By Oliver Maksan
The Middle East-North Africa (MENA), Afghanistan and Pakistan area, stretching from Iran in southwest Asia to Morocco in northwest Africa is a transcontinental region home to over 6 percent of the world’s population encompassing a variety of cultural and ethnic groups. The birthplace of the world’s great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these countries – where religion and politics are often intertwined – include more than 20 percent of the world’s Muslims and 60 percent of world’s oil reserves. It is thus a region of potent global political and religious influence.
Several countries in this area have experienced positive political and societal changes during the period under review, but have stopped short of furthering the promotion and protection of human rights. The legal and societal environment shows a reluctance to change, as discriminatory laws and practices, mainly against non-Muslims, continue.
At best, freedom of worship is guaranteed, but not full religious freedom. As the country reports show, systematic persecution of religious minorities is limited to only a few countries, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, but in most countries conversion from Islam is either forbidden by law, or effectively forbidden as a consequence of strong societal pressures. Proselytism in many of these countries is illegal. Laws against blasphemy are used to silence minority faith groups such as Christians, as well as atheists and critics of Islam. Societal tolerance towards Christians continues to be low, and, as numerous incidents in Upper Egypt attest, violence can erupt any time.
Despite the enormous efforts of international state and non-state (mainly Christian) donors, the number of Christians in Iraq will probably never recover from the blow dealt by Daesh (Islamic State) jihadists in 2014. The same tragedy confronts Syria where, out of the original ten percent Christian population of 2011, only two percent remains today, according to the Apostolic Nuncio.
As the economic and political circumstances that led to the Arab Spring have not been substantially addressed, political instability will continue and occasionally flare up, adding to the insecurities of religious minorities.
In the period under review, a number of major trends can be identified.
Daesh weakened but not destroyed
Heinous crimes committed by jihadist groups like Daesh were less numerous – at least on a large scale – and seem to have peaked before the period under review. Armed Islamist fanaticism remains a major military concern, for example in Libya and parts of Syria, while the territorial defeat of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and the killing of its self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi by US special forces in 2019, did not bring an end to the terrorist organization as such. As evidenced in the country reports, having partially moved forces to (mainly sub-Saharan) Africa and Asia, Daesh remains relatively dormant in the MENA region, only sporadically terrorising Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The end of its territorial expansion brought an end to the direct and unparalleled terror the organisation exerted over the people of all backgrounds during its period of power.
The brutality of Daesh, professionally displayed on social media, and other extremist groups resulted in a profound self-criticism within the Muslim community. For example, the Secretary General of the Saudi-based Muslim World League Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, when asked in 2019 about what spurs Islamophobia in the world, said simply: “We, Muslims”. Egypt’s President Sisi also repeatedly called for a true reform of Islam. Unfortunately, the reformist discourses of leaders like Sisi are tainted by their own bleak human rights records. The top-down approach also limits these efforts because they are perceived as politically motivated, and as such lack credibility among adherents of political Islam.
Rift within Sunni Islam deepens
A widening divide is increasingly evident within the Sunni Islam-majority countries concerning support, or lack thereof, for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The ousting from power of Mohammed Morsi and the MB in Egypt in 2013, bankrolled in large part by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), marked the beginning of this divide. The anti-MB movement seeks to contain and eventually eliminate the selectively political dimension of Islam. The pro-MB movement is represented by the regional patrons of Turkey and Qatar. Turkey especially has changed its position concerning the political role of Islam. As the country report reveals, President Erdogan, with his neo-Ottoman foreign policy, put aside Ataturk’s laicism and seeks to position Turkey as a Sunni power. This has resulted in military interventions in Libya, Syria and in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Erdogan aligns himself, when expedient, with jihadists and mercenaries. The transformation of the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque is the most telling and symbolic example of the shifting nature of the Turkish State, as Islam is made more prominent. As the country reports reveal, in many other mostly Muslim countries there is an opposite trend, as authorities seek to establish closer links with minorities.
Government gestures toward religious minorities
Some governments undertook efforts publicly to demonstrate a renewed sensitivity with regard to religious minorities, and the need to maintain religious pluralism. In Iraq, the government took strides by nominating Christians to high public offices and designating Christmas as a national public holiday. In Egypt, the granting of permission to build churches, implemented at the end of 2020, gave Christians a new confidence. The UAE evidenced their support by funding the reconstruction of Christian heritage sites in Iraq destroyed by Daesh. Although these grand gestures have been followed by more timid actions, nonetheless they instilled hope among the non-Muslim populations of an increased recognition of their place within society. The first public Mass ever celebrated by a Pope on the Arabic peninsula, in 2019 by Pope Francis, is an important example of this change.
