A Post-Christian Middle East With or Without ISIS?

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Iraqi Christians moving Church icons to presumed safety near Mosul. Photo: Courtesy of M. Jalloum.

Malloula Village, Syria

“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?)” are reputedly among Jesus’ last words on the Cross at Calvary. Today Christ’s words can be said to apply to all Christians in the Middle East who in this birthplace of Christianity are increasingly facing the most intense persecutions since the Roman Empire and the Bolshevik revolution.

As is widely known, Christians are being targeted in this region and pushed out of Christianity’s birth place of 2000 thousand years ago and there is no Richard the Lion Hearted on the horizon to protect them. According to some analysts in approximately twenty years Christians will be virtually extinct in the Middle East.

Today, Christians number fewer than four per cent of the region’s more than four hundred million people. They have been subject to vicious murders at the hands of terrorist groups, forced out of their ancestral lands by civil wars, suffered societal intolerance fomented by Islamist ideology, and increasingly the victims of widespread institutional discrimination spreading today in the legal codes and official practices of many Middle Eastern governments.

This Easter, Christians are going through hell in the Middle East. Last year, approximately 100,000 Christians were killed in this region as a result of their beliefs, according to the Center for the Study of World Christianity. Outside the Arab world, persecution is also growing in India and Southeast Asia, according to the Open Doors organization, which has concluded that, in total, 215 million people on the planet suffer “high levels of persecution” simply “for belonging to the flock of Jesus of Nazareth.” There are mounting calls to declare the atrocities perpetrated against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East as genocide or if this noun is deemed problematical under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, using the adjective ‘genocidal’ is becoming commonplace.

The Christian minorities in the Middle East — Copts in Egypt; Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq; Melkites and other Christians in parts of Syria; Maronites and Armenians in Lebanon face increasing injustices and are targets of attacks and discrimination while increasingly being relegated to the status of second-class citizens in their own countries. Since their ascendancy in 2014 in Iraq and Syria, various Islamic State militiamen stigmatize Christians and mark their houses and properties with the letter “N” in the Arabic alphabet, for “Nazarene” or allegedly from Nazareth Palestine.

The largest number of killings of Christians are in areas of Iraq and Syria under IS control. The Iraqi Christian clerical leadership is urging those who have not yet fled not to remain in Iraq warning that as ever fewer remain and their numbers even further decline it will mean the end of their ancient communities. The Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako recently told Agence France-Presse “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.”

ISIS may or may not soon be defeated in Iraq or replaced by a more vicious terrorist movement. Meanwhile Christians and other minorities may receive short term protection in Ninewah Province, but many voices of despair from inside the Church are admitting that there is no likely future for Christians in Iraq. Increasingly students of the subject are claiming that it is also likely true of the whole Middle East.

Just like Iraq, Syria hosts an array of Christian confessions, distinguished by the positions their forebears took in church councils of up to 1500 years ago. Some are in communion with Rome, others with Greek and Russian Orthodoxy; still others characterized by subtle doctrinal differences with all attempting to preserve mutual respect and friendship with their co-religionists across Syria. Under Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and son Bashar, Christians have been 10 percent of the population and today are protected by the regime in areas it still controls. A majority of Christians remaining in Syria back Assad’s government against the terrorists of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, whose victory would likely mean their expulsion or death. Still at least half of Syria’s Christians have fled since March 2011. The flight is so pronounced that in 2013, Gregory III, the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, issued an open letter to his flock, urging them: “Despite all your suffering, stay here! Don’t emigrate!”

Syria’s ancient city of Aleppo, where this observer has visited the past few years and which is the former home of the beauties discussed in Part II of this Report, the number of Christians has declined from approximately from 250,000 to fewer than 15,000 according to church officials and Aleppo University faculty members I have discussed this subject with. This tragic diminution in the number of Christians in Aleppo is greater by far than that of Aleppo’s overall population, which has declined from about 2.6 million to fewer than 1 million.

As of Easter Sunday Aleppo is just the latest to join the list of places in the Middle East where Christians have become an endangered species. In major parts of the Old City large numbers of displaced Muslims have now moved in, becoming the majority in the former primarily Christian districts. Meanwhile, jihadist extremism will likely not be buried under the rubble of eastern Aleppo but rather it will migrate and metastasize.

