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As Christmas arrives, crisis for Mideast Christians

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Now, the largest Christian community in the region – the Copts of Egypt – fear that their position, status, and ultimate security in a country where they are in many ways already second-class citizens is about to erode further due to democratic change.

In Syria, too, where Christians make up about 8 percent of the population, there is fear the uprising will lead to an Islamist government more hostile to Christians than Mr. Assad's regime was. They're well aware of the risks of sectarian conflict and persecution, having witnessed Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war and, more recently, the Iraq war, which spurred tens of thousands of Christians to flee to Syria.

At least half a million Iraqi Christians have fled Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, diminishing their community – estimated at 1 million to 1.4 million before the war – to a mere 500,000 under the pressure of sectarian killings, church attacks, and an increasingly Islamist political culture.

"Pandora's box has been opened and everything has come out," says scholar and former diplomat Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "In those societies that have been authoritarian there is a big tendency for a tyranny of majority, for a while at least, when they change. Iraq is a very good example – suddenly there's a tendency for [large groups] to grab the initiative and not to be thinking about the rights of others."

The rise of Islamists

The decline of Christians in the Middle East is a story that is 1,400 years old, as old as Islam itself.

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