An Unwelcome Minority: Threats Facing Christianity in the Middle East

By Guest Contributor


Christians are too often regarded as an unwelcome minority in the Middle East. One need not look very far to realize that fact. However, not only are they an unwelcome minority, but they are actively being persecuted, killed, and dispelled from the region in an attempt to create a fully Islamic sphere of influence, and those who wish to see them gone are, unfortunately, seeing a large amount of success. According to data presented by UN Dispatch on the persecution of Christians in Iraq, an estimated 1.2 million Christians resided in the country before the U.S. invasion in 2003 while less than 250,000 remain today (as of 2019, when the article was published).[1] These numbers are staggering and reflect an eighty percent drop in less than two decades. The almost complete eradication of Christianity of Iraq is not only tragic for the local Christian communities and the broader Church as a whole as the disappearance of Christianity in its own birthplace, but it should also raise serious concerns about the situation of Christians in other countries whose governments might perhaps look to Iraq as an example on how to deal with their unwanted Christian populations. Furthermore, such persecution goes beyond just the immediate impact of Christians, as countries that have shown themselves to be enemies of one minority group will most likely have no reservations about the persecution and eradication of other minority groups and religions that they perceive as obstacles in their national and religious aims. Thus, in the face of this tragic reality for Iraqi Christians, the plight of Christians in the region is something that cannot and should not be overlooked.

While it is impossible to know just how many Christians have fled persecution at the hands of their governments or non-state actors like the Daesh (better known as the Islamic State), or have been killed or imprisoned by the same, it cannot be denied that the overall downward trend in numbers of Christians across the Middle East paints a dark picture for the long-term tenacity of the Church in the area. With the persecution the Church in the Middle East diverse and widespread, it would do well to investigate some of the factors that have contributed to the mistreatment of Christians, as well as the deep-seated animosity between Christians and Muslims, which has been a reality for as long as the two religions themselves have existed side by side.

A Brief History of Christianity in the Middle East

Origins of Christianity in the Region

Christianity has its birthplace in the Middle East, specifically in the land of Palestine, known today as Israel, during the time of and shortly after the man known as Jesus Christ walked and taught among the people of the area, who were and still are to this day primarily adherents of Judaism. Christians, unlike their Jewish counterparts accepted the teachings of Christ and his claims to be God incarnate although at the outset of Christianity in the days of first century, it was almost indistinguishable from its parent, Judaism, and thus for a period, existed in relative darkness, regarded my many as nothing more than a sect within Judaism. However, it wasn’t long before the faith began to evolve and separate itself from the Jewish faith as it was carried beyond the confines of Galilee and Judaea, into the Hellenistic world and the Jewish and pagan communities, in particular, of the broader Roman empire. The non-Jews, or pagans, who formed the bulk of the population of the Roman empire were particularly fertile ground for the spread of Christianity, as many of these “God-fearers” were attracted by the message of Christianity, monotheism, and the way of life it entailed, but were unable or refused to take the final step of circumcision and acquiring Jewish citizenship. This combined with the prevailing climate of thought and religious practice within the Roman empire was favorable to the spread of the Christian Church as the bankruptcy of the ancient cults left a void which neither the philosophy schools nor the Mysteries could fill. By the insistence of one on moral ideals and of the other on the need for a savior, Christianity could and did provide both as it supplied the religious hunger and lifted men from the depths of the moral degradation into which contemporary pagan society had plunged them. It brought assurance of a personal redeemer which could liberate men from evil and from death itself, it satisfied the desire for escape from fate, and it answered a social need and secured men against loneliness. Undoubtedly, this new faith was very appealing to the peoples of the early centuries, and this combined with the ease in which travel was facilitated throughout the Roman world through its road system and the lingua franca of Koine Greek, ensured that the gospel was born along the trade routes to the edges of the edges and beyond as Christian missionaries travelling the empire could ensure that almost wherever they went, they could preach their message in the knowledge that it would be understood. Thus, for a time at least, the spread of Christianity was carried out unhindered.

Spread Beyond the Roman Empire

By the second century A.D. Christianity had begun to gain a foothold beyond Roman Asia which was largely understood to have ended at the Euphrates River. The spread of Christianity out of the Roman world and into Persia (modern day Iran) was facilitated by persecution of Christians within the Roman empire during that time, and the nature of the then ruling dynasty of Persia. As Christians fled east across into Persia to escape persecution, they brought their faith with them. The ruling Persian dynasty of the time, The Parthians, were a warlike and nomadic people who had thrown defeated the Greek influence of the previous dynasty, the Seleucids, in 247 B.C. It seems that their constant warring combined with a lack of cultural identity, their nomadic indifference to anything but hunting, and tribal intrigue, and the lack of a predominant religion among them, seem to have given Christianity fertile ground to plant in Persia and put down some of the first roots of a distinct Asian Christianity largely separate from the development of the Church in the Roman Empire to the west. Here, under the control of the Parthians, Asian Christianity began developing and emerge in some of the regions now known as the modern-day states and areas of Armenia, northeastern Iraq, and southeastern Turkey. [2]

