by Paul Merkley

The Suffocation of Christian Communities in the Middle East

So far, only one indubitable trend has emerged in the so-called "Arab Spring" and that is towards collapse of all the political structures that were functioning before it began in January, 2011. Standing out clearly against this noisy background are two unmistakable sub-themes that have received much too little notice in our media. One is a rising level of menace against Jews, and the other is a rising level of menace against Christians. This below is Essay One in the Series.

The dissolution of the Jewish community in the Arab Middle East since 1948

When the first Arab-Israeli War (Israel's War of Independence) began in 1948 scores of Jewish communities existed across the Arab Middle East, including the Maghreb (North Africa.) Because of the refusal of "the Arab Nation" in 1947-1948 to countenance the decision of the UN for the partition of Palestine, virtually all living members of this entire body of Middle Eastern Jewry, an estimated 850,000 persons in all, were forced out by their neighbours from the lands of their birth. Between 1948 and 1954, the Jewish population in Middle Eastern and North African lands dropped to less than 50,000. The ancestors of these Jews had been resident in those lands, in some cases, for more than two millennia, and in all cases many centuries longer than the ancestors of the current Arab residents.

Most of the Jews expelled from Muslim lands after 1948 took up residence and citizenship in Israel, where they arrived destitute, having being stripped of their assets by the Muslim populations from which they fled. At once this new citizenry, exceeding in number the whole population of the Jewish State at the time of its Declaration in May, 1948, was fed and sheltered; within a short time, it was educated, and provided with employment by the Jewish State (assisted, as always, by Jews of the Diaspora.) Thus was accomplished the de-judification of the Middle East.

Christian leaders contemplate the de-judification of the Arab world

Ever since those days, leaders of the communities belonging to the Middle East Council of Churches have been doing everything they can to distance themselves from the Jews and from Zionism, in the desperate hope of escaping the fate of their Jewish former-neighbours.

The decibel level of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist rhetoric coming from the Christians of the Middle East, already ear-splitting for many generations, has increased noticeably since the Arab Spring began. As just one example we note the absurd claim made in late 2011 by the Coptic Pope Shenouda III (since deceased) that all the turmoil attending the Arab Spring is the work of the Masons and the Jews, and his accompanying denunciation of those Western Christians who seek "reconciliation" with the irredeemable Jews. The Jews, the Coptic Pope explained, are "Christ-killers ... because the New Testament says they are."[1] But most distressing of all is that leaders of the Western Churches, whether fearful of "offending" Muslims or eager to demonstrate "tolerance," are reluctant to speak openly about persecution.


It seems that most of those politicians in our part of the world who recognize the gravity of the situation still want to believe that it could be remedied by introduction of something like our practice of separation of church and state into the Middle East. There was inane speculation along this line in the first weeks of Spring, as governments of the Arab Middle East seemed to be shifting away from their traditional authoritarian basis and onto the foundation of democracy. By mid-year 2012, however, it was becoming hard to believe that the answer to the problems of the Middle East is democracy.

When the Arab Spring was in its earliest days in Tunisia, the first fruits of democracy were already evident in Iraq, where, since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Christians have been brutally persecuted to the point that perhaps one-third of them have fled their homeland. Likewise in Afghanistan, a decade after the West overthrew the Taliban, committing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, the last open church has been destroyed, even as individual Christians are put to death under blasphemy and apostasy laws enforced by a government installed, maintained and subsidized by the West. In Tunisia, in Morocco, in Libya and in Egypt it is now clear that only Islamist parties have the broad popular support as well as the financial resources necessary to dominate the next phase — the political brokering that will determine the constitution of governments of the future. These Islamist parties make no secret of their anti-Christian agenda: it is identical to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

A Litmus test for the Christian World: The Copts of Egypt

This unpleasant theme — the increasing persecution and imminent suffocation of Christian communities in Arab countries — has been almost entirely ignored by the secular media and is deliberately pursued only by certain Christian websites maintained not by the church denominations nor by their great ecumenical agencies but by voluntary organizations sustained by individual givings, drawing upon freelance journalists and independent researchers and sustained by voluntary contributions.[2]

It is not difficult to find the fundamental reason why our media have ignored this theme. Our secular opinion elites are indifferent, at best, to the fate of Christianity; their contempt for Christianity at home is reflected in the endless journalistic excavation for proofs of sexual abuse by priests in days gone by, in vilification of the lifestyles of Christian believers, and in their witless mockery of the vocabulary of faith.

But another major reason for the general neglect of this theme of persecution of Christians in the Middle East is that these very victims of Islam's contempt fear the consequences of antagonizing the Muslim masses among whom they must live. Typically, it is not until the local situation has became nearly hopeless, as the Christian population is decimated and scattered from traditional centers in cities and until large numbers of the elites have fled to the west to save what can still be saved of their religious legacy, that church leaders will call upon the world for understanding of their peril.

