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22 December 2011

Christians in the Middle East

Christians in the Middle East

The position of Christians in the Middle East is "more vulnerable than it has been for centuries", warned the Archbishop of Canterbury on 9 December as he opened a five hour debate in the House of Lords reflecting on the implications for Christians of the Arab Spring.  

Describing the situation for Christians, he said that "whether in Egypt, Israel and Palestine or Syria, what were relatively secure communities are now increasingly seen as vulnerable". The Arab Spring which "began as a distinctively non-sectarian set of movements has inevitably opened the door to some of those Islamic political activists who suffered repression under the old regimes", he said. 

These concerns were shared by others in the debate which showed consensus between the 29 Peers who spoke, representing both sides of the House. Lord Patten said: "We are facing religious cleansing in parts of the Middle East and may be entering into what might be thought of as an 'Arab Winter' for Christians, Jews and other minority groups." The area is home to between 10 and 15 million Christians, but communities are shrinking in number as Christians leave due to emigration, low birth rates, persecution and violence.  

Lord Parekh said: "In recent years, they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violent attacks… many Muslim converts to Christianity have also been suffering very quietly because they are not recognised as Christians." 

Foreign office minster Lord Howell reflected: "We as a government are committed to promoting all religious groups, including Christians, around the world. We will continue to highlight and condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals because of their beliefs, wherever they occur." He also agreed with Lord Patten and said that "religious freedom is basic human right". 

This important debate showed the growing determination from Christians in Britain to come together "not to argue about policy but to bring to the attention of this House and those who follow its debates the disturbing and deteriorating situation faced by Christians in the Middle East".  

Alliance member Barnabas Fund and the Archbishops' Council both prepared briefings prior to the debate. They show that "religious minorities have been placed under growing pressure in the wake of the momentous changes" which pose real risks, but also show that there is an opportunity for Christians in the Middle East to help "develop truly participatory and representative models of government". 

The Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged that although "no-one is seeking a privileged position for Christians" the treatment of Christian communities would be a "litmus test" of the success of the Arab Spring.