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5/24/2024 Middle East (International Christian Concern) Every month, International Christian Concern (ICC) sources in the Middle East witness Christians leaving the region. The rates are especially alarming in countries with high levels of conflict and economic collapse. 

Places such as Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, and, to a lesser degree, Egypt and Lebanon have seen a continuation of the historic exodus of Christians during the past decade alone. The decline is especially significant when one considers that these communities are among the oldest Christian communities in the world.  

Amid all the modern political forms that have shaped the Middle Eastern geopolitical order, the Christian presence in the region pre-dates Islam, Zionism, Arab nationalism, European colonialism, Western Christianity, and the modern missions movement. It also gives us a unique perspective on geopolitical forces and persecution. 

While Middle Eastern Christians have endured waves of turmoil and direct persecution since the first century, the past 20 years have had an undeniable effect on its influence and its demographics in the region.  

Quantitatively, an outline of some basic statistics gives a part of the picture. During the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s (widely considered the birth of the modern Middle East), the Ottoman Middle East was, by some estimates, as much as 20% Christian. Now, the ratio is roughly 3% to 4% in the same territory. Both Iraq’s and Syria’s Christians have shrunk by somewhere between 75% to 85% in the past 20 years, and Palestine’s Christian community is finding itself at threat, highlighted by Gaza’s Christians suffering near extinction in the latest Israeli-Palestinian war.  

While many events have helped bring about this decline, the Armenian genocide (1914-1918), which left 2 million Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians dead across the Ottoman Empire, started what has become perhaps the most devasting century in Middle Eastern Christian history. Following the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot agreement, followed by the post-European colonial era rise of Zionism and Arab Nationalism, gave birth to the creation of borders that left Christian communities fragmented and a series of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts that had devasting effects on Christian communities in the Holy Land, Jordan, and Lebanon.  

More recently, the rise of Salafi Islam and its extremist efforts to return to a seventh-century brand of Islam has led to groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group (ISIS), which have both targeted and killed Christians in Iraq and Syria, driving survivors out of the region. Continued shadow conflicts between the Islamist Iranian regime and its proxy groups across the region against Israel, the United States, and their allies are shaping the current geopolitical environment in a way that does little to stop the flow of Christians from the Middle East. 

As the number of Christians in the Middle East declines, persecution against those who remain is increasing. The Christian exodus leaves fewer Christians who are friends, neighbors, and co-workers to members of the Muslim majority in these countries. As a result, fewer human connections and interactions humanize Christians seen as “the other.” People often fear what they do not understand, making human, communal interaction crucial for legitimate co-existence, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. Without a presence of Christians in the workplace, neighborhoods, and the forum of society, everyday Muslim citizens will not have opportunities to learn from and interact with their fellow Christian citizens in healthy ways.  

This can lead to skewed views of Christianity through misinformation in media, education curricula, and in Muslim mosques and seminaries. Common misconceptions about Christians abound among Muslims in the Middle East, such as Christians “worshiping three gods,” that the trinity is “Father, Son, and Mary,” and that the Bible is corrupt and Christians are “immoral deceivers” give rise to prejudice, and sometimes, tragically, violence toward Christians.  

Muslims who hold these views are often from poorly educated areas and admit they have never personally known a Christian, never studied the Bible or Christian doctrine for themselves, and that they believe what they hear from dubious sources.  

Finally, a lack of Christian presence in the Muslim majority world gives rise to a short-sighted view of history; lies perpetrated by the Islamist Regime in Iran, for example, falsely condemn Farsi-speaking Christians as Zionist-Western spies and agents seeking the overthrow of the state, despite the fact Christianity took root in Persia before Islam itself through Assyrian, Armenian, and even Persian Christians.  

In Iraq, some Muslims are advocating in the face of Islamic extremism for preserving a Christian community in the country since most of Iraq’s Christians trace their roots back to the Mesopotamian societies of the Assyrians and Chaldeans, the very cultures that lie at the root of modern-day Iraq’s national identity. Even in Israel-Palestine, the irony cannot be lost that Christianity originated in the land where Jesus once lived, and to label Christianity as merely a Western religion export or something that came later in any of the modern social movements is an impossible narrative to justify given the historical realities of the living “stones” of Christians living in the Middle East.  

To see the long-term effects of a Christian community’s disappearance and the subsequent rise of Christian persecution, one could compare these Middle Eastern nations, with their Christian heritage still connected to the first century, to North Africa, where that connection was wiped out by persecution.  

In North African nations like Libya and Algeria, where early-century church fathers such as Augustine and Tertullian originated, Christianity disappeared shortly after Islam arrived in the region during the seventh and eighth centuries. Few Christians existed there until the past 60 years when modern Christian missions helped establish indigenous churches in North Africa. 

Today, some of the worst persecution against Christians in the world is taking place in these North African nations. Common false narratives that spread to justify such persecution are that Christianity is a “colonial religion that seeks to destroy their Muslim national identity and culture” and that Christianity is a religion that is corrupted and immoral.” Authorities arrest pastors on the grounds of “upsetting the faith of Muslims.” 

So, can anything be done to stop the exodus of Christians in the Middle East? That may be the wrong question to ask. 

“We cannot do anything to stop Christians from leaving,” a church leader in Iraq told International Christian Concern (ICC), “but we can give them another reason to stay.”  

Where these Christians are going could perhaps give a clue as to what steps it would take to help develop their communities in the Middle East. Christians who leave these countries often end up in places like the United Arab Emirates, Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Many of the reasons they cite for leaving the Middle East are related to finding sustainable work for their family’s livelihood, as well as general security and peace.  

Are we willing and ready to invest in community development to create sustainable work in the communities where Christians struggle to remain? Are we willing to promote peace-building initiatives that promote decency, tolerance, and peace in the countries where the existence of Christianity is being threatened? The world must act quickly to avoid the devasting effects of a disappearing minority that has influenced the region far beyond its numbers for centuries. 

International Christian Concern continues to serve Middle Eastern Christians through relief, community development, and by providing income-generating projects for Christians who have chosen to stay in the Middle East. 

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