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(McCann, Pierre)
(McCann, Pierre)

LYSIANE GAGNON

Christian canaries in an Arab coal mine Add to ...

This year will probably see an increased exodus of Arab Christians fleeing the mounting tide of radical Islam in the Middle East – a phenomenon that, as sad as it is, might bring a surge of new vitality to Canada’s thriving immigrant communities. Some of these exiles will choose Canada as a haven, and many of them should qualify for refugee status.

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Nearly 100,000 Copts have fled Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, chased by a series of increasingly violent pogroms at the hands of fanatics while the military often looked the other way. The country’s estimated 10 million Copts are the original inhabitants of this land; some can trace their origin to the Pharaonic period. They later converted to Christianity, centuries before the Arab conquest.

There’s no doubt their situation will worsen, given the popularity of the Salafists, the hard-line fundamentalist wing of the Islamist movement who gained nearly 25 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections.

Iraq already lost half of its million-strong Christian population – driven out by the sectarian infighting that followed the U.S.-led invasion and by numerous terrorist attacks against their churches.

The next wave of refugees is likely to come from Syria, whose more than one million Christians, an educated and active community, have been under the protection (and thus accused of collaboration) of the Alawite regime – a classic pattern of the secular Middle East dictatorships, from Saddam Hussein to Mr. Mubarak to Bashar al-Assad, that protected their religious minorities while ferociously repressing militant Islamists.

It’s probably only a question of time before the Assad government is overthrown – and then the Sunni Muslims who form the majority in Syria will turn against both the Shia Alawites and the Christians.

In Egypt, disquieting signs are multiplying. The Salafists, with their surprisingly good showing at the polls, will be a force that the military and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood will have to reckon with. One of their spokesmen, Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, recently declared that the Pharaonic relics are akin to “blasphemous idols” because they come from a pre-Islamic era, and that the Koran forbids the representation of human figures.

Mr. Shahat presents himself as a moderate. We aren’t the Taliban, he said, alluding to the destruction of the monumental pre-Islamist Buddha statues in Afghanistan; we’ll simply cover the relics with wax.

In a country where tourism is a major resource, it’s unlikely that an Egyptian government would abide by the Salafists’ wish. But the Salafists have other goals that might be shared by the Muslim Brotherhood: They want sharia law to be fully implemented, and they want writers such as Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz to be banned for immorality. They’ve also made clear that no Copt should ever be in a position of power.

Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Joseph Facal reports that hotels in Alexandria, a city he’s often visited, have stopped broadcasting CNN and the French public affairs network, substituting religious sermons instead. Last month, during clashes between military forces and protesters in Cairo, the venerable Institut d’Égypte, founded by Napoleon in 1798, was set on fire and thousands of documents were destroyed.

We’ll have a clearer view of what’s in store for Egypt when the elections are finished and a new constitution is drafted. But what’s certain is that the horizon is darker than ever for the Coptic minority.

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