Going, Going … Gone

The Christians of the Middle East are fleeing in droves.

Gwynne Dyer

Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millennia.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say, most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed  religious freedom.

Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup thirty years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese — like, perhaps, her absent father’s family — that would have spelled “money”.

So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws. The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant, and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with US and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and was whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC.  “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

So a happy(ish) ending to the story — but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq eleven years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalised and obsessed with religious differences — both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones — and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.

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