|November 16, 2001||atimes.com|
Christians caught in the middle
By Kim Ghattas
CAIRO - When US President George W Bush used the word "crusade", they froze in their chairs, even if they realized it was not meant literally. When Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, reminded the world of his 1998 pledge to pursue a holy war against Christians and Jews, Middle Eastern Christians started wondering where that left them.
In Cairo, the family of Adel Karras feels somewhat stuck in the middle. On September 18, one of their relatives, another Adel Karras, was shot dead in his grocery store in Los Angeles. Karras looked Arab and his shop was near a mosque. Nothing was stolen from his store and his death is being investigated as a hate crime by Los Angeles police. Presumably, the attackers were venting their anger on Muslims, whom they saw as responsible for the September 11 attacks. What they did not know was that Karras, a father of three, was Christian, a Copt from Egypt.
But the Karras family, and the Coptic community at large, also fear that the strikes against Afghanistan could make them proxy targets for those angry at the West. The recent killing of 17 Christians in Pakistan has only added to that feeling. Christians in the Middle East, small and dwindling minorities from Iraq to Jordan and Syria, have been feeling a bit uneasy since September 11.
"I hear them [Muslims] talking in the street," says Rafik Labib, a mourner at Karras' service in Cairo last week. "They don't know my religion and they say in front of me what they want to do to Christians. It sounds bad."
Yet, explains Imad Jad from the al-Ahram center for strategic studies, a Copt himself, Egypt's Copts have long "fought against Western meddling in their affairs and refused foreign protection for fear of being singled out even more".
With their own pope, Copts, who are thought to be direct descendants from the Pharaohs, represent about 14 percent of the Egyptian population and have endured for 1,400 years under Muslim rule. But it has not always been easy. Coptic participation in politics or in the army is microscopic and job discrimination is everywhere. The last intercommunal clash led to the killing of 20 Copts in 1998 in rural Egypt.
"Christians have enough problems here - this war is the last thing they need," says Jad. He deplores the way the West deals with Christians in the Middle East, saying that complaints about discrimination are only brought up when it suits Western interests. "If there is suddenly a rise in discrimination or there are persecutions of Christians in a country that is allied to the US in this coalition, no one will say a thing or complain to the government about it," he says.
In Lebanon, a country with the largest proportional Christian community in the Middle East, there is a feeling that for once it might be a good thing that there will be no special treatment for the Christians. Unlike Copts in Egypt, Maronite Christians in Lebanon have historical ties with the West that date back to the French mandate over Lebanon. "I don't think that there will be Muslim-Christian tensions, because this time we are all the same in the eyes of the US, all Arabs, all in the same bag," says Michele Maria, a young Christian from the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
But not everybody's heart is at rest. This month, two churches were attacked and a mosque was set on fire. Graffiti on the mosque's wall read "all Muslims are terrorists". The churches were in towns with a Muslim majority and the mosque in a predominantly Christian town.
Incidents such as these are not unheard of in Lebanon, which suffered through a 15-year civil war, but at a time like this, the incidents are monitored carefully by the government which has already caught one of the church attackers. The Lebanese are taking it with a pinch of salt.
In Furn el Chebbak, a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, the mood is still relaxed. "I don't feel worried but the community as a whole might be worried," says Kamil, 23, sitting in his grocery store. "Even in quiet times, there are parties in Lebanon who try to stir up trouble between Christians and Muslims for personal interests, so what about when there seems to be a war going on between the West and Muslims?"
Christian clerics and Muslim sheikhs have sought to cool down tempers and call for understanding between the country's different communities during this precarious period. But drawing from its unfortunate experience of civil war and sectarian strife, Lebanon also has called on other countries to watch out for sectarian strife. After the Pakistan massacre, Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper's editorial said: "It all sounds very familiar to the Lebanese, and the record here might provide a road map to avoid the same deadly route."
(Inter Press Service)
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