French President Nicolas Sarkozy made his annual New Year’s address to religious leaders on Friday. In it, he described recent violence against Christians as a “perverse plan of religious cleansing in the Middle East”.
He said religious and cultural diversity cannot disappear from the region.
A series of violent attacks have hit Christians living in Egypt and Iraq in recent months.
In Iraq last October dozens of people were killed during a siege of a Christian church in Baghdad – that was followed by more attacks in December.
And in Egypt on New Year’s Day a bomb planted outside a church killed more than 20 people. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in Egypt for decades.
Erica Hunter, a Lecturer in Eastern Christianity at Britain’s School of Oriental and African Studies,says attacks against Christians in the Middle East have taken a decisive shift in recent months.
“What is new in Iraq and in Egypt is the actual targeting of Christians in churches. Previously there had been many kidnappings, difficulties, murders but we have not seen until October the 31 where worshipers are actually attacked within the churches,” Hunter said.
The aim, she says, is to destroy morale within the Christian community. Coptic Christians in Egypt mark Christmas Day on January 7 – later than most Christians around the world.
But rather than celebrating on Friday, says Hunter, Christians were mourning the loss of those killed.
Hunter says the increase in violence stems from fundamentalist groups.
“There does seem to be an escalation in activities by such groups as Al Qaeda and I’m sure they are not the only group,” she said. “There does seem to have been a shifting attitude from within the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups. “
Religious persecution from certain groups
Fiona McCallum from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is a specialist on the political role of Christian communities in the Middle East.
She says attacks against Christians do not reflect widespread attitudes in the Middle East. She says to describe the violence, as Mr. Sarkozy has done, as a plan of “religious cleansing” suggests a broad-based persecution that does not exist.
“I think the word persecution has connotations which are perhaps wider than we would want to say at the moment,” said McCallum. “Persecution suggests that it is being supported by states, which I would say is not the case in the Middle East at the moment. The acts that can be seen as providing persecution are more linked to particular groups which are not supported by the wider community.”
But she says attacks are likely to force many Christians to leave their home country.
McCallum says in Iraq Christians have already been fleeing the country for many years. The Christian population which once stood at 1.5 million people is now estimated at less than 850,000. She says Christians in Egypt could go the same way.
“It’s important to also note that emigration takes place from the region from both Christians and Muslims as well. However, I do think these attacks leave the Christians in the entire region feeling a lot more vulnerable that they are being targeted solely because of their religious identity,” McCallum said.
Last month the United Nations said around 6,000 people had fled to Iraq’s Northern Kurdish region or to other countries in the region since the attack in Baghdad in October.