Christians in the Middle East and the threat to an ancient community

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Destruction in Batnaya, Iraq(Photo: Aid to the Church in Need)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses.” (NRSV) That “cloud” has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2000 years, that have helped make up this “cloud.” People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

On my study desk lies an embroidered bookmark. Between a simple floral design is stitched the Arabic letter ن (N). It is a reminder of a huge tragedy. However, it is a tragedy which gets little media attention; certainly nothing as high profile as the situation deserves.

In Acts 24:5 the early followers of Jesus (Christians) are described as “the sect of the Nazarenes [Greek: Nazoreans].” Tertullian, writing in 208, also refers to “Nazarenes” as a term used by Jews to describe Christians. The modern Hebrew term Notzrim, to describe Christians, is derived from this usage. The same root has given rise to the word for Christian in Syriac (Nasrani) and also in Arabic (Naṣrānī). In the Qur’an, Christians are often called “al-Naṣara.” When so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and in Arabic as Daesh) were conducting their murderous persecution of non-Islamic groups (and also those that they considered the “wrong sort of Muslims”) they painted the Arabic letter ن (N) on the doors of Syrian Christians marked down for destruction.

That brings me back to the embroidered bookmark on my desk. It was made by a Syrian Christian woman. She was one of many thousands of Christians who had been driven from their homes by the murderous actions of IS, as Syria disintegrated into civil war, war crimes, and vicious sectarian violence after 2011 (beginning as part of the wider “Arab Spring” protests across the region). Impoverished, homeless, threatened, the woman who embroidered the bookmark on my desk had been forced to flee with the survivors of her family to one of the sprawling refugee camps that have grown up across the Levant (the region roughly corresponding to modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and adjacent areas), in Turkey, and in Iraq. Many other Christians had been murdered; some were forcibly converted to Islam; and many Christian women had been brutally coerced into sexual slavery.

The same fate had engulfed other minorities too, such as the Yazidis (between 2014 and 2017). But whereas the fate of the Yazidis has, quite rightly, been covered by Western news outlets and condemned around the world, the reaction to the treatment of Middle Eastern Christians has often been muted, or non-existent. Yet, what has occurred to believers in the cradle of Christianity is quite simply appalling. It is a tragic milestone in the history of the global Christian community.

The bookmark on my desk was made to prompt Western Christians to remember fellow believers across the Middle East. But all too often, across the secular media, they have been forgotten. And while the focus of attention today remains – understandably – fixed on Israel and Gaza, little is written or reported about situations of brutal persecution experienced elsewhere in the region. It should not be either/or, for both demand our attention. But the persecution of Christians gets little mention.

2003: the start of a modern tragedy of historic dimensions

The US-led invasion of Iraq, in 2003, continues to divide historians and commentators as they assess both its justification and its implementation. What is beyond dispute is its impact. As well as triggering chaotic violence which led to the deaths of vast numbers of Iraqi civilians, it also destabilised the entire region and triggered the start of a lethal reaction against Christians.

For Christians, the turbulence unleashed by ethnic violence became increasingly lethal because they were perceived as allies of the “Christian West.” In the wake of 9/11, US President George W. Bush’s description, in September 2001, of the US response as “This crusade, this war on terrorism,” unintentionally resonated with history in a deeply unhelpful way. It appeared to evoke memories of a crusading “clash of civilisations,” that dated from the Middle Ages, when Christian and Islamic armies fought against each other. This negative echo from the distant past was massively amplified when the US and its allies launched their invasion of Iraq in 2003. Their opponents labelled them as “modern crusaders.”

In such a context it became all too easy for jihadist groups to caricature indigenous Christians as agents of the “Crusader West.” They became increasingly targeted as foreigners in their own ancestral lands.

This was bitterly ironic since the original Crusades had been largely waged by incomers from Western Europe (not by indigenous Middle Eastern Christians). Those who were, in the 21st century, pilloried as agents of the “Crusader West” were from communities whose history long predated the Crusades and also the rise of Islam in the 7th century.

An ethnocide in the cradle of Christianity

The eastern Mediterranean is the cradle of Christianity. As late as the mid 7th century, countries such as Egypt and Syria had large Christian majorities. By the time of the First Crusade, in the late 11th century, the area that fell to the crusaders – though it was under Islamic rule –still had large Christian populations. That has changed.

A report commissioned in 2019, by the British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, examined persecution of Christians across the Middle East since the start of the millennium. The review was led by the then Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen. The examination also highlighted discrimination across south-east Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and in east Asia. It stated that “The inconvenient truth,” is “that the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians.”

While some of these Christian communities were once reasonably secure in some of these countries (such as in Iraq and Syria), many others were from impoverished and marginalised communities. But whether or not they once held some influence, they had all suffered a shocking level of persecution since the year 2000. And especially since 2003.

