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17 September, 2012  ▪  Michael Binyon

Persecuted for Faith

Clashes between Christians and Muslims are growing all along the boundary between the two religions, from Nigeria to Indonesia.

In a few weeks, a small blindfolded boy will literally hold the fate of millions of Egyptian Christians in his hands when he selects the name of the next Pope of the Coptic Church. After months of discussion among senior priests, academics, politicians and community leaders of the largest Christian community in the Middle East, the list is being drawn up of those put forward to succeed Pope Shenouda III, who died in March aged 88. He had led the Coptic Church for 41 years. The names of the three senior clerics chosen as the most qualified to lead a church that traces its origins back directly to St Mark will be placed in a box on the altar. And the choice will be made in a way sanctified by centuries of Old Testament tradition and practice - by a lottery. The final choice, Copts insist, will be made by God. His instrument will be a five-year-old child, selected at random at the start of a solemn service in the main  Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. The boy, free from the influence of any ecclesiastical or political faction, will be asked to draw one name from the recepticle at the high altar. The acting head of the Church will then proclaim the next Pope, or, using his full title, "Lord Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St Mark the Evangelist and Holy Apostle".

He will face a tough challenge - leading 14 million Copts worldwide at a time of rising religious tensions in Egypt and a growing network of Coptic faithful overseas. The Church leadership has welcomed the democratic changes in Egyptian politics, and is seeking good relations with the new Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi. But there is no hiding the worries that Islamist extremism is gaining ground and the number of attacks on Coptic churches and believers is growing. It is not only in Egypt that Christians are under threat. Throughout the Islamic world, Christians are on the defensive. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands have fled after 10 years of vicious attacks on their ancient community. Extremists have bombed churches, assassinated priests and two years ago al-Qaeda bombed a Catholic church in central Baghdad during a service, killing 53 worshippers. After the fall of Saddam, thousands of Iraqi Christians fled to Syria, where the Assad government offered them protection in the largely secular state. But since the start of the uprising against Assad, the large Syrian Christian minority has become ever more fearful. Many of the Sunni Islamists leading the rebels have made no secret of their hostility to the Alawite Muslims minority but also to the Christians, whom they accuse of supporting the Assad regime. The situation is just as bad in the heartland of Christianity. The once thriving Palestinian Christian community is dwindling fast. Caught between the rising force of Islamism among Hamas and the deep hostility of many Israelis (whose historic memories are of persecution of the Jews not by Muslims but by European Christians), Palestinian Christians are emigrating in their thousands, mostly to America, Australia and other Western countries. Churches are empty, Christian schools have closed and those Christians remaining in Israel and the occupied territories are unable to get jobs, training or the chance to worship in peace.

In 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, Christians made up 85 per cent of the population of Bethlehem, then ruled by Jordan. Today, under occupation, they account for no more than 12 per cent of the town's population. Pressure from Islamists, the fall in tourism, the lack of jobs and incidents such as the siege of the Church of the Holy Nativity by the Israeli Armed Forces in 2002 have forced many Christians to leave. Two years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury joined with the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain to host a high-level conference on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. They came to the alarming conclusion that the Holy Land, once home to thriving communities of Arab Christians from the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Armenian churches would soon have almost no native Christians living there. Jerusalem has already lost most of its Christian population. In Lebanon, the number of Christians, once the majority, has been falling for years. This was one of the factors behind the long Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, provoked by demands from Muslims for a greater share of political power. The end of the war left the embattled Christian population, once the most prosperous and politically influential, severely weakened. The civil war in Syria is now spilling over into Lebanon, again provoking sectarian tensions and bloodshed, especially between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the Christians fear they may soon find themselves again the target of violence and prejudice. The Copts in Egypt have experienced growing difficulties in the past 20 years, as Islamists have pushed for greater restrictions on their civic and religious rights. A main bone of contention, which the Church will again raise with President Morsi, is the ban on building new churches without special government permission - often denied by the local authorities. There is no such ban on the building of new mosques. The Mubarak regime did little to improve conditions for Copts, but since his overthrow calls for greater freedom and equal rights have grown.

Disputes arise frequently, especially over the vexed issue of conversion - banned by Islam and strongly discouraged by the Copts. Christian women who marry Muslims can cause significant tensions in their community. A suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria during midnight mass on New Year's Day last year left 21 people dead, and al-Qaeda claimed responsibility saying that the Christians had kidnapped and mistreated two Christian women who converted to Islam.

As the new Muslim Brotherhood Government finds itself unable to deliver many of the hopes for more jobs, higher wages and democratic freedoms, popular disillusion will grow and Copts may find themselves made scapegoats. Already there are signs that the Salafists, the hardline Islamists who won about 25 per cent of the seats in this year's parliamentary elections, are trying to impose new restrictions on Copts, implicit in their demand for an Islamic state.

The Coptic Church is used to fighting for its rights, however. Soon after his election, Pope Shenouda crossed swords with President Sadat, and there was a standoff lasting several years before the Government reconciled itself to him. With religious tensions at their highest for years, the new Pope may well find himself soon called on to exert vigorous leadership of his embattled community.

It is not only in the Arab world, however, where Christians are threatened. Clashes between Christians and Muslims are growing all along the boundary between the two religions, from Nigeria to Indonesia. In Pakistan, founded in 1947 to be a Muslim country that promised to tolerate all religions and creeds, the rise in Islamist extremism has seen frequent attacks on the largely poor Christian community, many of them descended from converts from lower-caste Hindus. The scandal of Rimsha Masih, the 14-year old mentally retarded Christian girl currently in prison on charges of desecrating the Koran, has underlined the frequent use by extremists of Pakistan's draconian laws against blasphemy to intimidate Christians and drive them out of their villages. Indeed, a Muslim mullah has just been arrested on charges of deliberately planting burnt pages of the Koran on the girl in order to provoke a pogrom against Christians to force them out of their homes so that Muslims could take over the land. Pakistan seems powerless to halt the influence of Muslim extremists. Last year a Christian government minister who spoke out against the abuse of blasphemy laws was assassinated. The Taleban claimed responsibility and the government has not dared to prosecute his killers, who were hailed as heroes by many Pakistanis. In 1988 Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad publicly committed suicide in protest against the laws, which lay down the death penalty for insulting Islam - although there is no legal definition of what constitutes and insult. And although no one has been executed under the statutes, estimated 1,200-4,000 cases have been filed, most of them against Christians.


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