Understanding the Relationship Between Christian Communities and Authoritarian States in the Middle East

Introduction

Christians in the Middle East are subject to the political, economic, and security challenges that all members of society face. In addition, Christians also experience discrimination and violence due to their religious identity. The aftermath of the 2011 Arab Uprisings led to a new wave of insecurity. For example, the overthrow of the Morsi presidency in 2013 led to a backlash against Egypt’s Copts and there continues to be occasional attacks on churches.[i] Similarly during the civil war in Syria, Christians, especially members of the clergy, have been taken hostage and murdered by a range of armed factions, churches looted and destroyed, and communities forced to flee their neighbourhoods.[ii] Yet despite this precarity, the majority of Middle Eastern Christians continue to support authoritarian leaders. As seen in the cases of Egypt and Syria, regime policies regarding communal autonomy and security are crucial not only in determining community attitudes towards authoritarian states but also in allowing states to have guaranteed Christian support at minimal cost to the regime.

Communal Autonomy

Under Muslim rule, collective identity was distinguished by religion, allowing religious leaders to act as representatives of their communities, and liaise with authorities on both political and religious matters. This became institutionalized as the millet system.

The right to worship, maintain communal institutions, and preserve cultural identity is a core aim of Christians in the Middle East. Historically, Christian religious leaders have played an important role in pursuing these goals. Under Muslim rule, collective identity was distinguished by religion, allowing religious leaders to act as representatives of their communities, and liaise with authorities on both political and religious matters.[iii] This became institutionalized as the millet system during Ottoman rule.[iv] In the contemporary Middle East, the understanding of autonomy of religious groups under church leadership remains the underlying principle of church-state relations.[v] Referring to the Egyptian context, academic Paul Rowe categorises this autonomy as a “neo-millet system,” which acts as an informal organisational structure that delegates responsibility of communal affairs to Christian religious actors in exchange for supporting state authorities.[vi] The neo-millet approach benefits both Middle Eastern Christian churches and the authoritarian states.

Internal autonomy has allowed Middle Eastern churches to remain the dominant communal actor. The fact that the group’s identity is grounded in religious affiliation means that religious institutions are deemed crucial in preserving their distinct identity. As a result, they have a preferential place in the community as guardians of religious knowledge and traditions. In many countries, most notably in Egypt through the Coptic Orthodox church, church leadership has focused upon activities that preserve religious and cultural identity such as religious and language education, heritage preservation, charity, and youth work.[vii] For many Christians in the region, especially the youth, social activities revolve around the church. While such initiatives foster communal identity, they can also lead to a parallel society where social interactions are limited to members of the same religious community.[viii] Naturally, this strengthens the position of the Church and its leadership which is seen as the main protector of the community’s identity and traditions.[ix] This is not to ignore internal challenges from political parties and civil society organizations associated with Christian communities who contest church involvement in the political sphere such as the Maspero Youth Organization (MYU) in Egypt.[x] MYU was founded in 2011 by Coptic youth campaigning for equal citizenship and promoting the separation of religion and politics.[xi] However, the apparent success of church leaders in safeguarding the community’s presence over centuries means that the majority acquiesce to the favouring of church leadership through the neo-millet system.

Contemporary Middle Eastern states seem comfortable with combining the neo-millet system with a direct relationship with their Christian citizens.

Internal autonomy depends upon states being willing to view citizens as part of a collective group and delegate responsibilities to communal leaders. Contemporary Middle Eastern states seem comfortable with combining the neo-millet system with a direct relationship with their Christian citizens. Christians are rarely perceived as a threat to or by Middle Eastern states, thus assigning a political role to religious leaders is not seen as challenging the legitimacy of the state. To the contrary, regimes can bolster support from the Christian community by stressing their respect for Christian leaders (and thus the community) in the knowledge that Christians fear that their internal autonomy may be endangered by regime change.[xii] Thus, the state has a dependable though not equal partner that is expected to publicly support state policies and counter any discontent directed at the government from the Christian community.[xiii] The public performance of this dependency is shown through mutual statements of support and recognition, especially on religious celebrations and through occasional visits between church and state officials. The relationship between the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch and the Egyptian state is often cited but the same approach is undertaken elsewhere in the region.[xiv] In the Syrian case, the neo-millet system operates at denominational level, especially those whose patriarchs reside in Damascus i.e. the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Syrian Orthodox.[xv] This reflects the multiplying of the originally recognised millets (Greek Orthodox in 1454 and Armenian in 1461) in the nineteenth century, primarily due to the establishment of Eastern Catholic branches.[xvi] To conclude, for regimes, the neo-millet system provides a straightforward and proven way to manage relations with Christian communities at minimal cost. For Christians, the dominance of religious leaders is deemed the cost of guaranteeing internal autonomy, crucial to ensuring the survival and preservation of the community.

