Christianity is in peril in the Middle East

Believers are facing unprecedented levels of violence

December 19, 2016
©NEWZULU/Gehad Hamdy/NEWZULU/PA Images
©NEWZULU/Gehad Hamdy/NEWZULU/PA Images

The bombing of a chapel adjacent to Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral on 11th December, which killed at least 25 people, marks the latest in a series of violent episodes that threatens the existence of Christianity in the Middle East. The prospect of the extinction of the church in the region where it originated should be one of the dominant stories of our times, yet somehow it is overlooked amid the other tragedies that have followed the Arab Spring. Among the corpses of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Druze, and Kurds, the bodies of Christians are, for some, just another statistic in the catastrophic breakdown of society.

Yet Christianity is now the most persecuted religion in the world. In 2014, the Pew Report found that Christians were being harassed in 151 countries (Muslims, the next most persecuted group, were oppressed in 135). According to the Christian charity Open Doors, in 2016 North Korea is the worst place to be a Christian, but Iraq ranks second, Syria fifth and Libya tenth. The Middle East has witnessed the most dramatic escalation in atrocities—a fact acknowledged in February when the European Parliament recognised Islamic State’s persecution of Christians and other religious minorities as genocide.

In March, the US House of Representatives followed suit, and in April the House of Commons voted that IS was perpetrating genocide—though the government opposed the motion, arguing the issue should not be prejudged ahead of a possible referral to the International Criminal Court. The excuse sounded hollow in the light of horrific accounts of people being crucified, burned alive, raped or beheaded. In November, the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church In Need (ACN), published a report on persecution in which it described a new form of “Islamic hyper-extremism… unprecedented in its violent expression.”

At the start of the 20th century, Christians made up 25 per cent of the population in the Middle East and now they only represent 5 per cent, most of whom are in Egypt. Anba Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, told Prospect that the Cairo bombing—one of a wave of attacks by militants since 2013—was “sadly expected.” Bishop Angaelos described an “escalation of confidence” among Islamists which is partly due to the advances made by IS in Syria and Iraq. But the roots of this persecution, he said, derives from “a culture of impunity going back decades, in which similar acts of violence do not result in convictions in court.”

Christians have been living on a dangerous political fault line for over a century. The Ottoman Empire promoted relative tolerance for religious minorities under the “millet” system, in which each community was subject to laws imposed by their own religious leaders. There were injustices inherent in the system, but after the Young Turks came to power, conditions for minorities underwent a steep decline. The new leaders’ massacre of the Armenian and Assyrian Christians, which started in 1915 and continued into the 1920s, was on such an unprecedented scale that it led to the coining of the term “genocide.”

The cyclical nature of the violence that is now threatening Christians was demonstrated in June in Qamishli, a city in northeast Syria. Hundreds of Christians were gathered to commemorate the victims of the Assyrian massacre when an IS-affiliated suicide bomber tried to assassinate Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church. He survived but three members of his security team were killed.

In November, the Patriarch came to London for the ACN-organised “Red Wednesday,” in which Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament were floodlit red to bring attention to religious persecution. When Prospect asked him whether he was afraid there would be another attempt on his life the Patriarch replied, “We [clergy] expect it every moment. The difference between us and the Islamists is that we don’t seek martyrdom out. But if it comes, we’re ready to accept it.”

Christians in the Middle East have supported—too willingly, some argue—secular dictators in return for protection, and the Patriarch is no exception. He explained his position, “We are not supporting a person—a president named Bashar al-Assad—we are as Christians taught by the Bible to respect civil authorities. We do not condone or accept violence by any side in the conflict. We see him as the person defending us from terrorists.”

Similarly, Bishop Angaelos declared, “If you believe in the process of democracy, you can never lay blame on someone for choosing a certain leader, especially if they feel they will gain protection.” Challenged that these leaders often commit abuses of power he replied, “Morally of course we are against any abuses. But these aren’t decisions made in a strategy room or at an academic gathering, these are decisions made [for survival] on the ground.”

Wael Aleji, of Syrian Christians for Peace, is one of those who rejects Bashar al-Assad’s protection. “We know that dictatorship always leads to conflict,” he said to Prospect. He condemned the way that Christian religious communities have been infiltrated by the ruling Ba’ath party, but conceded that religious leaders “are in a difficult situation, because they cannot speak up against their regime, and in the meantime they feel threatened by the rise of extremism.”

Stacey Gutkowski, a Senior Lecturer in Conflict Studies at King’s College London, used the term “omni-balancing” to describe the morally fraught way in which religious minorities protect themselves in the Middle East. “These are attempts to strike a balance between a variety of perceived threats, physical, economic, social and cultural,” she said. “These measures have borne fruit in Jordan and the West Bank, for example, and within the power-sharing structure in Lebanon. But recently they have also rendered Christian minorities structurally vulnerable to violence in Iraq, Egypt and Syria.”

A huge problem is that the post-dictator model currently has little to offer to Christians beyond violence and terror. There were 1.5m Christians in Iraq at the start of the first Gulf War. Now, after a sustained campaign of violence that has seen most of the country’s churches bombed, some estimates put the Christian population as low as 150,000. In Libya statistics are harder to come by but as well as the infamous incident of Egyptian Copts being beheaded on a beach, there have been multiple abductions of Christians as well as the desecration of churches.

Asked how we might address such issues, Bishop Angaelos said, “In my view, the only way forward is to step out of tribalism and consider human rights as just that—rights for all humans. If we advocate for our own rights alone, we will be condemned for being self-interested. God created all humanity equally, and if I look at it in that way, I must advocate for all equally. Even those who persecute me.”