Progress in Arab world doesn't include religious tolerance


Egyptian Coptic Christians lie on the ground while holding a cross during a protest outside the Egyptian state television building in Cairo on March 10, 2011. Sectarian clashes killed at least 13 people in Cairo this week, as old regime diehards attacked pro-democracy protesters in the biggest challenge yet to Egypt's new military rulers.


Aris Messinis

BOSTON — When Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem more than 30 years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask him a question. The scene was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where Christ was buried. It was one of the places on Sadat’s tour, and I asked him: “What does it mean to you, a devout Muslim, to be here in the very heart of Christianity?”

He looked me up and down and snapped: “Young man, I will have you know there are more Christians in my country than there are Jews in Israel.”

I thought about that when I heard that Coptic Christians were once again being beaten and killed, and a church burned near Cairo, so soon after the mass demonstrations that seemed to bring Christian and Muslims together in the struggle to bring down Hosni Mubarak.

This ancient sect, according to legend, was founded by St. Mark in Alexandria. Under the British they were a favored minority, often holding high government positions. Today, with roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population, they are persecuted. The brief hope that the uprising against Mubarak’s tyranny would bring Egyptians together has proved to be very shortlived.

This was not always so. When Muslim lands first emerged from colonial tutelage, different religions were tolerated. Was it just because the early third world leaders were still under the sway of colonial thinking? What ever the case, religious toleration is breaking down.

Consider Pakistan, where the minister of minority affairs, and the only Christian in the government, Shahbaz Bhatti, was recently assassinated. His crime: opposing blasphemy laws that carry a death sentence for those who insult the prophet. It is frequently used to intimidate minorities. The governor of the Punjab, Salmman Taseer, a Muslim, was assassinated for the same reason.

All over the Middle East Christians are being discriminated against. In Palestine, a once considerable Christian population, has been decimated. They were, as in Egypt, a favored minority under British rule. George Antonius, who wrote “The Arab Awakening,” represented the Christian community in the forefront of Arab nationalism during the British mandate. It is sad to see, in the second Arab Awakening, that the struggle has not brought Christians and Muslims together as it did in the 1930s and 40s.

When Pakistan was created in 1947 to be a homeland for Muslims following the British partition of India, its founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, made a famous speech on independence day. “You are free,” he said. “You are free to go to your temples, your are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in the state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the state. ... We are starting with this fundamental that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of the state.”

But, alas, this holdover from British tutelage is defunct today. Religious persecution is rife throughout the region. If you want to look for tolerance it can be found, ironically, in the authoritarian state of Syria. There the Christian minority is rigorously protected.

Religion has been tearing apart Lebanon, which was carved out of Syria by French colonialists, mainly to create a homeland for Christians.

It must be said that the Muslim Sunni-Shia divide has caused even more trouble in the Arab world. But in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shia remain in mutual hostility, Christians are badly treated as well — more so than they were under Saddam Hussein.

The result has been a mass exodus of Christians from the Arab world, a real loss, partly attributable to the fact that they were better educated and favored under colonial rule. Christian Palestinians have moved in the thousands to South America and Michigan.

But if Christians are being persecuted in the Muslim world, think for a moment about Muslims in Christendom. The bigoted campaign against a mosque three blocks from “Ground Zero” in Manhattan, as if there were no Muslims killed in the Twin Towers, set the tone. Consider the upcoming Congressional hearings to delve into Muslim terrorism in the United States, by Rep. Peter King. His interest is in the politics of division, not terrorism. He defended terrorism when he supported the IRA in Northern Ireland.

And then there is Germany’s new interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, who said Germany’s Muslim citizens could never be true Germans.

Christendom may not be slaughtering Muslims, but the message is clear. Europe and America are turning ever more against their Muslim citizens. In the Muslim world the centuries-old tolerance that protected Christians, and Jews too, when Christendom rejected them, is giving way to darker impulses. Osama bin Laden must be delighted.

It bodes ill that Pakistan and Egypt have moved away from the tolerance that only a generation or two ago was preached widely. But the hard truth is that the authoritarian governments that are now being challenged and overthrown through out the Arab world may be looked back upon in times to come as the last bastion of tolerance, a hold over from colonial rule.