by Georgie Anne Geyer
Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Since the "Arab Awakening" struck the world this winter with the possibility of newly free and democratized states in the ossified Middle East, many in the Western world have lived in hope. Can it be, the former nay-sayers have dared to ask, that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others have developed to the point where their citizens can live together in mutual respect?

The answer to that crucial question seemed surely to be "Yes," as they all "lived together" so exuberantly in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Yet now, as those joyful days have turned into more serious weeks and sobering months, one problem in particular is beginning to darken those halcyon days: the persecution of Christians.

That Christians should now be the subject of not only rank intolerance, but also active persecution in countries from Iraq to Egypt, having already suffered through epochs of intolerance and violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa, may at first seem counterintuitive.

Christians, after all, have lived mostly peacefully alongside Muslims in Saddam Hussein's miserably cruel Iraq since the 1970s; and, while there have been problems in Egypt, Christians lived for the most part peaceful lives under now-disgraced former President Hosni Mubarak.

In Iraq, Saddam's leading spokesman was a Christian, Tarik Aziz, a sophisticated and worldly man respected by foreign journalists for his general honesty. In Egypt, many of the leading intellects of the Mubarak administration, which began with Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, were Christians, including U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In Iraq you could find operating with few problems ancient Christian faiths such as one that worshipped John the Baptist and the Chaldean Assyrian Christians; while in Egypt, the ancient Coptic Church, stemming from the time of Christ, still has adherents of between 7 and 14 million among Egypt's population of 84 million.

But not all is respect and tolerance. A New Year's Day bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria left 23 worshippers dead, an attack that might be compared for its ferocity to the Baghdad attack on a Chaldean church on Oct. 31. As of this writing, Muslim mobs in Cairo are still attacking Christians, with 12 already dead and 200 wounded, after the burning of two Christian churches in the last few days.

Indeed, the dismal threats are growing so rapidly, and with so few controls, that French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said in a speech to Coptic Christians in France that Muslim attacks amount to a "form of ethnic cleansing." Former Lebanon President Amin Gemayel said the attacks are evidence of Muslim terrorists committing genocide against Christians. And the Vatican has predicted that, should the violence continue, there will be a mass flight of Christians from the Middle East.

What few analysts are putting together is the unforeseen fact that Christians, as well as many small religious faiths, had their freedom and their security secured by the worst tyrants, like Saddam Hussein, and the middling autocrats, like Mubarak, and their "secular" regimes. But now, as there are the beginnings of individual freedom in the Middle East, religion against religion violence is erupting -- especially radical Islam against Christianity.

In Egypt, the perpetrators of the arson against the Virgin Mary Church in a poor suburb of Cairo were, by the new government's account, "Salafists," or followers of a Muslim heresy close to al-Qaida. Salafism preaches a hard-line Islamic sharia law that stemmed originally from the strictest form of Saudi Wahhabism.

Under President Mubarak, the Salafists were quiet and stayed out of politics because the regime gave them freedom to proselytize if they were non-political -- but now they have rushed into politics, going far ahead of the more traditional Muslim Brotherhood, which is the group everyone feared coming to the fore after this winter's revolution.

Egypt is so turned in on itself at this point that it will be difficult to have any real idea of the power of the groups and individuals at play until elections now planned for September; but this Christian-Muslim conflict is the first real key to what is going on underneath the shouts for "Egypt for all Egyptians" on the streets of Cairo. And there are many astute warnings, too.

Jonathan Head of BBC News in Cairo reminded his listeners that "often post-revolutionary environments allow conflicts to flare up, not die down." Emad Gad of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies has publicly accused the interim military government of foolishness in allowing "3,000 Islamic militants, supporters of bin Laden, to come back here without any investigation. Now we are all suffering from this."

Indeed, the new government ended the blacklist of jihadist Muslims, allowing them to return from the harsh exile imposed by Mubarak.

The fears of many that the secularism of the Egyptian state is now being threatened by Islamic fanatics is not at all without reason. The fanatics are simply not the old Muslim Brotherhood, but newer and more threatening versions of those men, who at one point 60 years ago burned down a third of Cairo.

The entire Middle East is in the throes of tremendous change -- and it is not always the change people expect.