Two millennia of Christian history and culture has been – and is being – snuffed out. While experiences vary across such a wide area, we see a range of negative actions being directed at Christians. These include: negative comments about Christians being made by official sources; school textbooks in some countries at times denigrating Christianity; discrimination in educational and economic opportunities; restrictions on worship and community life; government failure to protect Christians from illegal extremist violence; abduction and murder of clergy and church members; bombings of churches; weaknesses in the rule-of-law and policing being particularly experienced by Christians; accusations of blasphemy levied against Christians, leading to both official sanctions and also vigilante violence; women harassed for appearing unveiled in public. Some extremist jihadist groups are actively promoting what can only be described as genocidal regarding Christians.

Facing this, many Christians have fled the places long linked to their communities. Those with means and contacts have gone to Western Europe, the US, anywhere which will protect their right to live and worship as Christians. For the rest, who are poor and marginalised, the only options are the refugee camp or living under threat in their ancestral homes. In Egypt, for example, many poor Christians work as Zabbaleen (refuse-collectors) on the streets of Cairo.

The shocking statistics of community decline

Over the course of a century, since the 1920s, Christians have gone from c.20% of the population in the Middle East and north Africa, to less than 4%, or c.15 million people. It is a population collapse of monumental proportions. As a result, many have left their homelands, in which Christians have lived since the beginning of the faith in the 1st century AD. For example, the population of Palestinian Christians has dropped from 15% to 2% and continues to fall in the context of ongoing violence in the region. This suffering includes that particularly experienced by believers, but also participation, as victims, in the wider communal suffering of their communities. Turkey’s Christian population has fallen from more than 20% of its population to less than 1% in the past century. When the modern state of Lebanon was formed, in 1943, Christians made up a majority of its population. They now comprise only about 35% of the population of Lebanon. This high emigration rate has been fuelled by the nation’s ongoing economic crisis, as well as by regional violence.

The trend has massively accelerated in the 21st century. Before the Western invasion of Iraq, in 2003, there were about 1.5 million Iraqi Christians. There are now only about 200,000 Christians living there and the number keeps falling. It is not surprising that the fall in population is so high there, as it was the epicentre of the violence and ethnic tensions which followed the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003. And this occurred in a country where these believers were accused of being allied to the West because of their faith. In 2021 it was reported that less than 20 Christians returned to Mosul after its liberation from IS. The city was once home to nearly 100,000 Christians.

Syria’s Christian community has dropped by about 50% since the unrest of 2011 turned into open civil war in 2012. In the Kurdish area of Afrin in northwest Syria, for example, local Syrian jihadist groups started arresting Christians in 2018, accusing them of apostasy for converting to Christianity from Islam. Christians are routinely harassed and arrested by the authoritarian regime in Iran. The Iranian intelligence service (MOIS) monitors Christian activity. Accompanied by members of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), they have raided Christian meetings in private homes. Arrests and confiscation of property has followed. Many of the Christians arrested report abusive interrogations. While there have been noticeable improvements in the official stance of the government in Egypt towards the Christian community there, under the rule of President Sisi, since 2014, unofficial sectarian discrimination still occurs to an alarming degree. All across the region, Christians are under extreme pressure.

Do not forget the Christians of the Middle East

Back in 2009, I visited the area known as Coptic Cairo on Coptic Palm Sunday. Those attending the services, and carrying large palms, welcomed me. They pointed to the crosses tattooed on their wrists and said: “We Christian, We Christian.” I told them that I too am a Christian and they were clearly pleased to see me. The tattooed crosses have two functions. The first is a statement of faith in a society that can still be tough for Christians. The second function is a matter of security. Showing their cross-marked wrists as they entered church showed the security guards that they are Christian. A jihadist suicide bomber would be very unlikely to have a cross tattooed on their body.

Since then, I have often remembered those believers who carry the mark of the cross on their bodies – and on their lives. As I look at the bookmark on my desk, embroidered with its ن (N) for Naṣrānī, I remember them again. And I recall the cataclysm that has fallen on their world since 2003. But I also remember the vibrancy and courage of their Christian faith, lived at times in extreme adversity. Let us not forget the Christian communities of the Middle East. There is much to think about as we survey the present turbulent world. But as we think and pray about its many areas of need, let us not forget them.

Martyn Whittock is a historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. The author, or co-author, of fifty-six books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms and is frequently interviewed on TV and radio news and discussion programmes exploring the interaction of faith and politics. His recent books include: Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus The Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021), The Story of the Cross (2021), Apocalyptic Politics (2022), and American Vikings: How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America (2023). He is currently writing Vikings in the East: From Vladimir the Great to Vladimir Putin, the Origin of a Contested Legacy in Russia and Ukraine (2025 forthcoming).

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