Catholic believers and clerics gather outside the Greek-Melkite Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus, Syria, on 14th April, 2019 (Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images).

Security

Security concerns in the Middle East range from political instability to regime repression, militancy, and civil war. These conditions affect all parts of society, including Christians. In addition, Christians are also directly targeted, particularly by Islamist militant groups. Despite the apparent failure of state authorities to stem violence against Christians (and all citizens), the dominant narrative is that these same leaders are best placed to protect Christians.

Many Christians perceive the current environment as preferable to an Islamist alternative.

On a rhetorical level, Middle Eastern states such as Egypt and Syria proclaim all citizens as equal and as such, safeguard their rights to practice their religion and enjoy security.[xvii] In reality, the national unity narrative used by regimes does not address underlying issues that affect citizenship rights for Christians.[xviii] For example, the same constitutions that affirm that there is no distinction between citizens before the law also provide a central role to Islam and sharia. The Egyptian constitution proclaims Islam as the state religion (Article Two) and the Syrian constitution states that the president must be from the Muslim faith (Article Three).[xix]  Yet, despite this apparent inequality, many Christians perceive the current environment as preferable to an Islamist alternative, long presumed to be the only significant challenger to authoritarian states.[xx] The diverse views on the rights of Christians amongst Islamists is rarely acknowledged by Christians. On the one hand, movements such as the Egyptian and Syrian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood claim to recognise the pluralist nature of society and accept Christians as citizens.[xxi] On the other hand, Sunni militant groups such as Islamic State legitimise the use of violence against those they consider ‘unbelievers’.[xxii] At best, Christians are dubious about the extent of their rights under Islamist-led governments and tend to focus on hostile rhetoric and acts committed by some groups. Thus, non-Islamist rule is seen as preferable even if this does not address the issue of equal citizenship.[xxiii]

Christians are not the only constituency to consider Sunni Islamists as a threat to their survival. Militants have targeted symbols of the state such as the police and army, and in the case of Syria, have openly challenged the authority of the state by claiming territorial control of parts of the country.[xxiv] Thus, the repression apparatus of the state has often been employed against Islamist movements, including by labelling them as terrorist organisations, whether violent or not.[xxv] The primary aim was regime survival but a by-product has been that state authorities have directly confronted the same forces that Christians perceive as a threat to their security. In contrast, Middle Eastern Christians present Iraq as a case study of the dangers they face when an authoritarian state collapses. Since regime change occurred in 2003, Iraqi Christians have been directly targeted by militant groups and received inadequate support from weak state institutions.[xxvi] Faced with a choice between an Islamist current which is ambiguous towards the status of non-Muslims and authoritarian, repressive regimes which target these groups, Christians predominantly choose what they perceive as ‘the lesser of two evils’.[xxvii]

Evening prayers outside of St. Adday, one of the churches in Karamles, Iraq (Alexandra Rose Howland).

This perspective amongst Christians of the lack of an alternative option is also recognised and exploited by regimes. The 2011 Arab Uprisings offer an interesting lesson in terms of regime understandings of the dilemma facing Christians in relation to supporting or challenging the state. The initial protests were sparked by protestors seeking a more inclusive, pluralistic, and accountable system of governance.[xxviii] If successful, there would be potential for equal rights and citizenship for all, including Christians. While some Christians, especially youth, did initially partake in the protests, many did not, and participation decreased as the community became fearful that the desire to gain political freedoms would be abused by equally authoritarian but Islamist actors.[xxix]

In Egypt, post-uprising elections led to a short-lived Islamist-led parliament and presidency. The situation of Christians did not significantly change during this period. There were still periodic communal clashes and proposed constitutional reform made little impact upon clauses relating to religion.[xxx] Yet, concerns at the long-term ambitions of the new government meant that many Egyptians, including Copts, backed the army’s ousting of President Morsi in 2013.[xxxi] It was this event that led to a backlash against Copts by supporters of Morsi. There was a significant increase in the number of churches attacked and Copts targeted due to their religious identity.[xxxii] For many in the Coptic community, this was perceived as proof that the army-backed authoritarian state remains the best-placed actor to protect the community.[xxxiii] This acceptance does not include an expectation that attacks will stop or that Coptic issues of representation and rights will be prioritised but merely that the ruling authorities will not directly target Christians.

Most Christians (like other minority groups in Syria) were convinced that the fall of the regime would lead to an Islamist takeover that would be detrimental to their security.

