To be a Christian in the Middle East has never been easy. During the long period of Islamic conquest from the seventh century onwards, Christians went from being a majority in countries such as Egypt and Syria to being an embattled minority. During the Ottoman ascendency, the position of the Christians in the empire was one of being second-class citizens, obliged to pay a special tax, and with no legal rights if sued by a Muslim. From time to time local rulers would massacre Christians, who were always a convenient a scapegoat when things were going bad. Across time, the number of Christians lessened, but whilst their position was not one to be envied, active persecution was accompanied by longer periods of co-existence. During the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century, Christians in the Middle East found themselves in an odd position.
Ottoman power was decaying, and the European Great Powers all had considerable influence in the area we now call the Middle East. The Russian Empire, in particular, positioned itself as the champion of Orthodox Christianity, whilst in areas such as greater Syria where there were Catholic Christians, the French did much the same for Catholics. This secured some concessions for Christians, and even when the European Powers began to lose their direct control, local governments such as those of Nasser in Egypt, were of a secularist bent and did not persecute Christians. The growth of Salafist Islam since 1979 began to change that position, and since the first Iraq war, the position of Christians has deteriorated markedly; the second Iraq war accelerated that process. We see, now, very small numbers of Christians left in Iraq, and in Syria they have been targeted by Isis. The Copts, the largest Christian community in the region, have preserved their Christian culture against all attempts to crush it. They have become a regular target of Islamist extremists – and now we have just witnessed another terrible attack on St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo where at least 25 people have been murdered. May the Lord have mercy on their souls. I hope that those who believe in praying for the dead will do so.
The Copts have endured so much across so many centuries, and yet they have endured. Whenever I have attended a Coptic service I have been struck by the evident piety of the priests and the people. They are proud of the fact that their land sheltered the infant Jesus and the Holy Family, and their Christian tradition is one of the oldest in the world. That they have become the recipient of such hatred tells us more about the character of their enemies than it does about them. But we should not assume that all, or even most, Muslims, approve of the actions of the extremist – there have been some notable examples of Muslims helping Christians and defending their Churches. It is particularly important at these times to remember such examples and not to give the murderers what they want – which is retaliation and bitterness. That is not the way of Jesus, and nor has it been the way of the Copts. Violence begets violence – unless a higher spirit intervenes. The violence unleashed in the region by the West since 2003 has unleashed a hurricane which shows no sign of abating. And what, you ask, are our Governments doings about any of this? Not a great deal – and it might be that, seeing what our intervention has done in the past, the Copts are very glad of it.