News / Middle East

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

FILE - An Iraqi Christian man from Mosul, who fled with his family from violence in their country, reads a book at the Latin Patriarchate Church in Amman, Jordan, Aug. 21, 2014.
FILE - An Iraqi Christian man from Mosul, who fled with his family from violence in their country, reads a book at the Latin Patriarchate Church in Amman, Jordan, Aug. 21, 2014.
Mohamed Elshinnawi

According to a study by the Pew Research Center the number of Middle Eastern countries experiencing sectarian violence between religious groups has doubled from five to 10 since 2011.

The research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities and that Christians faced persecution in growing number of countries in the region.

In this climate of religious intolerance, experts say nearly one million Christians have been displaced from Iraq, half a million have left Syria, and Egypt’s Copts have lost scores of their churches to arsons. In Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity, the number of Christians has been dwindling for decades.

“At one time, it was estimated that 25 percent of the citizens of East Jerusalem were Christians, now they are less than 2 percent,” said Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.

She also says political developments and discrimination have for decades caused the decline of the Middle East’s Christian population.

“The formation of the state of Israel in 1947 resulted in displacement of Christians in the Galilee, which was mostly a Christian community, and then the 1967 war pushed out more Christians who were living near Jerusalem,” she said.

“Lebanon's civil war in 1970s forced a lot of Christians to leave," she added. "The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in pitting sectarian groups against each other, and, recently, when the Islamic State [group] took over some areas in Iraq and Syria, Christians were given options to convert, leave, or die.”

In some cases, discrimination against Arab Christians made them feel unwanted and pushed some to emigrate, she said.

“Everywhere, with the exception of Lebanon, there is an established state religion; in Egypt and Iraq, for example, the state religion is Islam. In Syria the president has to be a Muslim, so Christians felt they are a minority and they are not represented in the government or the state bureaucracy.”

Appeal for Iraqi Christians

Considering the magnitude of the decline of Christian minorities in the Middle East, some Christian leaders are appealing to the world not to remain indifferent.

In recent months, a military drive by Islamic State militants targeted Christians in Iraq, destroyed numerous ancient Christian sites and demanded that followers of the ancient Yazidi sect choose between conversion to Islam or death. Thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, leading to a U.S.-led assault on the militants and giant humanitarian mission to save them from starvation.

“What has happened to Iraqi Christians, along with other minorities, is terrible and horrific … therefore, we need urgent and effective international support from all the people of good will to save the Christians and Yazidis, from extinction,” said Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, president of the Assembly of the Catholic Bishops in Iraq in an open letter released on August 24.
The letter calls into question the West’s “moral and historical” responsibility toward religious minorities.

As Islamic State militants seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, Christians were asked to convert to Islam, pay a special levy for non-Muslims, or forced to flee to avoid death.

Iraqi Chaldeans, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, left their cities and villages in droves. Sako said he fears Christian life eventually could come to an end in the region.

“In 10 years there will perhaps be 50,000 Christians left in Iraq,” he said. “Prior to 2003, this figure was about 1.2 million. Within 10 years we have shrunk to a community of perhaps 400,000 to 500,000 Christians.”

Discrimination rages

The Reverend Refaat Bader, president of the Center for Catholic Studies and Information, in Amman, Jordan, said Christians are facing discrimination throughout the Middle East.

“All Christians of the Middle East suffer from a wide range of discriminatory practices, whether in their constitutions or laws and social pressures,” said Bader. “Every time a constitution specifies that Islam is the official religion of the state, Christian citizens are not treated equally.”

Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, said Christians have become prey for militant Muslims.

“The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in a decade of unrest, which allowed for the rise of radical groups like al-Qaida in Iraq and then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Christian communities were targeted by radicalism that led to a historic disaster for these communities.”

Salem said that the Arab Spring rebellions spurred religious intolerance that has added to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

“In the absence of organized political life and real political elites, Arab populations suddenly empowered with no political experience, religion became the only haven where people could meet and develop their identities," said Salem. "And desperate, angry, and unemployed youth are more likely to take things to their radical extremes. Political Islam also has considerable financing from networks in the oil-rich gulf states, which are generally politically and religiously conservative.”

Christian future uncertain

Still, Salem is hopeful the decline of the Christian population could be stopped by ending the civil wars, reestablishing law and order, and fixing flaws in laws and constitutions.

“Christians in Egypt - the largest Christian population in the Middle East - went through a very difficult time during the one year of the Muslim Brotherhood rule feeling like second-class citizens. But they now feel much more secured with the new constitution, which gave them clear protection and rights to representation,” said Salem.

Analyst Haddad is so pessimistic about the future of the region’s Christians, however, that she is writing a book titled Vanishing Christians of the Middle East.

“Everybody thinks I am exaggerating, but I really think that eventually, if things continue as what is happening now, Christians will all leave,” she said.

Salem did said there is a historical lure, though, for some Christians to remain.

“They are not going to disappear from the region, they might disappear from certain areas here and there, but they are tough people and so attached to their land, history and identity - and they were in the region before Islam arrived - and they are there to stay,” he said.

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Comment Sorting
by: Maureen Shea from: Washington, DC
September 04, 2014 3:45 PM
It is important to also address the situation of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli Occupation, the restrictions that puts on their ability to worship freely, and the importance of maintaining Jerusalem as a place where followers of all three Abrahamic faiths can worship.

by: Jacob from: India
August 31, 2014 11:27 PM
In 1917 Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared at a place named Fatima (which name is famous in Islamic history). There she promised that after a time of persecution, her "Immaculate Heart" would triumph and that a time of peace will be granted to the world. Many Popes have confirmed this vision. Let us pray for this as she urgently asked.

by: Himblar Marak from: Baghmara
August 31, 2014 12:43 AM
Talking about persecution, it's nothing new for the children of the one True God, it's a fact we don't bother for this is the word of the Saviour and the Prophets, however, we suffer physically as we wait to see the day of the Lord to come very very soon. Pressures against True believers are global physically, spiripually as we are already entering into a New World Order, with the law of Anti Christ. All these happening to Christian faith are but the labour paint. Be courageous and bold fellow believers, our redemption draweth nigh, look up.
In Response

by: Joseph
August 31, 2014 10:15 AM
MATT:11Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. 12Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

by: Mr A from: new york
August 30, 2014 11:02 AM
The Us policy has contributed of the Persecution of Christian . Us has supported Muslim brotherhood because Us believe that Muslim brotherhood is for democracy and they will serve the interest of Us. the fact that policy has negative impact on Christian whom they are persecuted by Muslim brotherhood .In Syria ,Bashar El Assad is a secular. by supporting the Syrian rebel ,Christian are killed, woman are raped , churches are burning. The Syrian conflict has set stage of Jihadist to come to Syria and form ISIS. It is created a new form of fanatic that use savage methods . of crime against Humanity. I believe That Ms. Clinton the former state secretary has demonstrated a poor judgment for each decision she made

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