With the turmoil on the “Arab street” reaching unprecedented levels of social unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, with Hezbollah on the verge of claiming new political power in Lebanon, and with Muslim ideologues in Iraq and Pakistan growing bolder, the life of Christian minorities in Muslim-dominated countries becomes ever more tenuous.

The year began with several disturbing acts of violence: An attack on an Egyptian Coptic church on New Year’s Eve by Muslim extremists left 21 Christians dead. More recently, an Egyptian off-duty policeman opened fire on a train, killing one elderly Christian and wounding five others. And in Pakistan, a moderate governor in the state of Punjab who had opposed a law used to persecute Christians was killed by his bodyguard, who was in turn hailed as a hero by lawyers.

A rather modest expression of concern by Pope Benedict XVI in his Jan. 10 speech to diplomats asked that Christians be protected, including “freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom in education, teaching and the use of the mass media.” He joined with European countries in asking that steps be taken to protect the shrinking number of Middle Eastern Christians.

Muslim academics in Egypt lashed out in retaliation, suspending talks with the Vatican, and Egypt recalled its Vatican ambassador in protest.
Such was the environment in the Middle East even before the riots and demonstrations. In Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, Christians have been at risk and unable to count on the unwavering support even of secular governments.

That citizens are rising up against repressive and corrupt regimes that have benefited a few and subjugated the many should not be surprising or feared, necessarily. But the danger is that religious dictatorships will replace secular ones, and there will be even fewer protections for Christian communities in the months and years to come.

The Vatican is treading carefully, seeking to support Christian minorities without further inflaming a volatile situation. It is critical that Western governments, including the United States, stand with the Vatican, not on the sidelines. If not, they can expect more violence and more refugees.

… And a truce at home

It appears that a debilitating standoff between U.S. bishops and the Catholic Health Association is ending in a draw. After a series of conversations between bishops, the CHA board and Sister Carol Keehan, the controversial president of the CHA, Sister Keehan has affirmed in writing that the local bishop is the “authoritative interpreter” of the directives that guide Catholic health care.

In response, Archbishop Timothy Dolan reiterated the bishop’s authority to make an “authoritative resolution” regarding an ethical debate. But he also welcomed the CHA’s support for a proposed amendment to the health care reform law that would ensure that there is no funding for abortion.

The dispute began when a Catholic Healthcare West hospital in Phoenix disagreed with Bishop Thomas Olmsted over his determination that an abortion had occurred in the hospital in 2009 in violation of Church guidelines. When the hospital refused to back down, Bishop Olmsted decreed the hospital could no longer call itself Catholic. The CHA then sided with the hospital and against the bishop.

Next up: Critics are watching to see if the hospital will be allowed to retain its membership in the CHA, regardless of Bishop Olmsted’s decree.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director, John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.