In Syria, a key survival strategy employed by the Baath regime was to claim that the protestors posed an existential threat to minorities.[xxxiv] Given the pluralistic nature of Syrian society with 40% of the population from the Alawi, Druze, Kurds and Christian communities in contrast to 60% Sunni Arabs, this message resonated with a significant part of the population.[xxxv] By playing what Phillips calls ‘the sectarian card’, the Alawi-led regime was able to both exploit the fear of minorities and undermine non-Islamist opposition.[xxxvi] Most Christians (like other minority groups) were convinced that the fall of the regime would lead to an Islamist takeover that would be detrimental to their security.[xxxvii] While some opposition movements committed to recognising Syria’s pluralistic society, it was the anti-Christian (and anti-Alawi) slogans and kidnapping of clergy that caught the community’s attention.[xxxviii] As the uprising turned into a brutal civil war, the atrocities committed by Islamist groups and publicised by state authorities, further strengthened the Islamist threat narrative.[xxxix] For Christians, the safety of ‘secular protection’ under the Baath regime won over any desire for political rights beyond the restrictions imposed by the Syrian state.[xl] Exploiting their fears proved a successful strategy to bolster the regime during a time of severe crisis without requiring political concessions. The Arab Uprising experience has convinced Christians that political change is too risky given the likelihood of Islamist rule. In turn, authoritarian states know that the authoritarian/Islamist dilemma means that they are guaranteed Christian support despite minimal and often inadequate security provisions.

Conclusion

The relationship between Middle Eastern Christians and authoritarian states can be characterised as an unequal partnership. Christians, especially their religious leaders, believe that the authoritarian state is the best of the limited options available to them to safeguard the Christian presence. The primary goal is the survival of the community. The willingness of regimes to delegate internal autonomy to religious institutions and allow the preservation of religion, tradition and culture achieves this aim. In addition, the neo-millet approach places religious leaders in a position to liaise on the community’s behalf if an alternative (especially Islamist) regime came into power. However, it simultaneously hinders grassroots activism on pursuing citizenship and equal rights that could challenge both religious and state authority. Under the al-Sisi and Assad governments, Christians and their institutions have been victims of violent attacks based upon their religious identity. Yet, the community perceive that this flawed protection is better than risking the possibility of further insecurity and limitations under Islamist rule. Authoritarian regimes have exploited Christians’ fears of the Islamist alternative to garner support from this constituency without having to prioritise the community’s needs or have any incentive to improve the situation of Christians. In conclusion, there is a low benchmark for guaranteed support – namely allowing internal autonomy and not openly siding with those targeting Christians. This can be attained with the current policy of rhetorical national unity without addressing underlying issues such as inclusive citizenship and full rights which by their very nature, could threaten the survival of the authoritarian/majority rule state.