Islam and Christianity           

By the time that Islam arrived in the region in the mid-seventh century, it would be reasonable to say that Christianity had a strong foothold in the Persian sphere of influence, having almost five hundred years of development and spread in the region. The Arab conquest in the region in the mid-seventh century effectively ended the Persian era of Church history but was not the end of Persian Christianity.[3] It seems that the Christians of the region had long been the victims of persecution at the hands of the Zoroastrians, the dominant religion of Persia at that time, and the Arabs were seen as liberators from such oppression.[4] According to authors of the time, the Christians in fact received the Arabs joyfully, and in turn the Arabs treated the Christians with generosity. In fact, Muhammad himself, the founder of Islam, seems to have had a positive view of Christianity as it existed at the time, and is said to have even recognized the “holy book” to be the Bible rather than the Qur’an which supposedly only emerged after his death.

Origins of Islam in the Region

The beginnings of Islam are uncertain. It seems that Muhammad, at first, believed his religious views to be completely in line with those of the Christians, even believing that the two groups worshipped the same god. However, by the time the Qur’an began to take written shape around the time of Muhammad’s death, the major points of contention between him and the Christians were almost certainly becoming increasingly obvious to him.[5] This may be due to one of the failures of the Christian Church of that time, namely the failure to translate the New Testament into Arabic.[6] The influence of the Old Testament in the Qur’an is predominant, while references to the New Testament exist albeit in a more scattered and uneven manner.[7] This, as has been mentioned is likely due to the fact that no Arabic translation existed at the time. Such major contentions between Islam and Christianity such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, which Islam rejects, the crucifixion of Christ, which Islam also rejects, and the Trinity, a core doctrine of the Christian faith which Islam also rejects and holds as grounds for the labelling of the Christian faith as polytheistic are all concepts explicitly found in the New Testament, and although such concepts as the Trinity and divinity of Christ are alluded to and such events as the death of Christ are prophesied in the Old Testament, explicit mentions of these points do not exist until the New Testament. Thus, it follows that, in the absence of any mentions of these ideas and events in Arabic, they were almost certainly largely overlooked by the Arab scholars of the day, and when it came time to codify the foundations of the Islamic faith, these keys aspects, largely overlooked, were not included. Further, when the Prophet sought for a name for the One True God, the same God whom he thought the Christians and Jews worshipped, none existed in Arabic as none had been carried over from Greek or Hebrew, and so he chose the name the Arabs used for the pagan Supreme Being, Allah.[8] This is where the deepest roots of Islamic hostility toward Christians began, and largely due to the failures of the Christian Church itself. The naming of the Islamic supreme being almost certainly had the effect of setting that supreme being apart from the Christian supreme being, as the Arabs already had an understanding of Allah as the supreme being, different from the supreme being of the Jews and Christians, and as every supreme being represents the ultimate truth in the eyes of its believers and demands their complete devotion, anyone not adhering to the truth which the supreme being reveals is either considered a target for conversion, or an enemy to be destroyed.

Thus, through a lack of foresight in failing to provide a translation of the New Testament to the Arab world, the early Christians allowed the creation of a supreme being separate from the Christian God, failed to make the core doctrines of the Christian faith widely available in a language everyone could understand, and set the stage for the eventual widespread persecution of their ancestors at the hands of an increasingly hostile Muslim population. In the face of Muhammad’s initial belief that the God of the Christians and his god were the same, this might have been avoidable if he had been able to assign a true name to a God which he and his followers had read about and understood in a New Testament written in their own language. This rift continues into the present day and is perhaps one of the biggest factors in the disappearance of Christianity from the Middle East. That the Arabs have so thoroughly conquered and subjugated the other populations within the region with their culture, language and religion has, perhaps, created a feeling of supremacy and an idea that their way of life is right and should be spread to the world. In this understanding there is, naturally, no room for those who think differently.

This is part one of a four-part report published weekly from a guest contributor to ICC’s Fellows program.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.

[1] Mark Leon Goldberg, “The Persecution of Christians in Iraq,” UN Dispatch, June 10 2019,,in%20Iraq%20for%20centuries%20will%20be%20gone%20entirely.

[2] Samuel H. Moffett 1998, A History of Christianity in Asia 2nd revised and corrected ed. (New York:  Orbis Books, 1998), 12.

[3] Ibid., 325

[4] Ibid.

[5]Samuel H. Moffett 1998, A History of Christianity in Asia 2nd revised and corrected ed. (New York:  Orbis Books, 1998), 330.

[6] Ibid., 330.

[7] Ibid., 329.

[8] Samuel H. Moffett 1998, A History of Christianity in Asia 2nd revised and corrected ed. (New York:  Orbis Books, 1998), 330.

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