Terry Waite: The awful plight of Christians in the Middle East
Terry Waite writes for The Guardian:
Last week I returned to Lebanon, a quarter of a century after being kidnapped and held captive for almost five years, most of the time chained to a wall and denied many basic comforts. You might think such a trip foolhardy, but the crisis developing there desperately needs attention.
I had been invited to go back to see for myself the plight of the many Christian refugees who are flooding across the Syrian/Lebanese border, and travelled to the Bekaa Valley to visit the refugees who have been forced into exile from Syria. The situation there is tragic. …
Worthy as the proponents of political change may be, there are now elements of the Arab spring that have been hijacked by Islamic extremists who want to impose sharia law and banish Syrian Christians, who make up about 10% of the population. This has created a very hostile environment for minorities. I met refugee families living in dire circumstances in Lebanese border towns, and heard first hand their harrowing stories.
In the early 20th century, Christians made up to 20% of the population in the Middle East; that figure has now dwindled to around 5%. Before the Arab spring Christians in Syria were businesspeople, engineers, lawyers and pharmacists. While Assad brutally restricted political freedoms, the regime did allow the Syrian people religious freedom – more so than elsewhere in the Middle East.
Now Christians are leaving the country. The occupied territories of Palestine are also rapidly losing their Christian communities. Egypt is in turmoil with a series of anti-Coptic Christian riots; Libya is a disaster. In Iraq 300,000 Christians have fled persecution since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
An estimated 100,000 Christians have left Syria, many to border towns like al-Qaa. Lebanon is the last country in the Middle East where Christians can live in relative peace and security.
Al-Qaa is a dusty, somewhat ramshackle town which has been the scene of numerous border clashes across the years. It is here that many of the Christian families who have escaped from the terrors of warfare in Syria find a temporary home. More than 200 families are housed in and around al-Qaa, mainly being taken into the homes of other Christian families or renting properties. The people I met were not well off. Families I visited told similar stories. The conflict had become so severe that they had been forced to leave their homes. In one place, there were 15 people living in four small rooms. “The Arab spring is a joke,” said one of the refugees. “It has become another form of persecution.” …
From a Christian perspective, Lebanon is rapidly becoming the only remaining country in the whole of the Middle East where there is a significant Christian presence. It will take plenty of acts of reconciliation before Christians once again feel safe in their homeland.