Middle East Christians and Religious Liberties

Ten days ago a gruesome attack on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad highlighted the oft-hid plight of the millions (seven by some counts) of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East who have been forced to take on the status of refugee over the last decade. The attacks also put a tragic endnote on the close of a Special Synod on the Middle East which brought together many of the leaders of the Middle East’s traditional Orthodox Catholic Churches at Nicosia on Cyprus (see Sandro Magister’s analysis here). The discussions and stories at the Synod brought to light some of the pricklier issues of religion-state issues in the Middle East today, especially over the status of religious minorities within a religious state.

While very few of the states of the Middle East (Israel included) claim to be “secular” states, nearly all of them claim to be democratic. This means that in most of these countries, Islam (or Judaism) retains a privileged place in state constitutions, even as those same constitutions, in theory, also privilege and protect individual rights of choice, expression, and assembly. In this light, therefore, Muslim representatives who were invited to the Cyprus Synod all stressed the tolerance inherent in Islam (and Islamic states) towards Christians and their Churches throughout their addresses.

Yet, as several of the Synod fathers pointed out, that religious tolerance, in practice, often only extends to the right to worship, not the right to conscience. In fact, one of the recent trends in religion-state relations in the Middle East, in countries like Iran and Algeria, has been the increasing criminalization of acts of proselytism and religious conversion away from the Islam of state.

While religious intolerance has been one factor pushing many traditional Arab Christians to leave the region, however, economic opportunities have attracted others. This has added new dimensions of complexity and opportunity to the status of religious minorities in the Middle East. In countries like Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, for example, Catholics have grown from representing 0 to 10% of the population over a fifteen year period, fueled by waves of individuals from the Philippines, Ethiopia and India taking up domestic and construction work. Just like Muslim immigration in Southern Europe, the dynamics these Catholic immigrants in the Gulf inject into their religious markets create new possibilities for rethinking the relationship between religion and state within non-secular political regimes. A shared vocabulary about human beings’ spiritual rights is indicative of the potential religious regimes possess to better their relationship with their religious minorities. As favored national religious institutions, official Islam ought to be in the best of vantage seats not only to help protect religious minorities (as Iraqi Christians plead) but also to help promote individuals’ freedom of conscience. Decriminalizing religious conversions would be a good place to start.