World Review | Rising numbers of Christians in Islamic countries could pose threat to social order

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Rising numbers of Christians in Islamic countries could pose threat to social order

Rising numbers of Christians in Islamic countries could pose threat to social order
Ceremony in St Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt (photo: dpa)

MUCH attention has been focussed on the growth of Islam in Western Europe but little thought has been paid to the rise of Christianity within culturally Islamic countries.

The establisment of Islam in Europe has taken place over the past 40 years and contributed to changing the religious face of major European cities and their suburbs. The rise of Islam in Europe has posed major challenges to the authorities of the countries concerned.

But scant attention is paid to the fact that the age-old equilibrium has been upset on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The culturally Islamic countries, those of the Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula, are also confronted with a new phenomenon - the development of Christianity behind their borders, due to conversions among members of the ethnic population and fresh mass immigration.

The numbers speak for themselves. Saudi Arabia, the holy ground of Islam and for that reason particularly repressive in terms of religious freedom, authorising no other public religion except Islam, is home to some 1.5 million Christians. They make up four per cent of the population.

They are mainly immigrant workers who retain the status of foreigners, but whose presence, reinforced by that of Western expatriates, is increasingly a thorn in the side of the reigning dynasty.

Nevertheless, the Christian population is undeniably present, providing cheap manpower which the country would find it difficult to do without.

The figures for the microstates of the Persian Gulf are comparable: some five per cent of the population in Bahrain is Christian; almost 10 per cent in the United Arab Emirates; eight per cent in Kuwait; 2.5 per cent in Oman and five per cent in Qatar.

The majority of those Christians are expatriates, in particular immigrant workers from the Philippines or India. Though the conditions for acquiring citizenship of these states are very restrictive, meaning such workers are destined to remain foreigners, the Christian communities that they founded nevertheless pose a potential social threat to those in power.

Egypt, has long had a large Coptic minority, pre-dating the Islamification of the country. Today, the number of Coptic Christians are estimated at 11 per cent of the population. The Islamic surge that President Mohamed Morsi, is trying to harness - to his benefit - threatens to make the status of the country’s non-Muslims an even more heated issue.

While Libya has a tiny Christian minority, the situation is more complex in the countries of the Maghreb, in particular in Algeria and Morocco.

It is impossible to deny that an openness to other faiths has developed which would have been considered unthinkable in the past 1,000 years.

While a small percentage of the population in itself will not upset the identity of a country or its equilibrium, the signs are that many Algerians aspire to something other than the religion of their fathers, especially when that religion has the tendency to become more hard-line - as seen today. The presence on television of no fewer than 10 Christian channels, albeit broadcast from abroad, seems (according to some reports) to be contributing to an openness to the rest of the world.

Yet, faced with this undeniable shift, persecutions by the authorities have been on-going for a decade.

While the Algerian constitution, the legacy of a ‘modern’ socialist foundation, recognises the freedom of religion, infringements are legion.

All the provisions that are invoked on the usual grounds of the fight against terrorism are also used to fight the Christian churches.

However, there is a notable growth in numbers joining evangelical churches. Figures show some three per cent each year, bringing the number of Christians to more than 100,000.

Therefore, Mediterranean geopolitics needs to take into account two inverse factors: the growth of Islam in Europe, from the Balkans to Scandinavia via France and the United Kingdom; and the emergence of a new Christianity in the southern Mediterranean countries.

While European legislation is particularly tolerant towards the freedom of religion, that is not the case in all the countries of Africa or the Arabian Peninsula. This is a situation those countries will have to face in the coming years.

Charles Millon

Charles Millon is a French politician who served as France’s Minister of Defence from 1995 to 1997 in Alain Juppe’s government and French Ambassador to the United Nations from 2003 to 2007. ...

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