Terra Incognita: Bashir Gemayel’s long prediction
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
We blame extremists, but the truth is that the murder of minorities in the Mideast is integral to the fabric of the region.
In 1980 Bashir Gemayel, the leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, provided an explanation for his militancy: “With all due respect to the people concerned, we refuse to be put on a par with the Copts of Egypt, or the Christians of certain Arab countries.”
Today Gemayel is remembered by many Christian Lebanese, especially those who live abroad, as a patriot and romantic icon of his people. Others recall his name only because his assassination in 1982, after having been elected president of Lebanon, provoked the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.
The Gemayels are an important Lebanese political family. Bashir’s father Sheikh Pierre Gemayel was the founder of the Phalange party, and his brother Amin served as president of Lebanon from 1982 to 1988. Amin’s son, also Pierre, was assassinated in 2006. Amin was in the news again on January 3, when he reacted angrily to the murder of Christians on New Year’s Eve in Alexandria, Egypt: “Massacres are taking place for no reason and without any justification against Christians. It is only because they are Christians.”
He was referring not only the attacks in Egypt that left 21 dead, but also recent attacks in Iraq. In October, 2010 Islamic terrorists burst into the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. A subsequent rescue operation left 53 Christians dead. The Christian community suffered more attacks just after Christmas when bombs were detonated in a Baghdad Christian neighborhood. Three days later a Christian woman was shot in her sleep during another attack.
In Egypt the Copts have become increasingly enraged by the terror directed at them. The New Year’s massacre outside the al-Qiddissin church has resulted in days of rioting. Egyptian Copts know that it is Islamists who are to blame. One declared, “A lot of us think that this is a plan to make Christians go away from Egypt. The planner is al-Qaida.”
They also blame the government for a lack of security. The riots come after tensions flared in November in Cairo’s Giza district over the building of a church. Egypt throws up numerous obstacles to the construction of new churches and when a recent construction project was banned by the government, riots resulted.
In other places, attacks on Christians were reported over the holidays. In Nigeria, a number of bombs were set off, one near a church in the city of Jos. It was reported by the Times of India that “the state police commissioner Abdulrahman Akano blamed the bombing and clashes on the political elite and maintained that they were not religious or ethnic in nature.”
This story, of attacks on Christians, particularly on their holidays, and excuses about their nature is typical throughout the Middle East and Africa. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has claimed the bombing was made by “foreign hands.”
What is interesting is that little has changed over time. When Bat Ye’or penned Islam and Dhimmitude in 2002, she included a quote from Fehmi Hilal, who described “a peaceful war of extermination, which aims to kill one member after another of the body of Christians, so that the suffering be not severe and the cries not heard.”
Even in 2002 it was the same story of Muslims and Christians uniting after the attacks to confront the mysterious nebulous extremism. We see the same calls today for uniting in the face of extremism in Nigeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt.
ONE PLACE that there is less uniting and more marked extermination is in southern Sudan, set to go to the polls on Sunday to vote on secession. South Sudan, which is dominated by Christians and pagans, fought two civil wars to obtain the right to leave Sudan, whose central government has generally been controlled by Muslim Arabs since independence in 1956. Millions died in these savage conflicts but with the poll on January 9 this hitherto minority group may obtain the independence that Gemayel once desired for his Maronites in Lebanon.
It is an autonomy that other Christian groups in the region have suffered heinously for desiring.
Armenians demanded rights from Ottoman Turkey and in 1915 that resulted in a genocide and the their complete ethnic-cleansing from Turkey. The same thing befell the Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Turkey between 1915 and 1932 and the Greeks of Turkey in 1920. Greek Cypriots were cleansed from northern Cyprus in 1974. Recent revelations have brought to light the terrible crimes inflicted on the Serbian Orthodox community in Croatia’s Krajina and in Kosovo at the hands Croatian Catholic and Kosovar Muslim militias.
In our own backyard, attacks on Christians are less common but equally heinous. In Gaza it has become unbearable. One recent article in Haaretz relates the story of one Christian: “When his wife and daughter go out on the street, they are subject to stares and sometimes even verbal abuse; Muslim men yell at them to cover their hair.”
In 2008 a bomb was set off outside the Rosary Sisters school and last year Rami Ayad, a Christian, was kidnapped and murdered.
We tend to take the attacks in stride. A murder here, a bombing there, soon forgotten. We blame extremists because we don’t want to label whole countries intolerant. But all that obscures the reality. The murder of minorities, carried out by the extremists, is integral to the fabric of the region.
It is the region’s tragedy.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.