The World

Who are the persecuted Christians of the Middle East?

Omnes-December 30, 2016-Reading time: 11 minutes

Óscar Garrido Guijarro*.Professor of International Relations

Events in the Middle East are part of the news that surrounds our lives. In the midst of the painful and disturbing news that reach us from there, terms such as Copts, Chaldeans or Maronites appear that are familiar to us, but we may not know where to place them or where they come from. Óscar Garrido, author of Plucked from the Promised Land (St. Paul's, 2016), analyzes in these pages the delicate situation of Christians in the Arab world.

In this complex ethno-religious mosaic of the Middle East, many are unaware that there are countries that are not entirely Muslim, or that about 40 % of the Lebanese population is Christian, that Christians account for 10 % of the population in Egypt, or that they represented until recently 10 % in Syria and 5 % in Iraq.

In general, Arab Christians in the Middle East are second-class citizens in their own land - in terms of freedoms, equality and social and political rights - and have been and are subject to attacks, discrimination and persecution, although with varying intensity depending on the era and the country concerned. Christians have been clearly discriminated against, and this has been "legislated" throughout the history of Islam, and continues to be so in our contemporary era.

With regard to their influence on the West, Arab Christians, for example, have never played a significant role in the politics of the United States, the main proponent of Western values in the Middle East. And while they understand that Europe has at times shown sensitivity to their plight, they are nevertheless aware of Europe's limitations. Europe has become a post-Christian continent which, moreover, lacks the necessary military power. And the actions of European powers in defense of Christian Arabs throughout history have led to problems for these communities. Circumstances of danger have increased for Christian Arabs when they have been caught in the middle of conflicts between Muslims and Europeans, because Muslims have sometimes perceived Christian Arabs as collaborators with the enemy.

Present and future prospects

Recent events that have caused or are causing changes in the political and social developments in Iraq, Syria and Egypt undoubtedly affect the status of the Arab Christian communities in these countries. The rise of political Islamism - fundamentalist and moderate - which proposes a return to a political structure based on the Islamic legal tradition -sharia- is leading Arab Christian communities into a reverse gear in terms of freedoms and rights; and what is more serious: the most basic right, the right to life, is threatened for many Christians. The notion of citizenship and equal rights, as it is considered in Western political culture, is still unresolved in the Muslim cultural and political tradition, where this notion of citizenship still rests on religious affiliation and not on affiliation to the state.

In recent years, Iraq's secular dictatorship has been overthrown, Egypt's dictatorship has been threatened by the arrival of the Muslim Brothers to power and the Syrian one is in the death throes. As aptly described by M. A. Bastenier, "Saddam Hussein's tyrannical and bloodthirsty regime was the airtight lid that closed Pandora's box. Al Qaeda did not prosper in his territory because among the dictator's very serious shortcomings - like Assad in Damascus - religious fundamentalism did not figure, and his dictatorship did not allow competitors". Mariano Aguirre, director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centrealso stressed that "the Arab Spring that would democratically transform the Middle East has turned out to be a period of violent uncertainties and unexpected geopolitical realignments. Optimistic democracy promotion strategists did not foresee that the fall of the dictators could generate a violent fragmentation of the region."

 Martyrs of the 21st century

Establishment of the Caliphate by the terrorist group Daesh in areas of Iraq and Syria in June 2014 has brought the violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East to the attention of world public opinion. The macabre photographs and videos of torture and crucifixions of Christians aired by the terrorists themselves to spread panic have been a wake-up call to the consciences of many political and social leaders on the planet. The shocking video of Islamic State terrorists beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians with knives on a Libyan beach went around the world in February 2015. So did the images of Christians' houses marked with Arabic lettering. nun -The fact that the word "nasrani" ("Nazarenes") reminds us of the Nazi practices to stigmatize and terrorize the Jews, has made the whole world aware of this phenomenon of savage persecution against Christians, denounced on so many occasions, even before the emergence of Daesh.

At the time, the Somali-Dutch activist Aayan Hirsi Ali published an article in the American weekly magazine Newsweek titled The global war against Christians in the Muslim world. Aayan Hirsi Ali denounced that "Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a growing genocide that should provoke global alarm [...]. The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance must stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity - and ultimately of all religious minorities in the Muslim world - is at stake."

In another article, the executive secretary of the American Jewish CommitteeDavid Harris, highlighted the passivity and silence in the face of this phenomenon of intolerance and violence: "What there has been is silence. As a Jew I find this silence incomprehensible. We Jews know very well that the sin of silence is not a solution in the face of acts of oppression. [...] How many more attacks, how many more dead worshippers, how many more destroyed churches and how many more families will have to flee before the world finds its voice, expresses its moral outrage, demands more than fleeting official statements of distress and does not abandon Christian communities in distress?"

