Saliba Sarsar, PhD*
Cultures of violence and fear, politics of exclusion, pervade the Middle East and North Africa. From being the cradle of civilization, the region is becoming a dead end for many, who are being disempowered and oppressed because of their beliefs or religion.
Extremists have politicized religious differences to the extent that many fear the other. Those who fear something do not take time to learn its true meaning. Extremists cross the line further by killing and maiming others in the name of their twisted version of religion or politics.
A prime example is the bombing at Cairo’s Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, located next to Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Pope, during Sunday mass on December 11, 2016, which killed 25 and injured 49. Those responsible for it are both criminal and sinful. The Egyptian authorities have identified the suicide bomber and his accomplices, and the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
Regrettably, this type of incident has happened before and little was done about it. On January 1, 2011, for example, a suicide attack outside a church in Alexandria, Egypt, killed at least 21 people and injured at least 79 during service at the al-Qiddissin (Coptic Orthodox) Church. Less than a week later, also in Egypt, the police arrested three suspects in a drive-by shooting that killed six Coptic Christians and one security official on January 7. Moreover, in August 2013, more than 40 churches, dozens of businesses, schools, and homes belonging to Copts were attacked.
Specific incidents of persecution of and violence against Copts in Egypt, who constitute 10 to 15 percent of Egypt’s 89 million people, jumped from 2 in the 1980s to 9 in the 1990s and from 5 in the 2000s to 12 between 2010 and 2016.
The 2016 Annual Report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) states that even though the Egyptian government has addressed some religious freedom matters, its “inability to successfully prosecute those responsible for past violence against Copts and other religious minorities has continued to foster an atmosphere of impunity.”
A similar climate of religious intolerance and persecution has occurred in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East. IS’s acts against Christians and other communities (Sabian Mandaean, Shabak, Shi’a, Turkmen, Yazidi) are genocidal and crimes against humanity. Today, Iraqi Christians number less than 300,000, down from around 1.5 million before 2003.
In Syria, Christians and other religious and ethnic communities are suffering terribly because of the actions of the Syrian regime, some in the armed opposition, and IS, among others. According to USCIRF, “Reports have emerged … of gross human rights violations, including beheading, rape, murder, torture of civilians and religious figures, and the destruction of mosques and churches.”
The condemnation of these heinous acts, the increases in security at places of worship, and the appointment of investigative committees—all are appreciated but insufficient.
In addition to combating terrorism and holding governments accountable for their policies, what would be necessary is for countries to treat all of their citizens with equality and neutrality as well as prosecute the perpetrators of violence through the legal system. This necessitates the strengthening of good governance so as to respect the rule of law and comply with international human rights standards, including freedom of belief or religion.
What would be necessary is to build a culture of peace that empowers citizens to resolve their differences agreeably and fulfills the promise of a pluralistic mode of existence. This can be partially done through the creation of curricular and co-curricular programs that foster dialogue and social coexistence. Children and the youth can be a driving force in moving the society forward.
What would be necessary is for people (e.g., parents, teachers, religious leaders, societal activists, governmental officials) of all ages and backgrounds—not only those who are adversely affected—to speak out vigorously against injustice so as to highlight moderation and reason and reassert the passion for compassion, love, and peace.
We must “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). We must reclaim the voice of sanity in our faith traditions. Shirking our responsibility will be both improper and wrong.
*Saliba Sarsar, Chair of the HCEF Research and Publication Committee, is Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University.