Analysis: Mideast Christians struggle to hope in Arab Spring

Thu Jun 23, 2011 5:30am EDT
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - Middle East Christians are struggling to keep hope alive with Arab Spring democracy movements promising more political freedom but threatening religious strife that could decimate their dwindling ranks.

Scenes of Egyptian Muslims and Christians protesting side by side in Cairo's Tahrir Square five months ago marked the high point of the euphoric phase when a new era seemed possible for religious minorities chafing under Islamic majority rule.

Since then, violent attacks on churches by Salafists -- a radical Islamist movement once held in check by the region's now weakened or toppled authoritarian regimes -- have convinced Christians their lot has not really improved and could get worse.

"If things don't change for the better, we'll return to what was before, maybe even worse," Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Antonios Naguib said at a conference this week in Venice on the Arab Spring and Christian-Muslim relations.

"But we hope that will not come about," he told Reuters.

The Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, feared the three-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad spelled a bleak future for the 850,000 Christians there.

"If there is a change of regime," he said, "it's the end of Christianity in Syria. I saw what happened in Iraq."

The uncomfortable reality for the Middle East's Christians, whose communities date back to the first centuries of the faith, is that the authoritarian regimes challenged by the Arab Spring often protected them against any Muslim hostility.   Continued...

<p>A soldier stands guard near the Saint Mary church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih</p>