As the Iraq and Lebanon country reports indicate, protests in 2019 and 2020 revealed that populations in the region increasingly seek good governance on a non-sectarian basis. A significant indicator of this trend were the 2019-2020 united Sunni, Shia and Christian demonstrations in Iraq, against a dysfunctional government. Following the demonstrations, Shia Prime Minister Mustafa Al Khadimi made public overtures to the Christian community. He visited the Nineveh Plains (where Shabak militias have been terrorising Christians), and publicly called on Christians to stay in, or return to, their homeland stating: “Christians represent one of the most authentic components of Iraq, and it saddens us to see them leave the country”. In January 2021, a national Commission for the restitution of Christian property was created.
Lebanon’s 2019-2020 anti-government protests united citizens of all faiths and were seen by many as a revolt against the corrupt, sectarian system of the country. The political impasse that continues to persist, even after the Beirut blast in August 2020 and the subsequent international appeals for reform, reveals how deeply ingrained sectarianism is.
An improved Catholic-Muslim dialogue
Pope Francis has dedicated significant efforts to improving the relationship of the Catholic Church with the Arab, mostly Sunni, Muslim world. The chill following Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg address – which was interpreted as a criticism of Islam as inherently violent – was felt for the duration of his pontificate. A suspension of the institutionalised dialogue between Rome and the Al-Azhar University arose after a 2011 appeal by Pope Benedict for the protection of Christians in Egypt. A new chapter was opened when Pope Francis assumed office in 2013. He forged a personal relationship with the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, culminating in the Abu Dhabi declaration signed in February 2019 entitled “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. The document, although only a first step, is nonetheless a milestone in Catholic-Muslim dialogue and calls upon “all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.” The anticipated 2021 visit of Pope Francis to Iraq – his first to a Shia majority country – will hopefully deepen interreligious dialogue and help highlight the dire situation of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and beyond.
Emergence of a Sunni-Israeli coalition
The historical enmity between Sunni and Shia regional powers was further entrenched with the advent of an anti-Iranian alliance in 2020. This alliance included Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the Jewish State of Israel. On the other side of the divide are Iranian proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The fact that the Jewish state of Israel openly partnered in an alliance with Sunni states, with Israeli Prime minister Netanyahu even visiting Saudi Arabia, is remarkable and a significant shift in a decades-old policy. The Abraham Accords[ brokered by the Trump administration between Israel and the Muslim states including the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, are a consequence and not the cause of that development. The anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish discourse and resentment in the countries which are members of the alliance could conceivably diminish. On the other hand, the new alliance could exacerbate an already vitriolic anti-Semitic discourse in the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional allies.
Pakistan: glimmers of hope in a dark landscape
Freedom of religion in this Islamic republic experienced important changes. Despite the many dire violations of this right and an increase in blasphemy cases, the period under review was nonetheless marked by some successes in the courts in favour of freedom of religion for those – including representatives of non-Muslim minorities, such as Asia Bibi – accused of blasphemy. Action by the judiciary and by the federal government had a positive impact on the provinces and vice versa. This dynamic is encouraging, if it can be sustained.
 “Cultural Diversity In Mena Countries”, Researchomatic; https://www.researchomatic.com/cultural-diversity-in-mena-countries-181087.html#buytopicstep
 “MENA Countries 2021”, World Population Review; https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/mena-countries
 “What Percent of Muslims live in Arab countries?”, Answers; https://www.answers.com/Q/What_Percent_of_Muslims_live_in_Arab_countries
 “Middle East and North Africa (MENA)”, Investopia; https://www.investopedia.com/terms/m/middle-east-and-north-africa-mena.asp
 “Copts persuaded to drop charges against mob who attacked their church”, World Watch Monitor, 30th May 2018; https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2018/05/copts-persuaded-to-drop-charges-against-mob-who-attacked-their-church/
 “Cardinal Zenari: Christians represent only 2% of the Syrian population”, Agenzia Fides, 28th January 2019; http://www.fides.org/en/news/65459-ASIA_SYRIA_Cardinal_Zenari_Christians_represent_only_2_of_the_Syrian_population
 “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: IS leader ‘dead after US raid’ in Syria”, BBC News, 28th October 2019; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50200339
 “Suspected ISIS attack targets Kakai Kurds near Iraq-Iran border, by Lawk Ghafuri”, Rudaw, 14th June 2020; https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/kaki-kurds-isis-attack14062020 (accessed 27th September 2020).
