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With Arab revolts, region’s Christians mull fate

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Arab revolts have sparked fears among the region’s Christian minorities of Islamists gaining power and prompted some to ally with ostensibly secular dictatorial regimes to ensure their survival.

“Christians are very concerned about the future because Islamist movements are influential,” said Abdallah Abu Habib, deputy head of the Lebanese Maronite League, an influential lobby group.

“We are going through a transition period and Christians fear that it might spell the end of minorities in the Arab world,” added Abu Habib, former ambassador to the United States and director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

As the autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya crumbled, long repressed Islamist movements ventured onto the political scene alongside secular, leftist and liberal movements.

The same scenario is unfolding in Syria and Yemen.

For the region’s Christians, the upheavals have prompted concerns that secular regimes seen as a guarantee of their survival may be replaced by Islamists.

They worry they may suffer the same fate as Iraqi Christians, whose numbers have greatly dwindled since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the face of deadly persecution by Muslim extremists.

The number of Iraqi Christians fell to about 400,000 from an estimated figure of between 800,000 and 1.2 million before the 2003 US-led invasion.

“The fears of Christian minorities in the region can be explained by what happened in Iraq,” Abu Habib said.

In Egypt, the Christian Coptic community has also been the target of sectarian attacks. And in Syria there are fears among the Christian minority that Islamic extremists could rise to power should the regime of Bashar al-Assad collapse.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Patriarch Beshara Rai fed the debate declaring that he feared the collapse of “regimes described as dictatorial ... could lead to civil war, with Christians being the main victims.”

But others play down the possibility of such a backlash given the largely secular nature of the revolts, which in Tunisia and Egypt were led by youth movements.

“The current climate in the region and worldwide is not favorable to extremist currents,” said George Ishak, an Egyptian activist and one of the leaders of the Kefaya (Enough) Movement pushing for political reform.

“I don’t see any problem if the Islamists gain power through free and fair elections,” he said. “People will then judge them by their action.”

Analysts say public opinion in the Arab world will no longer tolerate authoritarian regimes, secular or Islamist.

“While Islamists can reap immediate benefit from the revolutions, they will not be able to impose their strict agendas even if elections give them more legitimacy,” said Zyad Maged, political science professor at the American University of Paris.

Maged added that although there were legitimate fears among religious and ethnic minorities in the Arab world, that should not push them to strike alliances with authoritarian regimes.

“Democracy, diversity and protecting freedom are the solution and constitute a guarantee,” he told AFP. “That is why minorities need to join the political process.

“They must not sit on the sidelines.”