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Christians in the Muslim World

Cultural Change: the Egyptian Challenge

The painful events affecting Christian communities in the Middle East in recent times have been countless. If numerous analyses and explanations have been proposed, to find the perpetrators and punish them remains the governments’ imperative responsibility. It is important to remark that here in Egypt there have been signs of solidarity with Christians on part of many Muslims, who have also taken part in masses in churches as an expression of friendship, being even ready to die with their Christian brothers. But this is not enough: it is necessary to analyze the causes of such events, which must be understood within the general historical context of the Middle East.

 

 

The Egyptian situation, as well as that of the whole Middle East, scarred by a history of violence and tensions (especially since the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948) has become particularly serious with the worldwide economic and financial crisis. Some minorities, such as the Christians, can be targeted in order to cause further unrest in the Country. In this scenario, Western policies haven’t always been helpful; at times, in fact, they have contributed to complicating situations, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

 

Going back to Egypt, we must contextualize the particular situation of the Coptic community. The Copts are the Christians of Egypt, the descendants of the early Christian community founded, according to tradition, by St Mark around 60 A.D.. They have known peaceful as well as turbulent times. With the Arab conquest in 640 A.D. they came under Muslim rule as “protected” (dhimmi), that is, they were under the protection of the Islamic State and were exempted from defending it. They, however, had to pay a poll tax, accept a subordinate position in society, often being obliged to wear distinctive clothing or display special emblems. Such a long tradition of social discrimination created a “besieged” feeling within the Coptic community and triggered a self-defence attitude.

 

 

If relationships between the Islamic and the Christian communities have had their ups and downs, what remains today is the general recollection of a peaceful cohabitation. In the modern era, the Arab Islamic States of the Middle East have adopted a number of liberal measures inspired by European laws, especially the Napoleonic Code; however, conflict areas persist, such as the critical question of the licence to build churches, that of personal laws, etc. With the recrudescence of fundamentalist pressure in the last few years, Christians feel much more marginalized and damaged, finding it hard to get work or have a career, for example.

 

 

An emerging question appears to be the need to produce a profound cultural change leading to a true equalitarian rule of law, where the formation of critical thinking be guaranteed and fundamental human rights defended unconditionally. This is an idea supported by the Christians but also largely by some Muslim communities; it is radically opposed by Islamic religious fundamentalism, the number-one problem for all Middle-Eastern societies -- and not only these.

 

 

Fundamentalism disturbs everyone, but little has been done so far to study its true causes and find the correct remedy -- to the point that today the problem seems to have worsened. It is necessary to confront this difficulty affecting traditional Islamic societies through the encounter – or the clash -- with models proposed by the West, bearing in mind the various phases of the history of the Middle-East, in the most liberal Countries (until the mid-twentieth century) and in the ones marked by socialist nationalism. The latter coincided, in Egypt, with the Nasir period. The failure of this Arab nationalism inaugurated the phase of a religious fundamentalism that intends to solve all problems in the light of a rigid interpretation of the founding texts of Islam. The question is very complex but the basic, dangerous feature of this form of fundamentalism is the nexus between religion and politics, so tight as to almost make them overlap, thus generating abuses and violence.

 

 

The highest price is paid by the religious minorities, which are now leaving fundamentalist-dominated Countries to look for work and a home in the West. A big question mark looms over the future of the Christian communities of the East, which are effectively changing their identity: on the one hand, emigration is gradually depriving the Eastern communities of their traditional believers (as in Iraq); on the other, the immigration of workers from Africa and Asia is almost “Latinizing” the Christian East. The future of the Eastern liturgy appears to be jeopardized by the lack of faithful.

 

 

All this brewing unrest needs to be considered within an organic vision and without fear: nothing must remain outside the overall intelligence of the situation and its evaluation.

 

 

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