 “Zwischen den Mühlsteinen”, by Oliver Maksan, Die Tagespost, 25th December 2019; https://www.die-tagespost.de/aktuelles/forum/forumweihnachten2019/Zwischen-den-Muehlsteinen;art4962,204010 (accessed 7th January 2021)
 “Egyptian President Sisi Calls for Reform of Islam”, Institute for Contemporary Affairs, 15th February 2015; https://jcpa.org/article/sisi-calls-for-reform-of-islam/
 “Why Saudi Arabia is taking a risk by backing the Egyptian coup”, The Guardian, 20th August 2013; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/20/saudi-arabia-coup-egypt
 “France accuses Turkey of sending Syrian jihadists to Nagorno-Karabakh”, Reuters, 1st October 2020; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-azerbaijan-putin-macron-idUSKBN26L3SB
 “Iraqi parliament formally declares Christmas a national holiday”, Crux, 18th December 2020; https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-middle-east/2020/12/iraqi-parliament-formally-declares-christmas-a-national-holiday/
 “Egypt’s Sisi opens mega-mosque and Middle East’s largest cathedral in New Capital,” Reuters, 6th January 2019; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-religion-idUSKCN1P00L9
 “UAE to rebuild Iraqi churches destroyed by Daesh”, Gulf News, 10th October 2019; https://gulfnews.com/uae/uae-to-rebuild-iraqi-churches-destroyed-by-daesh-1.67042805
 “Pope Francis’s mass in the United Arab Emirates was historic — and complicated”, Vox, 5th February 2019; https://www.vox.com/2019/2/5/18211956/pope-francis-mass-united-arab-emirates-arab
 “New Prime Minister al Kadhimi visits Mosul and the Nineveh Plain: ‘Christians, one of the most authentic members of the Country’”, Agenzia Fides, 12th June 2020; http://www.fides.org/en/news/68118-ASIA_IRAQ_New_Prime_Minister_al_Kadhimi_visits_Mosul_and_the_Nineveh_Plain_Christians_one_of_the_most_authentic_members_of_the_Country
 “Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr creates a Committee for the return of illegal expropriations from Christian property owners”, Agenzia Fides, 4th January 2021; http://www.fides.org/en/news/69329-ASIA_IRAQ_Shiite_leader_Muqtada_al_Sadr_creates_a_Committee_for_the_return_of_illegal_expropriations_from_Christian_property_owners (accessed 8 th January 2021)
 “Lebanon has suffered from sectarianism too long”, by Sune Haugbolle, Foreign policy, 1st November 2019; https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/01/lebanon-has-suffered-from-sectarianism-for-too-long/ (accessed 7th January 2021)
 “Regensburg Redux: Was Pope Benedict XVI right about Islam?”, by David Gibson, The Washington Post, 10th September 2014; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/regensburg-redux-was-pope-benedict-xvi-right-about-islam-analysis/2014/09/10/d14f0080-391c-11e4-a023-1d61f7f31a05_story.html (accessed 10th January 2021)
 “Vatican to restart stalled talks with Egypt’s Al-Azhar University”, Catholic News Service, 4th December 2013; https://ecumenism.net/2013/12/vatican-to-restart-stalled-talks-with-egypts-al-azhar-university.htm
 “A Document On Human Fraternity For World Peace And Living Together”, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 4th February 2019; http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/travels/2019/outside/documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html
 “Israel in talks with Saudi, UAE, Bahrain for defense alliance against Iran”, Jerusalem Post, 1st March 2021; https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/israel-saudi-arabia-uae-bahrain-talking-defense-alliance-660588
 “Netanyahu and mossad chief may have visited Saudi Arabia alongside Pompeo”, by Lahav Harkov, Jerusalem Post, 23rd November 2020; https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/netanyahu-mossad-chief-may-have-visited-saudi-arabia-alongside-pompeo-649959 (accessed 7th January 2021)
 “Iran and the Palestinians Lose Out in the Abraham Accords”, The Atlantic, 16th September 2020; https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/winners-losers/616364/
 “Pakistan blasphemy case: Asia Bibi freed from jail”, BBC News, 8th November 2018; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-46130189