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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Is South Sudan the Key to Christian Survival in the Middle East?

The independence of South Sudan on 24 July 2011 was a momentous event. After decades of fighting domination by the Arabic speaking and increasingly radically Islamic north, the largely Christian, animist and Black African south achieved liberation. While it would be naïve to assume all is well in the new state, especially since the former rebel movement has not given up human rights abuses as it attempts to become a responsible government, there are some hopeful signs as the state rebuilds a much damaged infrastructure and traumatised population.

The independence of this republic comes at a time when momentous changes have occurred in the Arab world, of which the formerly united Sudan was an active element. Sadly as with nearly all revolutions hope has turned to despair and dreams into nightmares. The crushing of civil society and democratic aspirations for decades by corrupt leaders has allowed well organised Salafist groups to fill the vacuum, holding out the promises of a new dawn to a population weary of unemployment, runaway inflation, poverty, corruption and the lack of hope that is all part of a crumbling vampire state. The signs were there before the Arab Spring. In Iraq the overthrow of Saddam has led to tensions between not just Shias and Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs, but the little known plans to exterminate the Christian minority in that country. The Assyrians have in particular been the unmentioned target of Kurdish separatists. While Christians and Muslims joined hands in Tahrir Square during the revolution in Egypt, and for the first time church bells rang openly, now the indigenous and minority Coptic community in that country is under siege; only escaping the worst of the heat when Israel becomes the target of rage, nurtured for years by official state anti-Semitism since Nasser. In Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and other countries of the region the Jewish minority has either been cleansed or dwindled into negligible numbers in the burning atmosphere which surrounded the creation of Israel. But as the Salafists always said, after the “Saturday people” would come the “Sunday people”. Notwithstanding the contribution of Arab Christians to modern nationalism in the region (e.g. Michel Aflaq who founded the Ba’ath Party), this minority has been squeezed out of public life. In Lebanon, a formerly Christian majority country and the most vibrant state in the region, civil war dislocated democracy and civil society creating a hotbed for terrorism.

As the Arab Spring turns into the inevitable Arab Ice Age where can minority Christians turn? Europe has long washed its hands of its Christian past. Its obsession with being secular go hand in hand with rampant xenophobia and racism which would hardly welcome the millions of persecuted Christians of the Middle East, despite already vibrant diaspora communities of Copts, Assyrians and Lebanese Christians in the west. In this South Sudan may provide a partial sanctuary, as a largely Christian country which has successfully fought the ravages of radical Islam and intolerant strains of Arab nationalism. It would also benefit from the skills and knowledge brought to it by communities who not only value it but also used to help their host countries long before dictators such as Nasser surrounded themselves with sycophants and yes-men which stifled free thought, creativity and dynamism. South Sudan can then rebuild the vibrant societies which once existed in the region, where minorities had a respected role and where liberal values seemed to provide hope for a better future. That would also send a beacon of hope for the little known persecuted liberals who have been crushed by the vice like grip of Ba’athism, Nasserism, Salafism and other such ideologies which are the antithesis of liberty.

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