An Unwelcome Minority: Threats Facing Christians in the Middle East, Part 2
By Guest Contributor
This article is Part 2 of a four-part weekly series on threats facing Christians in the Middle East. To read Part 1, click here.
Christianity in the Middle East in the Modern Day
What Contributes to the Drop in Numbers?
But what of the Christians today? The Christian presence in the Middle East, while long has never enjoyed a majority status, apart from in Lebanon it was once the majority. Even now, although their numbers are declining, they still make up a significant portion of the population and retain significant political power. Even so, it cannot be denied that the overall trends of the number of Christians within the middle east is on the decline, with perhaps the sharpest drop coming from Iraq where there has been a drop from over one million to less than 300,000 in the span of eighteen years. The almost constant fighting combined with hostile governments, persecution, and the increased activity of radical religious groups in the area are perhaps the most evident factors in the declining numbers of Christians. But these factors give rise to secondary factors such as low birth rates within Christian communities facing serious violence and long term instability and emigration of Christians out of the region, leading to the downward trend being observed, and although certain countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria are relatively tolerant of Christians, total freedom of religion does not exist in the Middle East as Christians may face bans on proselytizing Muslims or other measures such as employment discrimination and other forms of civil discrimination. The emergence of new radical Islamist groups and the continued operation of such groups in places such as Iraq and Syria, among others poses an immediate threat to the stability of the region and Christian communities that exist within the countries in which these radical groups operate. The highly volatile situation proves dangerous for both short term and long-term stability as it is often difficult if not impossible to anticipate where radical groups will strike. In the absence of such information, Christians are forced to live in a constant state of fear and readiness to flee their homes and towns when a threat emerges. Threats are varied and persecution comes from many sources, including governments, although it should be noted that not all governments are committed to the eradication of Christianity and not all Christian communities are at risk of disappearing or even of widespread violence.
Severity of Threats
The severity of threats to the broader Middle Eastern Christian community does, of course, differ widely and restrictions on building a new church obviously cannot be placed in the same category as the specific targeting of Christians for execution by the Islamic State and affiliated groups, or the mass emigration of Christians out of Iraq in the face of severe persecution at the hands of the government and various non-state actors. For example, in Egypt, where Coptic Christians are a large minority (numbering around 4.5 million) there are mostly “soft” (legal, and social) forms of prejudice in place in what constitutes a subtle yet entrenched discrimination. There are cases of isolated violence against Christians often perpetrated by outside actors acting without the approval of, or with tacit consent of the government, but these incidents do not come close to the systematic targeting of Christians in other places around the region. Given these circumstances, the immediate, and probably even long term, safety of the Christian community is likely not at stake. What all these, and many other factors indicate, however, is the general attitude that Christians are largely unwelcome in the region despite having existed there for as long, if not longer, than many other religious groups. Even seemingly minor factors such as restrictions on church building and bans on proselytizing Muslims indicate an attitude of Christianity as a nuisance that would do better to disappear, Even in the case of relatively peaceful existence of Christians alongside other groups, when they suffer at the hands of outside groups their governments’ often regular failures to step in on their behalf indicates an underlying disregard for the safety and stability of Christian groups living under their watches. Taken into account individually, factors such as conflict and targeting killings can be named as major causes of the decline of Christianity in the region, but taken altogether and analyzed as a whole, the correlation between such factors presents a rather harsh picture of the state of the Christians in many parts of the region.
Violence in the Middle East
The Middle East is an unstable region. Much of this instability can be attributed to the history of the area under Persian, then Arab, and then later colonial rule under groups such as England and France who may have had little idea as to the cultural nuances and balance that kept delicate peace in the area. With the disassembly of colonial empires, many of the modern states in the area were created were partitioned between different groups who claimed to have jurisdiction over large portions of land given to other groups. A prime example of this would be the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the conflict that has caused between the Palestinians who had jurisdiction of the land previously and the Israelis who largely came from other countries to claim the land as their own. As many groups battle over what they perceive as their ancestral lands partitioned by vacating colonial powers and regional power players such as Iran seek to exert their influence in areas such as southern Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere violence is almost inevitable and many living and growing up in the region have no real comprehension of long term peace.