According to the organization Open DoorsCurrently, around one hundred million Christians suffer some form of persecution in more than sixty countries, and more than seven thousand Christians died in 2015 because of their faith. International Society for Human Rightsa German NGO, estimates that 80 % of the religious discrimination currently taking place in the world is directed against Christians.

On March 13, 2015, fifty countries signed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, which was meeting in Geneva, "in support of the human rights of Christians and other communities, especially in the Middle East." The resolution, whose prime movers were Russia, Lebanon and the Holy See, calls on countries to support the long-established historical presence of all ethnic and religious communities in the Middle East, and recalls that Christian communities in this region are in particular danger: "The Middle East is experiencing a situation of instability and conflict that has recently been exacerbated. The consequences are proving disastrous for the region. The existence of many religious communities is seriously threatened. Christians are now being particularly affected. These days even their survival is in question [...]. The situation of Christians in the Middle East, a land where they have been living for centuries and where they have a right to remain, is a matter of grave concern".

Three days after the adoption of the resolution, the Vatican's diplomatic representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Silvio Tomasi, said: "We have to stop this kind of genocide. Otherwise, in the future we will wonder why we did nothing, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen." More recently, the Syrian bishop of Homs, Bishop Jean Abdou, has denounced the existence of a real genocide in Syria and denounced that "some countries don't care about Christians in the Middle East.".

Among the findings of the 2016 World Religious Freedom Report published by. Aid to the Church in Needthe Syrian Catholic priest Jacques Murad

-kidnapped in May 2015 by Daesh and that he managed to escape three months later, as he tells in the section People Who Count-stresses that "Our world teeters on the brink of complete catastrophe as extremism threatens to erase all traces of diversity in society. But if there is one thing religion teaches us, it is the value of the human person, the need to respect one another as a gift from God." And he explains how, back in his hometown of Al Qaryatayn, he was able to recover with the help of a Muslim friend. "The easiest thing for me would have been to fall into anger and hatred, but God showed me another way. Throughout my whole life as a monk in Syria I have sought points of encounter with Muslims."

            The report highlights "the emergence of a new phenomenon of religious violence that we could call Islamist 'hyper-extremism'." which is characterized by its "extremist creed and radical legal and governance system, its systematic attempt to annihilate or expel any group that does not share its views, its callous treatment of victims, its use of social networks to recruit its followers or intimidate the opposition, and the quest for global impact favored by associated extremist groups."

The perverse effects of this hyper-extremism for Arab Christians are patent: "In some areas of the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq, it is eliminating all forms of religious diversity.". Due to Islamist radicalism, according to the United Nations the number of refugees in the world has grown from 5.8 million in 2015 to 65.3 million in 2016.

 Egypt and the Copts

The term "Coptic" is used in different senses, not only in the usual religious sense. For most Copts the term is not simply a religious designation; they give it also a cultural and even ethnic sense. They stress that the term comes from the Greek "Aygyptos" and argue that Coptic identity is intrinsically linked to Egyptian identity, history and culture. They constitute the largest Arab Christian community in the Middle East.

Violence against Copts based on religious identity is a recent phenomenon. It first appeared in 1972 when Muslims in the city of Khankah burned an illegal church and destroyed Coptic property. The violence has continued ever since. Over the past few decades some 1,800 Copts have been killed and hundreds of acts of vandalism have been perpetrated against Christian property with almost no one being tried for it, let alone punished.

The bloodiest attack against Christians took place in Alexandria on January 1, 2011 when a suicide bomber targeted Copts participating in a church for New Year's religious services. Twenty-one Christians were killed and 97 were injured. In July 2013, following the protests that ended with the overthrow of Islamist President Mursi, days of intense violence erupted, pitting the army against supporters of the Muslim Brothers. The Copts were violently persecuted by Islamists, who accused them of being behind the coup against Mursi. During the summer of 2013, half a hundred churches and several hundred Christian properties were attacked or burned and dozens of Copts were killed. Jordi Batallá, coordinator of the work on North Africa at Amnesty InternationalThe government security forces' passivity was denounced at the time.

