With political change in Iraq and the ongoing transformations in Tunisia and Egypt, news of attacks on religious minorities in the Middle East, from only a month ago, has been forgotten. But with democratic processes taking hold in parts of the Middle East, there is a new opportunity for the kind of changes necessary to address the religious discrimination seen as recently as January.
The bomb attacks against Christian communities in Egypt and Iraq were severely condemned by most political and religious leaders, as well as by the public in the Arab world. However unfortunate, these attacks must serve as a wake-up call to change the culture of exclusion and fear that has become pervasive in the Middle East.
The Iraqi prime minister’s condemnation of the 31 October 2010 siege on a Catholic church in Baghdad, which killed more than 50 parishioners, was the right thing to do, as was increasing security at Christian places of worship and creating an investigative committee to look into the incident.
In Egypt, where a suicide attack outside the Coptic al-Qiddisin church in Alexandria killed at least 25 people and injured 70 during a New Year’s Eve service, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak’s fervent call to Egypt’s Muslims and Christians to stand united against terrorism was certainly constructive, whatever one might think of him as a leader.
It remains a fact in both countries that perpetrators are rarely brought to trial, a reality that often leads to a climate of impunity on one hand and continued religious discrimination and social tension on the other.
In Egypt, thousands of Muslims attended Coptic Christmas mass in early January alongside their Christian compatriots, showing their solidarity and acting as human shields. And Mubarak responded to the attack, saying, “This act of terrorism shook the country’s conscience, shocked our feelings and hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians.” However, as in Iraq’s case, no one has been charged.
It is no surprise that Christians from the central provinces of Iraq are fleeing to the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclaves and to neighbouring countries. The number of Iraqi Christians declined sharply at the start of the American invasion in 2003 and is far less today. Similarly, it is no surprise that many Copts in Egypt feel marginalised and some wish to leave.
And sadly it is not only in Egypt and Iraq that such discrimination occurs. Saudi Arabia does not recognise or protect the freedom of religion for religious minorities. Lebanon’s confessional system, which apportions political offices on the basis of religion, is also considered by some to be discriminatory.
Middle Eastern states trying to remedy this situation should pursue a pluralistic mode of existence where citizenship is the only basis for inclusion in the national community. Religious privilege and discrimination have no place in such a setting.
To counter religiously motivated extremism, Middle Eastern societies must create educational curricula for public schools that promote dialogue and social coexistence between people of different religious backgrounds. These teaching plans will equip teachers and students alike with an appreciation for existing laws and help them become advocates for news laws that would provide religious equality to all.
The curricula should also focus on non-violent methods for working through disagreements with others over ideological differences.
Moreover, students can be taught about shared beliefs, in order to highlight the commonalities between faiths. These values not only enable a culture of peace, but also contribute to a positive national image and identity.
While everyone has an important role to play, religious leaders must take an active role in promoting coexistence between different faith communities and coming down strongly against religiously motivated violence. Religious leaders in the Middle East must become more engaged in eradicating injustice and facilitate the healing process. A good example is the recent statement issued by Cairo’s Al-Azhar University that denounced the violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt, stating: “This is a criminal act that can never be justified in any religion.”
The vicious cycle of discrimination and violence must end. The way forward must be enshrined in laws and due process and anchored in civility, inclusivity, and respect for the other.
Dr. Saliba Sarsar is Professor of Political Science and Associate Vice President for Global Initiatives at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey and Secretary, HCEF Board of Directors. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).