Conflict and the Stability of the Church
The almost constant unrest does not create an atmosphere conducive to the stability of the Church and subsequent growth that arises out of that stability. Of course, an argument can be made that the Church can grow, despite, and perhaps as a result of widespread persecution, as is the case in China. However, such not the case with the Middle East. This most likely has much to do with just how widespread conflict is in many of the countries where Christians have any significant presence. Conflict is, of course, not a perfect indicator of decreasing numbers of Christians in the Middle East, as Lebanon provides a striking example of a country in which Christians were once the majority but have now dropped into minority status. Though, in Lebanon, Christians still enjoy significant power, with the highest rate of Christians in the Arab world and holding 64 seats in the Lebanese parliament in tandem with 64 seats for Lebanese Muslims. However, Lebanon is an exception, and the long-term tenacity of the Christian community there is likely not threatened. The role of conflict in other places though, is central to the dwindling numbers of Christians in the region. The fight to retake Mosul from the Islamic state, displaced over 700,000 Iraqis alone, many of them undoubtedly, Christians. These are not conditions under which anyone, much less a minority group such as the Christian community, thrives.
The Role of the West
Many in the west may not know about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, or even that Christians exist in any significant numbers in the area. For those who do know, though, they may want to get involved by sponsoring aid organizations or pushing for legislation in their home countries that makes it easier for Christians from these countries to seek asylum in places like Europe or North America. However this does not help, but rather harms, according to some Christians in the area. Facing the onslaught of violence directed toward them, many Christians are weighing whether to leave and contribute to the eradication of Christianity from its homeland or to stay and risk losing their lives. According to one Iraqi clergyman of the Assyrian Church of the East, the west making it too easy for Christians to abandon ship, providing the pull as extremist groups provide the push out of the area. According to him, the west is doing the unfinished work of these groups and can be directly blamed for the de-Christianization of the Middle East. It would seem, according to this view, that preserving Christianity in its homeland presents a more important task than protecting the lives of Christians fleeing the horrors of spreading extremism and growing intolerance. The idea of staying to preserve Christianity in its original land does not seem to be holding much water with the Christians of the Middle East and Church officials who pressure their congregations to remain, solely for the sake of the preservation of the local Church, clearly do not have the best interests of their congregants in mind. The diaspora of Christians from Iraq is perhaps the best indicator of the local Christian mindset. While rather disheartening, the significant decline of Christians in that country over the past fifteen years would seem to indicate that Christians value their lives more than the preservation of their faith in its original land, and while some of that decline has to be attributed to deaths, the picture the numbers paint is clear. Christians, many of whom may not want to leave the region, increasingly see no other options. If they want to preserve their faith and their families, they see exodus to the west as the only feasible option. With this in mind, it might do well for the west to make it easier for middle eastern Christians to flee there. Sure, to an extent, it is contributing to the eradication of Christianity in the Middle East, but it is also contributing to the infinitely more important goal of preserving the faith as a whole. The possible end of Christianity in the Middle East, while undoubtedly sad, is infinitely less so than the end of Christians in the Middle East, as the institution of Christianity cannot be destroyed as long as there are those alive to carry it on. Thus, preservation of the Christian, even outside their homeland, spells the preservation of Christianity. Perhaps, these Christians are more equipped to fight for their place in the region from the safety of the west. Under laws which protect freedom of speech, they can speak out against the atrocities committed against them. Under governments which largely recognize freedom of religion and human rights, and recognize the importance of protecting these things, they have a sympathetic ear. The governments of the countries to which they flee are, perhaps, better equipped and more willing to take up their cause. That is, Christians in the west have many more possibilities and outlets to make themselves heard, leading to many more possibilities for help to be delivered. That the Assyrian Church of the East, a prominent Middle Eastern Christian Church, has its headquarters in the United States speaks to this, and to the ability of the Church to better provide for the needs of its people in the Middle East when it, itself, exists in a stable environment.
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.