The COVID-19 pandemic has initiated global lockdowns, slowing down societies but not religious persecution. In the Middle East, where persecution was once defined by ISIS, the pandemic exposed a transformation of religious freedom violations. Terrorism remains a driver of persecution, especially in conflict areas. However, the pandemic shows that many governments have emerged from the last six years with more authority than before the 2014 rise of ISIS. The threat of extremism allowed societies a type of inoculation regarding “state of emergencies.” By the time the pandemic reached the region, mechanisms were already in place for many governments to act with decisive authority.
Islam is the official religion of most governments in the Middle East. Countries where this is not an official constitutional provision still have strong Islamic political parties influencing policy decisions. As the governments have grown stronger, so also has their influence over the fate of religious freedom. The pandemic reveals those areas where governments can hold Christians under duress, manipulate their financial resources, and create confusion in their regulation of religion. The pandemic also reveals those governments who have failed to follow their own religious freedom “standards.” Since the pandemic overlapped with both Easter and Ramadan, these problems grew in transparency.
The following report measures six categories: how political leaders reacted towards Christians during the pandemic, policy decisions taken which threaten future religious freedom environments, church and mosque lockdown parity, financial impact inequality, responses towards imprisoned Christians, and terrorism. Every country in the Middle East was evaluated under these rubrics, but the report only mentions those countries who were the most egregious in their activities within these categories.
Turkey deserves a notable mention for having the most violations, especially alarming given their military activities throughout the region and support of terrorist groups abroad. Whereas Iran has the most well-known reputation for imprisoning Christians, Egypt’s track record during the pandemic showed Christians were treated worse. A question yet unanswered is whether mosques and churches will reopen equally after the lockdown, an uncertainty of particular importance for Algerians. Terrorists were active throughout this period, but not necessarily in Christian areas.
The Middle East remains a complicated region. But the pandemic made one necessity clear: religious freedom remains missing. This time, governments more than extremists shoulder the blame for persecution.