Prospects of Christianity surviving in its birthplace, the Middle East, appear as grim this Holy Week as they have at any time in the last two millennia.
Persecution of the world’s largest religion has intensified throughout the 20th century and that trajectory has only intensified in recent years, especially in Muslim-dominated countries. Jihadists appear to have repeatedly carried out one of their oft-stated goals of erasing any trace of Christianity in some regions, while in others persecution against Christians and other religious minorities are being held at bay — for now.
The actual prospects facing Christianity in three of its longest-standing strongholds, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, vary significantly. But a blind eye is often turned by the mainstream media and others when it comes to anti-Christian atrocities, which have become an all-too-common way of life for many in the Mideast.
What follows is a summary of challenges facing Christians in each of these three areas.
“Believing that a man named Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again for the sins of the world is still one of the most dangerous things one can do in many parts of the world.”
Egypt. Egypt's Christians, known as Coptic Christians, make up around 10 percent of the population and have long been a target not only of Islamic extremists but the majority Muslim population’s resentment of Copts.
Coptic leaders have reported that since February 2011, after the Arab Spring resulted in the election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi as president, persecution worsened. Since then at least 200,000 Christians have fled the country.
Two years later when a military coup ousted Morsi many of his supporters blamed the Copts. As a result, violent incidents against Christians have steadily increased. And while current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has made concerted efforts to protect the Coptic community, this year has shown some of the most violent attacks against Christians.
That is especially so in Egypt’s northern Sinai region where the Islamic State is taking direct aim against Christians. Before 2011, that community numbered up to 5,000; it has now dwindled to fewer than 1,000, according to the Associated Press. There are no official statistics on the number of Christians in cities or across the country.
“The Copts, like most Christians around the region, are victims of religious hatred. But they are also pawns in a larger game to destabilize ‘apostate’ Arab regimes and invite Western intervention that will, in turn, ignite Arab opposition on the street – not to mention opposition on the Western street,” Robert Nicholson said to Fox News.
Unless Sissi can bring to heel ISIS and dissipate the widespread loathing of Christians that characterizes the nation’s Muslim population, prospects for the Egyptian church appear grim.
Iraq. In 2003, Iraq’s Christian population was an estimated 1.4 million, according to ADF International. Christians enjoyed relatively many civil rights and were able to rise to high levels in private and public life. Indeed, Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian. The Nineveh Plain region, also known as the Plain of Mosul, in northern Iraq was a centuries-old homeland for the country’s Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian Christians.
Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, unleashing an orgy of sectarian violence that hammered churches. Christians fled the Nineveh Plain, and as of late last year the number of Christians in Iraq had fallen to an estimated 275,000.
One reason for the exodus was ISIS conquering northern Iraq in 2014. The terror group launched a pogrom against the church, as well as against other minority religions. But today, a U.S. coalition has eliminated the Islamic State’s chokehold on much of northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul.
Prospects for Christianity surviving in Iraq now turns on whether the Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian believers will be allowed to return to their ancestral homelands.
A majority of the Assyrian towns in the Plain have been left decimated. In some of the towns most of the infrastructure has been reduced to rubble; in others, dangerous chemical compounds have been dumped, polluting the ground to toxic levels.
“Everything is damaged,” Jalal, an Assyrian from the village of Karamles, told Fox News in December 2016. “Houses have been burned by fire. There’s no water, no anything. People will only return if there is some sort of promise of protection.”
One proposal that has been vetted is to create a safe zone for Christians, an area that could evolve into a semi-autonomous region such as the Kurds are seeking.
Some organizations are helping with efforts to rebuild Assyrian villages in the area. The Iraqi Christian Relief Council has been spearheading an initiative since last year called Operation Return to Nineveh, which is raising funds to rebuild homes, churches and infrastructure that was destroyed by ISIS.
“Restoring these villages will be a long-term project, but it has to be done,” Juliana Taimoorazy, the organization’s executive director, told Fox News in December. “It’s doable only if there’s active security on the ground.”
But such efforts are the exception, not the rule.
“Not nearly enough is being done for Iraqi Christians who want to return home. ISIS has been pushed back and trickles of IDPs [internally displaced persons] have begun returning to their towns and villages, but no one is making any special effort to help them,” says Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group for Christians in the Middle East said to Fox News.
“They need massive reconstruction, jobs, schools, and affirmative protections for their religion, language, and culture. Most importantly, they need to be empowered to protect and govern themselves so that this kind of genocidal destruction won’t happen again.”
Some groups favor a go-slow approach to bringing Christians back to northern Iraq.
“It’s a little early to jump to safe havens,” David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, which monitors incidents of Christian persecution worldwide, tells Fox News. “They often wind up creating a bigger target.”
No matter if or how quickly Christians are able to return home, persecution of believers will remain a fact of life.
“It is hard to predict how many Christians will be killed this year, but it seems likely that they will remain the No. 1 target of religious persecution,” Nicholson told Fox News. “Believing that a man named Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again for the sins of the world is still one of the most dangerous things one can do in many parts of the world.”
Syria. For a majority of the last century, this country has had a relatively sizable Christian presence, comprising at least 10% of the total population.
Many of Syria’s Christians, known as Eastern Orthodox, have historically seen their country as an oasis of religious freedom when compared to neighboring countries. President Bashar Assad’s regime, which is predominantly Alawite, a variant of Shia Islam, has long allowed churches to evangelize, publish religious materials and build sanctuaries. The Christian population has also had access to education and employment and many are more financially well off then their Muslim counterparts.
However, things may be growing worse for the Syrian church. As the civil war continues, believers in the country have been split over whether to support the Bashar regime. Some support the regime but also believe that all Syrians have rights that should be afforded to them. Some Christians have become part of the diaspora as well, but it is for a myriad of reasons other than Muslim persecution.
While many Syrian Christians do not want to become refugees, there is an underlying fear among the community that their country could have the same issues seen in Iraq if the regime is toppled.
Prospects for Syrian Christians will turn on whether the Assad regime survives and, if it does not, whether a successor government maintains the current regime’s protection of the church.