Protecting minorities is an urgent task of OIC, Arab League

Sunday 24/04/2016

The unanimous adoption by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at its Istanbul summit of a call to respect religious minorities was most welcome although it went relatively unnoticed.

While backing Muslim minorities facing suspicion and prejudice, the OIC endorsed January’s Marrakech declara­tion that called for a “concept of ‘citizenship’ that is inclusive of diverse groups”.

At the end of the summit, the OIC denounced the “oblivion of the centuries of mutual coexistence on the same soil”. For the Arab world’s minorities, this public support is long overdue.

The recent recapture of Al-Qaryatain, near the central Syrian city of Homs, revealed extensive damage to monasteries by the Islamic State (ISIS). Before its displacement, Al-Qaryatain’s Christian community lived peacefully with the town’s Muslims.

A Khmer Rouge-style purge of centuries-old communities has been taking place at the hands of fanatical jihadists in Syria and Iraq. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova denounced “cultural cleansing” after ISIS destroyed Mosul’s 1,400-year-old Monastery of St Elijah.

Christian communities — Arabic-speaking and with roots going back to the dawn of the religion — have shrunk alarmingly since the cata­clysm that engulfed first Iraq then Syria.

A report from three Christian charities and a London university said that in Iraq, the pre-2003 Christian population had fallen from 1.5 million to 200,000-500,000. In Syria, pre-“Arab spring” Christians made up 8-10% of the population of 22 million but this has fallen by almost half.

Behind the stark numbers is a story of wilful and murderous igno­rance from extremists for whom difference is a threat.

The “Crusader” narrative, in which Arab Christians are a sort of colonial Trojan horse in the Middle East, ignores centuries of inter­twined lives, history and culture.

To indulge the fantasy that Arab Christians are some kind of “other” is to be blind to historical reality. Arab Christian figures have played a fundamental role in shaping Arab culture and contemporary society.

But time may be running out. Research from a UK-based Catholic charity has bluntly suggested that “fear of genocide” could spell the end of Iraq’s Christian minority within five years.

Christians — and other minorities, such as Yazidis and Druze — are part of the Arab world. The final end of Yemen’s tiny indigenous Jewish population is another unravelling of the tapestry of the Arab experience.

Regional powers that are tempted to play religious or ethnic minori­ties for their political or imperial advantage are only making the situation worse.

The OIC and Arab League must move beyond resolutions — however welcome — to concrete action.