 Iraq: Assyrians and Chaldeans

The main Arab Christian communities in Iraq are the Chaldeans and Assyrians. In the last decades of the 20th century, Iraq's Christians, like their Muslim compatriots, suffered under the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein, which did not tolerate any form of collective organization or institution without direct control by the state. Despite constitutional recognition of religious freedom, religion and religious practice were heavily policed. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Al Qaedafirst, and DaeshThe attacks, then, have unleashed the hunt for Christians. Between 2004 and 2009 alone, some 65 attacks on Christian churches in Iraq were recorded. In October 2010, a hundred Christians were kidnapped by a group of jihadists in an Assyrian Christian church in Baghdad. The result was the death of 58 hostages and 67 wounded. The hostage-takers entered with a clean shot during the mass on the eve of All Souls' Day. Christmas 2013, Daesh perpetrated a massacre of Christians in Baghdad. A car bomb exploded in front of a church while Midnight Mass was being celebrated. Thirty-eight people were killed and 70 injured.

June 9, 2014 Daesh took control of a considerable part of central and western Iraq and eastern Syria. On June 29, he released a recording announcing the establishment of the caliphate from Aleppo (Syria) to Diyala (Iraq). A few days later, Daesh was addressed in a written message to Christians in Mosul whom he threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam.

In September 2014, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Keith Harper, called for the protection of Iraqi Christians. The patriarch warned that if Iraqi Christians could not return to their places of origin in the Nineveh Plain near Mosul, they would face the same fate as displaced Palestinians. He added: "Christians in Iraq will have a future if the international community helps us immediately. The population is disappointed by the little help that has been received so far. Some 120,000 Christians are currently displaced in Iraq. They need everything, because the Daesh terrorists have taken everything from them.

Syria: Melkites and Syriacs

In Syria, the two main Christian communities are the Melkites and the Syriacs. The Syrian state is set up as a republic under a military dictatorship presided over by Bashar Al Assad. Under this dictatorship, the Arab Christian communities in Syria are supervised by the regime, but the government gives them freedom to buy land and build churches. The churches run their internal affairs freely. The government is also responsible for providing the churches with electricity and water. Christians practice their faith freely and the liturgies of religious holidays are broadcast by the public media.

This situation has changed substantially over the past five years. Inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, in March 2011 a multitude of Syrian protesters mobilized in the streets against the Syrian regime. Al Assad responded by using military force. Even today, after more than five years of civil war, the Syrian regime continues to crumble with no expectation that an external intervention or an armed rebellion can accelerate its fall and put an end to the repression, which has already caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, displaced persons and refugees.

With the entry into the Syrian conflict of the DaeshThe situation in the conflict has changed radically as the Syrian Christians experience it and as the United States and its Western allies perceive it, as they began to consider an armed intervention in Syria against the Assad regime in the summer of 2013. This is how Syrian Christians experience it, and this is also how it is perceived by the United States and Western allies, who went from considering an armed intervention in Syria against the Al Assad regime in the summer of 2013, to developing, from the end of September 2014 and until today, an intervention against Daeshin collaboration with Al Assad, on Syrian soil.

Between 2011 and 2013, a thousand Syrian Christians lost their lives and some 450,000 have been displaced, according to statements by the Patriarch of Antioch for the Catholic Melkites, Gregory III Laham. Within two years, the city of Aleppo, which previously had the largest Christian community in Syria, had lost most of its members. The exodus of Christians from Syria is a repeat of what has been happening in Iraq for the past ten years. In 2014, Daesh launched a persecution of Christians in the territory it controlled in northern Syria. According to the 2015 report of the organization Open DoorsSince the war began, 40 % of the Christian population has left the country: about 700,000 people. 

Lebanon and the Maronites

The Maronites are the main Arab Christian community in Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where Christians - 40 % of the population - are not a minority. It is the only country in the region whose Head of State must be, according to the Constitution, a Christian. This fact makes Lebanon a unique country, although it must also be said that the recent election of Michel Aoun has required a year of intense negotiations.

Christians in Lebanon, as a free people, have had the capacity to lead the Arab cultural and intellectual renaissance of the first part of the 20th century, and have worked as agents of progress in Lebanon in all fields: education, media, commercial innovation, banking or entertainment industry. Beirut, despite almost three decades of civil war, is still the freest city in the Arab world, and continues to be the lung for many Christians who have emigrated from Turkey, Armenia, Syria or Iraq.

The revolutions and regime changes that have shaken the Middle East in recent years have not affected the country at the institutional level, although the consequences are noticeable given the wave of Syrian refugees that Lebanon is hosting, more than one million, in a country of only four million inhabitants.

Palestine and Israel

The Arab Christian communities living in Palestinian-Israeli territory are not numerically as important as those in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria or Iraq.

Some 161,000 Christians live in Israel, 80 % of Arab origin. The majority reside in the north. The cities with the most Christians are Nazareth (about 15,000), Haifa (15,000); Jerusalem (12,000) and Shjar'am (10,000).

In Palestinian territory (West Bank and Gaza) live some 52,000 Arab Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox Melkites. The rest are Syriacs, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Armenians, Copts and Maronites.


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