Ramadan in the Middle East: 2019 Report
By Claire Evans
06/25/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is a tense time in the Middle East. As a predominantly Islamic region, observance of the Ramadan fast is culturally, and even at times legally, required. For the region’s Christians, it is often a time when persecution increases. This year, countries throughout the Middle East witnessed their own unique trends of persecution during Ramadan. Yet, many shared a common theme of incidents that used conversion issues to promote Christian demographic change.
Turkey—the only Middle Eastern country that prides itself on secularism—led the way on confirmed Ramadan-related persecution incidents. These incidents were primarily against ethnic minorities in Turkey who identify as Christian.
The most highly publicized incident was the forced conversion of an Armenian teenager to Islam during a televised Iftar meal. The Armenian Patriarchate responded by saying, “A publication of this nature only produces the impression of religious propaganda and cannot be accorded with the freedom of conscience… It is just sadness to use them (Christians) as a rating tool.”
Other incidents in Turkey related to hate speech and at least two violent attacks targeting Greek and Armenian Christians. Turkish police also raided and closed an Iranian church during Ramadan.
Ramadan in Egypt was marked by more persecution incidents towards, and immediately following, Eid. Most of the incidents were related to conversion cases. On the day of Eid, violence erupted in Upper Egypt over a Christian woman named Fransa who voluntarily converted to Islam. She had left the village months prior, but returned on Eid as Muslims welcomed her, but then violently targeted her family.
“At the dawn of Wednesday, the governor of Minya commanded that Fransa must return to the village and there would be a great presence of security forces. He was smart to choose this time. It is a time when all the people are celebrating (Eid),” explained a local church leader. “The police members are relatives to the Muslim extremists, so it is hard and impossible for the police to resist or disagree with them.”
During this time, at least four young Egyptian Christian women disappeared. It is common for hardline extremists to kidnap Christian woman and force them to convert; however, it is also common for Christian families to claim that their daughter was kidnapped when she genuinely falls in love with a Muslim man. It is unclear which of these circumstances apply to these women, but the timing is noteworthy.
In Iraq, two elderly women were brutally beaten by assailants associated with Iranian-backed militias. One of the women was seriously injured, while the other was forced to relocate to a new city. The situation was widely interpreted by local Christians as a forced demographic change encouraged by non-local Islamic militias.
Said one local, “Muslims say that invasions are prohibited and haram in Ramadan. But back to history, most invasions take place during Ramadan… I think the feeling of hunger makes them angry and they want everyone to suffer somehow.”
“Muslims say that invasions are prohibited and haram in Ramadan. But back to history, most invasions take place during Ramadan.”
Wildfires, however, were the more common occurrence during Ramadan. ISIS has claimed responsibility for several fires, timing the start of their insurgent tactics with the start of Ramadan. Some Christians reported receiving a loss of assets totaling in the thousands of dollars. However, much mystery surrounds the cause of these specific fires.
Rockets were fired into the Syrian Christian village of al-Suqaylabiyah by al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists. Syrian Christians are often associated with the regime, and this particular village is widely known for having supported the regime since the beginning of the conflict. They have experienced several attacks over the past eight years, but this attack caught many by surprise as it was preceded by several days of peace. Five children and one adult were killed, and eight others wounded.
“The kids went out to play after some days of calm,” Father Maher Haddad, a local priest, told the Associated Press. The report continued, “A rocket struck near a group of children, instantly killing five and wounding others… the woman was killed in a nearby street by a separate rocket.”
Attacks against this town and the Christian village of Mhardeh continued throughout Ramadan and until today. The convoluted nature of the civil war makes it difficult to determine whether these attacks are related to the Islamic holiday or fall within the pattern of persecution normalized during the eight-year conflict. Both are possible interpretations.
The Iranian regime illegally closed an Assyrian church during Ramadan, a move which was directly criticized by a senior legal advisor to the country’s president. The constitution has language protecting the right of non-Persian Christians to worship, and the incident was outside the norm of how persecution usually takes place in Iran.
Two local officials who questioned the regime’s treatment of religious minorities were consequently summoned through the judicial process during Ramadan and face punitive treatment. Government officials criticizing the regime’s treatment of religious minorities is highly unique for Iran, especially during Islamic holy days.
Ramadan 2019 was undoubtedly a difficult time for the Middle East’s Christians. But this year, at least, there was a glimmer of hope that things could change. Even in one of the most aggressive countries in the region toward Christians, some are willing to accept the risk of publicly standing in support of religious minorities.
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