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ICC Note: It’s always great to see US papers covering news of persecution. If only we could get them to write about persecution beyond Iraq’s borders.
Declining Christian population a fact of life in Arab societies

By Olivia Ward

‘It’s hard to imagine the region without Christians’

Shrinking numbers and influence problematic for entire region . . . and maybe also for the West

Iraq (For the full story, go to the Toronto Star) Trails of acrid smoke rose from bombs dropped on Iraq by U.S. warplanes in December 1998. But inside Baghdad ‘s Christian churches, the smoke was from incense, as the devout celebrated Christmas with masses and choral concerts, braving the four-day attack launched when Saddam Hussein hampered the efforts of United Nations weapons inspectors.

Today, Iraq ‘s 700,000 Christians look back on that anxious period as the good old days as a murderous civil war rips apart the fabric of a society in which they once played a small but vital role. Theirs is just one of several Christian communities in the Middle East that has shrunk dramatically over the past decade.

“There are 12 million Christians in the Middle East . If the current trend continues, there will be fewer than 6 million by 2025 (says Hilal Khashan, political science chair at the American University of Beirut) .”

“Every time there’s a confrontation, more people leave. In some countries, there’s extreme fundamentalism, and a jihadist movement is on the loose.”

Of all the Christian communities, Iraq ‘s is the most threatened — a bitterly ironic development for those who were once among its influential citizens. “Christians are afraid to shop, let alone go to church,” says Khayat..”

In multi-sectarian Lebanon , the Christian community of 1.4 million is shrinking despite being politically influential and representing more than one-third of the population.

In the Palestinian Territories , continuing violence between Palestinian factions, as well as Israeli restrictions and a disastrous economic embargo, have driven out Christians. In Bethlehem , the legendary birthplace of Christ, the 80 per cent Christian majority has shrunk to only 15 per cent.

Ray Mouawad, a Lebanese historian who focuses on Syriac Christians, says political instability and growing fundamentalism are a threat not just to Christians but to all religious minorities, as well as to secular Muslims.

For Islamic fundamentalists, he says, “no building of churches is allowed, no display of the cross, no processions, no equality in the law, no participation in the political process and, of course, no freedom of conscience. These are just some ideas that are prevalent in fundamentalist circles from Iran to Morocco .”

(Although Christians in Egypt ) don’t experience much overt violence, they are uneasy about workplace discrimination and electoral rules they say leave them politically under-represented. They also complain of restrictions on building new churches to replace those that are crumbling.

Conditions are far worse in Saudi Arabia , where 300,000 or so Christians lead difficult, furtive lives. Non-Muslim worship is banned, and those who attend “underground” services may be severely punished or deported.
However, as the Middle East becomes more polarized and violence more commonplace, some fear that Christians may dwindle to insignificant numbers or virtually disappear.