Just weeks after seizing swaths of northern and central Iraq, the jihadi extremists of theIslamic State in Iraq and the Levanthave driven out the remaining Christians ofMosul. After daubing their houses with N for Nazarenes, Isis offered them stark choices: convert to Islam, accept ancient taxes on minorities, or death. To underline their contempt for any interpretation of religion but their own, these Sunni supremacist blackshirts blew up the shrine to Jonah in Mosul, a prophet revered in the Koran and the Bible. This is more than a subplot in awider tragedy.
The spectre of an east Mediterranean empty of Christians is haunting, not just because it would uproot a 2,000-year-old heritagewhere Christianity was born. Otherminorities such as the Druze fear that if the Christians are driven out they will be left alone, while secular Arabs know they will have lost a unique window on the world – a bridge between east and west.
This did not start last month when Isis captured Mosul. Nor is it confined to Iraq. Across the Arab world, Christians, perhaps 15m among 300m Muslims, are endangered: threatened by Islamist radicals; forced by limited opportunities to seek newlives abroad; accused of complicityinthe schemes of foreign predators;and menaced by the upheavals sweeping the region and laying bare the hard-wiring of sectarianism.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, indigenous Assyrian Christians, mostly Chaldean, endured a backlash that reduced their numbers from about 1m to 300,000. The US-led occupation, by bringing the Shia to power in the Arab heartland for the first time in centuries, rekindled the age-old schism between Sunni Islam and Shiism – and Christians were caught in withering crossfire. Revanchist autocracy against the Arab spring has piled on the misery.
The 2011 revolution in Egypt was followed by riots between Copts(about 10 per cent of Egyptians) andMuslims, inciting suspicion that the ancien regime – now restored to power – was trying to widen a sectarian cleft and force citizens to choose between the old order and chaos. In Syria, where Christians also make up some 10 per cent of the population and Aramaic, the language of Christ, still survives, the minority Assad regime from the outset targeted other minorities such as Christians and Druze with a subliminal narrative: stand with us because, if we fall, you will be put up against the same wall by Sunni fundamentalists. Isis has been the main beneficiary of its savage repression, and Arab and western failure to support mainstream rebels. In Lebanon, Christians who had previously ruled emerged disempowered from the 1975-90 civil war and are nowdivided between factions allied withthe Shia, led by Hizbollah, andremnants of the old Phalange party,who have cast their lot with the Sunni. War and emigration have reduced their numbers to about 30 per cent of the population.
As the fires of Syria and Iraq melt the borders imposed by Europeans after the first world war, despair abounds, especially among Christians. There is nostalgia for pan-Arab nationalism, which turned into an alibi for dictatorship. There is talk of recourse to a neo-Ottoman order of outside protectors and the millet system ofethno-religious autonomy. Iran andits Shia allies such as Hizbollah self-servingly say they are the only shield of the minorities against jihadist savagery.
But any real turnround will require mainstream Sunnis to reassert leadership and crush extremism within their camp. Breaking the sectarian spiral also requires pan-communal effort to rebuild states based on equal citizenship and diversity, reflected in confederal institutions, bicameral parliaments and devolved power. Whether there will be many Christians left to share in this endeavour is menacingly moot.