What has happened to the religious freedoms in the Middle East 10 years after US president George W. Bush embarked on his “crusade” (his own term) to bring freedom and democracy to this region? Lest anyone forget, the idea behind the invasion of Iraq was to provoke a “domino effect” in the region, with more and more countries embracing democracy and religious tolerance. And a domino effect it did have – but of a different nature. The exodus of Christians and discrimination against them, which started in Iraq immediately after the US invasion, is now quickly spreading to other countries of the Middle East. It is going to reach new heights in Egypt, where a newly elected 100-member panel for drafting the new constitution of the country is going to be dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical Salafist branch of Islamism.
The panel, which will consist of 50 law makers and 50 other Egyptian figures promises to be the “embodiment” of Mr. Bush’s idea of diversity, as the lawmaking part will be made up of 25 “Muslim Brothers,” 11 Salafists and only 14 members of other parties. Both the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists believe that the Egyptian state should be based on strict observance of the Islamic norms enshrined in the seventh century Moslem scriptures and openly say that separation of state and religion is anathema for them.
After the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak from power, widely seen in the US as the belated coming of the Bush-promised “revolution in the greater Middle East,” Egypt saw some of its worst sectarian violence in decades. In the provincial town of Sol, a church was destroyed by Moslem arsonists, and during a Christian demonstration against this crime 13 demonstrators were killed and nearly 150 wounded. During the demonstrations against Mubarak in the early 2011 the Christian community remained neutral or even loyal to Mubarak, very much like the Christian community of Syria stays loyal to president Bashar Assad, much to the dislike of US democracy-promoters. Unfortunately, Mideast Christians have a reason to be weary of the US-supported trends.
In both Egypt and Syria, Christians fear to repeat the plight of their co-believers in the already “democratized” Iraq. In that country, according to the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, “half or more of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to have left the country, with Christian leaders warning that the consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq.” Here are the figures: in 2003, there were thought to be 800,000 to 1,4 million Christians in Iraq (Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, etc.). Today, as CIRF report, that number has been reduced to 500,000.
Was it a conscious policy of the United States or a tragic mistake that led to such gruesome results? And why is the same mistake repeated in other countries, such as Egypt or Syria, where the US often supports the anti-Christian, religiously intolerant movements? The answers could be summed up as “conscious ignorance.” “I don’t think Bush or Cheney consciously wanted to exterminate the Christian community in Iraq. They and especially their aides Richard Pearle and Paul Wolfowitz were ill-advised by Iraqi émigrés,” says Georgy Mirsky, senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. “They expected the Iraqis to meet their American “liberators” with flowers and thought that “one man-one vote” principle would be a panacea for all problems, including interreligious conflicts.”
This inability to listen to other opinions was very much in the spirit of US ideology in 2003, and this kind of attitude revealed itself also in Bush’s attitude to Russia and to the post-Soviet space in general. There are many examples. Immediately after the initial success of the invasion of Iraq CIA’s former director James Woolsey said the United States was actually involved in the “fourth world war” (the cold war against Russia obviously being the third one). The conclusion of Woolsey, who upon leaving the CIA became the head of the Freedom House was that this new war will be directed, among others, against the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Here is how CNN quoted him in 2003:
“As we move toward a new Middle East,” Woolsey said, “over the years and, I think, over the decades to come … we will make a lot of people very nervous. Our response should be, ‘good!’”
Singling out Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Woolsey said then: “We want you nervous. We want you to realize now, for the fourth time in a hundred years, this country and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you — the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family — most fear: We’re on the side of your own people.”
The result was disastrous for the Christians in Egypt and it will soon be, possibly, even more disastrous for the Christians in Syria.
“The Muslim Brotherhood, which is battling the Assad regime in Syria, is a lot more cruel and intolerant than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” Mirsky commented. “The only way Christians in Syria can be saved is for the possibly victorious Islamists to get a completely economically devastated Syria. Then they will have to negotiate with the West for economic aid and this, possibly, will save Christians. But I hope Syria will avoid this variant – it is too gruesome for everyone. I hope the world will understand what is really going on there with Christians soon.