[i] Rowe, P, (2020) ‘The church and the street: Copts and interest representation from Mubarak to Sisi’ ReligionState & Society 48(5), 356.
[ii] BBC News, (2015) ‘Syria’s beleaguered Christians’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22270455 Accessed 7th February 2022.
[iii] Castellino, J and Cavanaugh, K, (2014) ‘Transformations in the Middle East: The Importance of the Minority Question’ in Kymlicka, W and Pfostl, E (eds), Multiculturalism and Minority Rights in the Arab World (Oxford University Press), 63.
[iv] McCallum, F, (2010) Christian Religious Leadership: The Political Role of the Patriarch (Edwin Mellen Press), 52-54.
[v] McCallum, F, (2012) ‘Religious Institutions and Authoritarian States: church-state relations in the Middle East’ Third World Quarterly 33(1), 115.
[vi] Rowe, ‘The church and the street: Copts and interest representation from Mubarak to Sisi’, 349.
[vii] McCallum, ‘Christian Religious Leadership: The Political Role of the Patriarch’.
[viii] Galal, L, (2012) ‘Coptic Christian practices: formations of sameness and difference’ Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 23(1), 45-58.
[ix] Tadros, M, (2013) Copts at the Crossroads: The Challenges of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press), 61-82; McCallum ‘Religious Institutions and Authoritarian States’.
[x] Ibrahim, V, (2015) ‘Beyond the cross and the crescent: plural identities and the Copts in contemporary Egypt’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 38(14), 2584-2597; Tadros, ‘Copts at the Crossroads’, 161-182.
[xi] Lukasik, C, (2016) ‘Conquest of Paradise: Secular Binds and Coptic Political Mobilisation’ Middle East Critique 25(2), 107-125.
[xii] Farha, M and Mousa, S, (2015) ‘Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy? Weighing Reasons for Christian Support for Regime Transition in Syria and Egypt’ Mediterranean Politics 20(2), 178-197.
[xiii] Rowe, ‘The church and the street’, 349.
[xiv] Amin, A, (2020) ‘Egyptian Orthodox Church among inconsistent political and social contexts’ Contemporary Review of the Middle East 7(2), 181-199; Rowe, ‘The Church and the Street’.
[xv] McCallum, ‘Religious Institutions and Authoritarian States’;
[xvi] Pacini, A, (1998) Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future (Clarendon Press), 5.
[xvii] McCallum, ‘Religious Institutions and Authoritarian States’.
[xviii] Ibrahim, ‘Beyond the cross and the crescent’.
[xix] ‘Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 2014’ Constitute Project, accessed 8th February 2022, https://constituteproject.org/constitution/Egypt_2019?lang=en ‘Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic 2012’ Constitute Project, accessed 8th February 2022 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Syria_2012?lang=en
[xx] Farha and Mousa, ‘Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy?’, 190; Ibrahim, ‘Beyond the cross and the crescent’, 2588.
[xxi] Hager, A, (2018) ‘From “Polytheists” to “Partners in the Nation”. Islamist Attitudes Towards Coptic Egyptians in Post-revolutionary Egypt (2011-2013)’ Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 29(3), 289-308; Ramirez Diaz, N, (2018) ‘Unblurring ambiguities: Assessing the impact of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian revolution’ in Hinnebusch, R and Imady, O, (eds) The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory (Routledge), 212-4.
[xxii] Mahmoud, R and Rosiny, S, (2018) ‘Opposition visions for preserving Syria’s ethnic-sectarian mosaic’ British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45(2), 247.
[xxiii] Tadros, ‘Copts at the Crossroads’; Bandak, A, (2015) ‘Reckoning with the Inevitable: Death and Dying among Syrian Christians during the Uprising’ Ethnos 80(5): 671-691.[xxiv] Williamson, S and Malik, M, (2020) ‘Contesting narratives of repression: Experimental evidence from Sisi’s Egypt’ Journal of Peace Research; Phillips, C and Valbjorn, M, (2018) ‘What is in a Name? The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria’ Small Wars and Insurgencies 29(3), 414-433.
[xxv] Bernard-Maugiron, N, (2018) ‘Transitional Justice in Post-Revolutionary Egypt’ in Lacroix, S and Filiu, J (eds), Revisiting the Arab Uprisings: The Politics of a Revolutionary Movement (Oxford University Press), 232; Phillips, C, (2015) ‘Sectarianism and conflict in Syria’ Third World Quarterly 36(2), 357-376.
[xxvi] Farha and Mousa, ‘Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy?’, 186.
[xxvii] Ibrahim, ‘Beyond the cross and the crescent’, 2588.
[xxviii] Gerges, F, (2015) ‘Introduction’ in Gerges, F (ed) Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Popular Resistance and Marginalized Activism beyond the Arab Uprisings (Palgrave MacMillan): 1-21.
[xxix] Tadros, ‘Copts at the Crossroads’, 119-138; Khatib, L, (2018) ‘Tutelary authoritarianism and the shifts between secularism and Islam in Syria’ in Hinnebusch, R and Imady, O, (eds) The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory (Routledge), 92-105.
[xxx] van Doorn Harder, N, (2013) ‘Betwixt and between: The Copts of Egypt’ Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 23(1): 8-26.
[xxxi] Amin, ‘Egyptian Orthodox Church among inconsistent political and social contexts’, 195.
[xxxii] Gendi, Y and Pinfari, M, (2020) ‘Icons of contention: The iconography of martyrdom and the construction of Coptic identity in post-revolutionary Egypt’ Media, War and Conflict 13(1), 58.
[xxxiii] Farha and Mousa, ‘Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy?’, 190; Amin, ‘Egyptian Orthodox Church among inconsistent political and social contexts’, 195.
[xxxiv] Hinnebusch, R, (2019) ‘Sectarianism and Governance in Syria’ Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 19(1), 55.
[xxxv] McCallum, ‘Religious Institutions and Authoritarian States’, 120.
[xxxvi] Phillips, ‘Sectarianism and conflict in Syria’, 369.
[xxxvii] Bandak, ‘Reckoning with the Inevitable’; Goldsmith, L (2018) ‘Syria’s Alawis: Structure, perception and agency in the Syrian security dilemma’ in Hinnebusch, R and Imady, O, (eds) The Syrian Uprising: Domestic Origins and Early Trajectory (Routledge), 141-158.
[xxxviii] Phillips, ‘Sectarianism and the Syrian conflict’, 360.
[xxxix] The Baath regime policies were significant in sectarianizing the conflict and all sides have committed acts of violence. Phillips and Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’.
[xl] Farha and Mousa, ‘Secular Autocracy vs. Sectarian Democracy?’, 182.

Author

  • Fiona McCallum Guiney is Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews. She researches on identity, politics and diaspora in relation to Christian communities in the contemporary Middle East. She is the Director of the Institute for Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at the University of St Andrews. Social media handles: @drfionamg @StAndrewsIR and @MecacsStA

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.