Christianity and the Middle East: A History of Cohabitation, a Present of Persecution, a Future of Uncertainty

October 20, 2016

For as long as humans have been able to communicate, there has been belief. Whether it is stone age burials with objects to help someone in the next life or the recent beliefs of modern day Humanism, our capacity to discuss ideas and beliefs has been ever-present. The United Nations (UN) recognizes the vast amount of beliefs in the world and the freedom to practice it in the UN Charter of Human Rights, Article 18

 

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." 

 

Coptic Christians protesting their treatment in Egypt, by Talk Radio News Service

 

In the West, Christianity has been dominant. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the Western ethos without some understanding of Christianity. In the Middle East, Christianity has a rich and powerful history, with many churches in the region claiming their traditions as far back as to the disciples of Christ themselves. Historically, while there were conflicts between Christian principalities and Islamic Kingdoms, freedom of belief was largely accepted and we can see in history how in the Middle East, Christians, Muslims, and Jews often lived peacefully together. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the ensuing unrest of the brief period of colonialism, the Middle East has descended into one of the most unstable regions of the world, with devastating consequences for Christians and other minorities. In 2003, before the Iraq War, there was an estimated population of 1.5 million Iraqi Christians; that number has dropped to as low 200,000 in some estimates. It is a scene being replicated across the Middle East. In Syria, where Christians make up 10% of the population, 1 million have left the country since the Civil War began in 2011. In Egypt, where 10-12% of the country’s population are Coptic Christians, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reports that since the removal of President Morsi in 2013, attacks on Christians and Churches have increased considerably with many churches being bombed by extremists. Open Doors, a Christian NGO which works to support persecuted Christians across the world, annually publishes a list of 50 countries where Christians are most likely to suffer persecution. Open Doors defines persecution as

 

"A complex, multifaceted phenomenon that involves many aspects such as various forms of cultural marginalisation, government discrimination, hindrances on conversion, interferences on participation in public affairs and restrictions on church life. World Watch Research distinguishes two main expressions of persecution: 'squeeze' (the suffocating pressure Christians experience in all areas of life) and 'smash' (plain violence)." 

 

The city of Jerusalem, considered holy by all three major Abrahamic religions

 

Most states in the Middle East are included in the top 50 most difficult places for Christians to live. Why is this the case? Why is the Middle East so difficult for Christians to live in? Open Doors claims that "The state is still a major source of persecution; but increasingly extremism is a cross-border phenomenon." Meanwhile, the collapse of state control in Iraq and Syria has resulted in huge numbers of migrants, Muslim and Christian alike, being forced to leave their homes. Yet even in the migrant camps Christians are persecuted: 

 

"Most of Syria's refugees have ended up in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. But many Christians fear to go into the camps where, in the words of one, 'we are still a vulnerable minority in a very dangerous place.' 'You flee to survive and keep your children safe, but that is just as hard in the camps,' said a father in a refugee camp in Lebanon. 'It can be tough to find enough to eat and also to stop undesirables preying particularly on our young daughters.'" 

 

While states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia are relatively stable compared to their neighbours, their insistence on Sharia Law makes it especially difficult for Christians to live there. In both countries, apostasy (leaving Islam) is punishable by death. Voice of the Martyrs, another Christian Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), says that there are 90 Christians in prison or awaiting trial in Iran. Are these people murderers? Rapists? Terrorists or Western sympathizers? No, they are simply Iranian citizens who are of a different religion to Islam. What about Iran’s direct territorial and Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia? Surely they would want to have an excellent image to the world of tolerance and compassion, especially since Saudi Arabia is on the human rights council. Sadly, this is not the case. Wahhabism, a particularly extreme interpretation of Islam, dominates the country’s political and legal institutions. This makes it difficult for minorities such as Christians to openly practice their beliefs, while Churches are banned from operating, and blasphemy and advocating atheism are acts of terrorism. 

 

Christians in the Middle East face discrimination and persecution daily. Whether it is by the state or by extremists, it can be difficult for Christians in the Middle East to lead a normal life. Despite a history of cohabitation with their neighbours, the present reality is persecution while the future is uncertain. If you want to find out more information on persecution of Middle Eastern Christians or wish to donate to NGO's which seek to help persecuted Christians, the following NGO's provide resources and information: Voice of the Martyrs, Christian Solidarity WorldwideOpen Doors,  and Steadfast Global.

 

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