Even more than in Aleppo and Syria, the most Christians in this region forced to flee has been in Iraq, where they have been targeted by escalating sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, hunted by various Al Qaeda inspired militia and forced to flee by the Islamic State. There were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 2003. Today there fewer than 80,000 thousand with hundreds more leaving each month. They are desperate to escape persecution that rivals that of Roman during the Church’s infancy.

In Egypt, five percent of the Egyptian population, or about 4 million people are Christian. The Pew Forum’s recent report estimated that approximately 95% of Egyptians were Muslims in 2010, 96% in 2015. The Egyptian Parliament recently ratified bigotry when it passed a law imposing major restrictions on the construction and renovation of churches. No such restrictions apply to mosques. There are approximately 2000 churches in Egypt, compared with 120,600 mosques.

On Palm Sunday, 44 Coptic Christians celebrating Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem were martyred in terrorist attacks in Egypt and more than 100 were injured. The first bombing was at St. George’s Church in Tanta, the second at St. Mark’s in Alexandria. Copts make up around 10% of Egypt’s population. They date from the first century A.D., when St. Mark, one of the Twelve Apostles, established the first church outside the Holy Land and became bishop of Alexandria.

To its credit, Egyptian police on 4/18/2017 arrested a man wanted for alleged involvement in twin church bombings this month claimed by the Islamic State one of 19 suspects whose names police made public after the Palm Sunday explosions. The Palm Sunday bombings followed an earlier attack by a suicide bomber who detonated his explosives in a packed Cairo church in December, killing 29 people.

The ISIS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula claimed credit for the attacks of Egyptian Coptic Churches last week and in the past two years, it has carried out a series of gruesome killings of Christians, including the forced march of twenty-one Egyptian workers in Libya, all Coptic Christians, each clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, to a Mediterranean beach, where they were forced to kneel and then beheaded. ISIS threats against Christians have escalated since a suicide bombing on December 11th at St. Mark’s Cathedral, in Cairo, killed more than two dozen Egyptians. After a February attack that killed seven Christians on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the majority of Copts have fled the Sinai, according to Human Rights Watch.

Unfortunately, no one has ever stood trial for any of the attacks in Egypt against Christians over the past twenty years. In most instances, the police don’t care to investigate. They round up a few suspects, but then release them without charges. The Islamic State group has threatened more attacks on Christian’s just weeks before a planned visit by Pope Francis, and it prompted the government to declare a three-month state of emergency.

With respect to Afghanistan, which the Bush II administration claimed to have “liberated” in 2001, that worn torn country is listed as the world’s third-most hostile nation toward Christians. The punishment for baptism in Afghanistan is death. Since more than a decade ago, a Christian convert had to flee his country or face beheading.

Other vicious attack on Christians occurred not long ago at a retirement home set up by Mother Teresa in the Yemeni port city of Aden. The victims were handcuffed and subsequently shot in the head, an attack Pope Francis described as “diabolical” at the following Sunday’s Mass.

The situation in Palestine is unique as longtime advocate for Palestine, Dr. James Zogby instructs us. Both Palestinian Christians and Muslims are suffering under the harsh Israeli occupation. Both have lost land, livelihood, and freedom of movement and for them there exists no equal justice under law. This Holy Week, Christians from Bethlehem, Bir Zeit, Jerusalem, Ramallah and elsewhere confronted many obstacles as these believers attempted to make pilgrimage and walk, as they have done for nearly two thousand years, the Stations of the Cross or to pray at the Holy Church of the Sepulcher. Many Palestinians are able to observe Jerusalem from their homes, but they are blocked from the city by an internationally condemned and challenged 28 feet high wall, imposed and policed by occupation forces who main the adjoining growing number of dehumanized checkpoints.

The expulsion of Christians from the Middle East will have broad and serious implications far beyond this region. If one of the largest and important religious groups in the world continues to be forced out of the Middle East, what are the implications for global pluralism, tolerance, and the ability of all of us to be interlinked and engage with mutual respect with the rest of the world?
As a scholar at the Center for American Progress emailed this observer the other day: “The status of Christians in the Middle East is the barometer of whether or not those of other faiths or no faith at all will be able to live and thrive in this region and beyond.”

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.