislation. The existence of such an article suggests that the new Egypt will not recognize a “distinction between the religious and civic orders,” in the words of the Vatican document.

And in fact the situation of Christians in Egypt does not seem to have improved. If the fall of the Mubarak regime helped Egyptian Christians forget the New Year’s bombing of a church in Cairo, which killed twenty-one worshipers, the events of May 7 brought those memories back. On that day, fundamentalist Muslims organized a protest outside St. Mena Church in Cairo, claiming that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held in the church. (The protests seem to have been inspired by a second woman’s televised denial of her conversion from Christianity to Islam.) After church guards confronted the angry crowd, the protest soon degenerated into an attack. St. Mena Church and another in the area were burned. Twelve Christians were killed.

The attacks were lamentable, but it is the pretext for the attacks that illustrates the complications for Christians in the Islamic Middle East. According to sharia, a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman (as long as their children are raised Muslim), but a Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman. Christians can convert to Islam, but Muslims cannot convert to Christianity. In 2008, an Egyptian Christian named Mohammed Hegazy petitioned the state to recognize his conversion from Islam—and thus allow his children to receive a Christian education and his daughters to marry Christian men. His petition was refused and, when the case became public, Hegazy received death threats that forced him into hiding.

The truth is that Christians in the Middle East are threatened not only by repressive governments but also by sharia. This may be the key to understanding the less enthusiastic attitude of Christians to the antigovernment protests in Syria, which broke out in earnest in the middle of March. As in Tunisia and Egypt, protestors in Syria were motivated by their opposition to a dictatorial “president” and by demands for social and political liberties. Like Egypt, Syria has a significant Christian population (between 7 and 8 percent of a population of 23 million). Yet in contrast to Egypt, Syria’s Baathist president, Bashar al-Assad, is not a Sunni Muslim, but an Alawite. The Alawites are a small Shiite sect that account for about 10 percent of Syria’s population. They are much more secular than the Sunnis, in part because Alawite religious teachings are meant to be kept secret from those outside the community (a practice encouraged by the threat of religious condemnation from Sunnis).

Indeed Bashar, like his father Hafez (who massacred thousands of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982), has long sought to suppress the Sunni Muslim movements that have become immensely powerful in Tunisia and Egypt. In Syria, sharia is not the main source of legislation. Christians are afraid that might change if the Baathist Assad regime falls.

Islam, it should be said, is still a dominant presence in Syria, and it would hardly be easier for a Muslim to convert to Christianity in Syria than it is in Egypt. But the Syrian government, concerned in part for the rights of the Alawite community, has controlled Muslim fundamentalists so effectively that it is hard to imagine a Muslim protest in front of a church in Syria—let alone the burning of a church or the killing of Christians. More generally, the reach of Islam is more limited in Syria than it is in Egypt. Christian schoolchildren in Syria, for example, are generally offered Christian catechism, while in Egypt they are often compelled to receive Islamic education.

Not surprisingly, Christians—with the exception of some elements of the Syrian Orthodox/Assyrian community, who have aspirations for an independent state—have been reluctant to participate in the Syrian protests; many have even participated in pro-Baath demonstrations. The hesitation of the Christian community led the protest movement’s Facebook page (“Syrian Revolution 2011”) to make a special appeal to them during Holy Week: “Jesus Christ rejected injustice, hatred, and sin and brought a new revolution of human and spiritual values and human dignity…. [Whether we are] Christians, Sunni Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Shiites, Arabs, and Kurds, it is our duty to revolt in the face of Baathist vampires.”

Thus far Syrian Christians have largely resisted that appeal. Speaking on August 1, the first day of Ramadan, Fr. Paolo Dall-Oglio—an Italian Jesuit who founded the monastic community of Mar Musa in Syria—expressed the anxiety of the Christian community in Syria in the face of the protests: “The Arab spring is over. We are experiencing a hot summer.”

Related: Hazardous Means, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels

Published in the 2011-09-23 issue: 

Gabriel Said Reynolds is professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in the World Religions World Church program, Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame. Find him on twitter @GabrielSaidR.

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