In a later essay I will be examining the sad history of the virtual annihilation of the Armenian and the Assyrian populations of the Middle East early in the Twentieth Century. I will note here only that in each of these cases a moment did come when leaders of the local Christian communities, caught as in a desert wadi following a sudden downpour, cried out for rescue to the "Christian world" — but cried out too late.

Among the very few remaining indigenous church bodies in the Arab Middle East only one is still large enough to have had some recent standing in the nation's political system (setting aside, for the moment, the case of Lebanon.) Having extraordinarily high stands of literacy and accomplishment in all academic and professional fields, the Copts have, at least until the latter Mubarak years, managed to defend their voice in the legal and professional establishments and in the counsels of government. Until recently, the Copts of Egypt had followed the age-old policy of Middle East churches — turning away the intention of friendly western Christians to "investigate" and intervene on their behalf with the governments of Egypt. But since the Arab Spring began, the pace of persecution has speeded-up in Egypt and the ability of the Christians to save themselves has been greatly damaged as Islamist forces have come to dominate the government and the police. Only recently have the Copts stepped out of line and made their appeal to the West.

When the great upheaval took place throughout Egypt in January 2011, leaders of the Coptic minority found their way toTahrir Square and made their way to the microphones of the western networks and expressed their confidence that the new liberating forces would bring a spirit of acceptance of freedom of religion. They spoke as though they imagined that all the talk about freedom was meant to apply to freedom of worship. By the summer of 2011, however, the world's attention had shifted away from obsessive preoccupation with the theatre playing out on the streets of Egypt. Television crews were picked up and transferred to Libya and other venues where more colorful events were unfolding. Rather than admit that fatigue had set in, the networks attempted to justify this reduced attention by imagining that a corner had been turned in Egypt's public life as the first steps were being taken towards the holding of national elections, which would then, in turn, create the constitutional conditions for a democratic government.

At this moment, radical youth packed up their equipment from Tahrir Square and followed the siren call of the imams to a different field — to take up the task of harassment of the Egypt's major body of Christians, the Copts. It was clear to them that the unwonted assertiveness of those Coptic voices in Tahrir Square was in need of correction. Throughout the summer and fall of 2011, stories emerged from several corners of Egypt about harassment of Coptic individuals and communities. Such stories were usually referred to as incidents of "sectarian conflict" — as though, on an even field, the Coptic one-tenth of the population and the Muslim nine-tenths were equally engaged in troubling the lives of each other. It was not from the New York Times, but from the Assyrian International News Service that we learned in the summer of 2011 of "the mob of several thousand Muslims from the village of Elmarinab in Edfu, Aswan province [that] demolished [the local church] and then burned it to the ground," proceeding them to destroying several business and several homes owned by Copts. Egyptian media explained that the church's leaders had not got the proper permit to make changes. The Supreme Council determined that "both sides were at fault, the Christians for exceeding the height of the church's tower and the Muslim citizenry for taking matters into heir own hands.[3]

By the end of 2011, official Coptic sources were reporting that since March 2011 up to 250,000 Coptic Christians had left Egypt, with no reduction of the rate of emigration in sight.[4]

A cry for help unheeded

A moment of embarrassment came for the American government in July, 2012, when the leaders of the major Christian communities in Egypt, having reached the point of desperation, and discouraged by the American administration's studied neglect of their plight, determined that they must decline invitations made to them to attend meetings that Secretary of State Clinton had scheduled to take place during her visit of personal discovery to Egypt during July, 2012. To these Christian leaders its was clear that, "the U.S. administration favors Islamist parties over secular and liberal forces in society at the expense of Egypt's 8 million Christians."[5] It was a serious charge, and it was seconded by many leaders of other Egyptian groups who believed that the Obama administration was courting the goodwill of Islamists (expected to be the big winners in forthcoming elections.) In doing just that, the Obama administration is marginalizing the very elements upon whom the Western world should be basing its hopes for a democratic and liberal Egypt.


[1] See my essay, "After Saturday comes Sunday," December 21, 2011,, March 28, 2013.

[2] Notably, Voice of the Martyrs,; Open Doors ( See also,

[3] "Muslim Mob torches Coptic church in Egypt," Assyrian International News Service, October 1, 2011,

[4] This is according to a report by the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights,

[5] "Christians snub Cairo meeting with Clinton, claim US backs Islamists," MSNBC, July 17, 2012

Professor Paul Charles Merkley is the author of the Politics of Christian Zionism (Frank Cass, 1998), Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001) and American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Praeger, 2004.) His most recent book is Those That Bless You I Will Bless (Mantua Books, BRantfrod, Canada, 2011). Contact him by email at This article appeared April 8, 2013 in the Bayview Review. It is archived at

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