The 'Christian Barometer' and the Middle East
by Leon Hadar

The Globalist
June 1 2005

Even those who have celebrated the recent election in Iraq are
concerned that it could give birth to a government dominated by Shi'ite
fundamentalist parties that have little respect for the rights of
women and minorities.

But even those observers worried about the outcome in Iraq take some
comfort in the prospect that the liberalization of state-controlled
economies and the adoption of free-market reforms signals positive
change by Middle Eastern governments.

That hope is primarily rooted in the East Asian experience, where
economic liberalization has helped expand the middle class and empower
its members to press for political reforms.

But as China's experience demonstrates, there could be a long delay
between the launching of free-market reforms and the creation of
democratic institutions in the Middle East.

Thinking Outside the Box

N o matter how one approaches the issue, assessing movement toward
reform in the Middle East by considering just free elections, market
reforms, or even the adoption of constitutions and bills of rights
does not provide a full picture. After all, these steps amount mostly
to political and legal arrangements - and could be swiftly reversed
by a new government.

So here is my idea: Why don't we measure progress toward freedom in
the Middle East focusing on the status of an integral element of the
region's political and social-demographic environment - its large
Christian minorities?

The Christian Litmus Test

M ost of these people are highly educated and multilingual, and have
studied and worked in Europe and North America - where they also have
a large diaspora. The Christians of the Middle East also tend to be
more secular and liberal than the surrounding Muslim majority.

To put it differently, common sense - backed by statistical and
anecdotal evidence - provides you with this surprising but dependable
rule of thumb.

As the Middle East becomes more free and prosperous, linked to the West
and hospitable to minorities and women, the higher the probability
that the Christians will continue to live in and even return from
abroad to countries like Lebanon, Egypt, or Syria.

And vice versa, if the Christians sense that things are getting worse,
that the Arab countries they live in are losing their commitment
to political, economic, and religious freedom, they would tend to
emigrate from the Middle East.

Improving Accuracy

C all it the Middle East's "Christian barometer," which provides the
world with a more accurate measurement of the political temperature
in the Middle East than even the most sophisticated social scientific
model.

Although no precise figures are available, most experts estimate that
Christians make up between 7 and 10 percent of the total population
of the Arab world, which translates to between 21 and 30 million
Christians living there.

Persecution and Exodus

S ome of the numerically significant Christian minority groups include
the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of Lebanon, the Assyrians of Iraq,
the Greek Orthodox and diaspora Armenians of Syria, and the tribal
members of southern Sudan.

The Maronites have been the leading force in the rise of a Lebanese
identity, and individual Christians have played an important role in
the secular Arab nationalist movement and in Arab cultural life.

But the Copts and the Assyrians have declined into politically
marginal minorities as the Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum,
Sudan's capital, has been trying to assimilate the Christian (and
animist) South.

At the same time, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the condition
of the more than 1 million Christians in that country - Chaldeans,
Syrian, Latin, and Armenian Catholics - has deteriorated. Churches
in Iraq have burned, while scores of Christians have been killed.
According to press reports, 200,000 Iraqi Christians have left for
Syria - and perhaps as many have left the region.

Radicalism on the Rise

T rue enough, Saddam Hussein tried to suppress the religious identity
of the Christians as part of the effort to create a secular Iraqi
identity.

But now, in the aftermath of the American invasion, the Christians
sense the rise of radical Islamic tendencies in both the ruling
Shi'ite majority and the Sunni minority.

Region-Wide Trends

S o the Christians in Iraq are trying to leave the country - as
opposed to taking part in building a new liberal democracy. Joining
them in emigrating from the Middle East are the Christians in the
Holy Land. Many Western-educated Palestinian Christian professionals
had actually returned to the West Bank during the Oslo peace process.


But after the start of the Second Intifada, and with signs that Islamic
radicals are strengthening their power, they are moving back to North
and South America, Europe, and Australia.

Even in Lebanon, which was established by the French to provide
autonomy to the Maronites, the number of Christians has been dwindling.

No census has been conducted among the population in that country, but
the best guess is that the Maronites constitute around 25 percent,
including many who hold dual citizenship and spend most of the
year abroad.

A Bleak Outlook

A ll which is only adding to a very depressing picture as the number
of Christians in the Middle East continues to shrink. The Arab world
is losing some of its best and brightest who could have played a
major role in an authentic - not choreographed - reform process in
the region.

So pay attention to the "Christian barometer." Only if and when the
Christians in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere become more
bullish can we be confident that the region is becoming more open,
free, pluralistic, and prosperous.