Now is the winter of Christian discontent in Arab Middle Eastern countries. In all those countries, Christians have been suffering a sad fate: killings; torture; rape; abduction; forced conversion to Islam; seizure of homes and property; and bombings of churches, Christian institutions, and schools, and Christian businesses. All too many well-meaning individuals and group have swallowed the fallacious Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood in the contemporary Middle East and fail to recognize that the Christians living there are the real victims.
It was fitting that Pope Francis on December 26, 2013 urged people to speak out about the discrimination and violence that Christians were suffering; “injustice must be denounced and eliminated.” For some time the puzzling question has been why human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, and mainstream Western churches have been so completely or relatively silent on the issue of the persecution of Christians, individuals, and groups rooted in their societies and loyal to them.
On December 10, 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.” In the Arab countries today, this worthy principle does not apply to Christians or to Jews. The world is aware that since 1948 Jews have almost completely departed from those countries and only a small number remain. It is less aware that Christian communities, many living in fear, have also been leaving or fleeing or forced to leave their countries. With 12.8 million (3.8% of the total population) estimated in the whole Middle East region, those communities now constitute less than 1% of the world’s Christian population.
Even the figures reported in the mainstream Western media of Christians in Arab countries are wildly overstated. The Pew Research Center report of December 2011, corrected February 2013, on Global Christianity provides what appears to be an objective statistical summary of present reality. Taking just three of the countries in the report, the estimates are as follows. Egypt has a Christian population of 4.2 million (5.3% of the population) ; Syria has 1.0 million (5.2%); and Iraq 270,000 (0.9%). Of these 43.5% are Catholics, 43% are Orthodox, and 13.5% are Protestant.
These figures have to be put into the context of the history of the Middle East. The Christians suffering today are the descendants of the oldest Christian communities in the world. In the early years of Islamic rule, Christian scholars and doctors played a considerable role in the life of Middle East countries. Monks translated medical, scientific, and philosophical texts into Arabic. But for four centuries, until the early 16th century, Christians were persecuted and massacred. Under the Ottoman Empire from that point on Christians, as well as Jews, were treated as second-class citizens.
Persecution of Christians in the Islamic Middle East has intensified in recent years, and the fear now is that Christianity may be becoming extinct in the area where it has existed for two millennia. They are criticized, absurdly, as Crusaders, or as colonialists associated with the West, or as infidels. The exception, and the only country in the area where Christians possess full religious rights and can exercise them, and have increased both in absolute number and proportion of the population, is Israel. There they have grown from 34,000 to 158,000. In contrast, the number of church buildings in Iraq, once 300, is now 57. The 1987 census in Iraq, the last one taken officially, counted 1.4 million Christians; it is now about one-fifth that number.
It is a poignant commentary that this Christmas period should have witnessed attacks and outbreaks of hostility against Christians. These were particularly violent in Iraq where the Assyrians, whose descendants are now part of the Assyrian Church of the East, are said to have adopted Christianity in the first century, and where the Chaldean Catholic Church dates back to the 16th century. Most of the Christians today are Chaldeans, some of whom still speak the old language of Aramaic; they are Eastern rite Catholics who recognize the Pope’s authority but remain autonomous from Rome.
Iraq already has been the scene of killing of the Archbishop of Mosul in 2008, the kidnappings of clerics in 2005 and 2006, and attack on a Catholic Church in Baghdad in 2010 and an outdoor market that killed 58 people. An Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda termed the 2010 attack as involving a “legitimate target.” In Christmas 2013 there were further senseless terrorists actions, especially against Christians. These included three bombings in Christian areas, including a car bombing in the Dora section of Baghdad as worshippers were leaving the Christian service; 38 were reported killed.
Egypt is embroiled in its internal hostilities between the military group now in control and the forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and armed jihadists and supporters of the deposed President Mohamed Morsi, that have killed hundreds of people and led to the imprisonment of thousands. Though Egyptian Coptic Christians are not central to this conflict, they have been persecuted. It is true that Copts were largely sympathetic to the overthrow of Morsi. It was perhaps also impolitic for the Coptic Pope Tawadros II to appear on television with General Abdel Sisi, who removed Morsi from office. Yet these did not justify the savage attacks by Islamists against the Orthodox Christian Copts.
Since the 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, more than a hundred Christians have been kidnapped. So far in 2013, the Islamist violence in Egypt resulted in more than 200 churches attacked and 43 totally destroyed. In addition, discrimination and violence has been frequently exercised against homes and businesses of Christians who feel imperiled. One Coptic Church in Minya province that had stood for a hundred years was burned. The Church of the Archangel Michael, outside of Cairo, was burned in August 2013.
Resolutions and calls for action in Middle East affairs are now frequent. Perhaps the call that is most urgent today is for the protection of Christians who should be accorded equality in law and culture in Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East. The mainstream churches and the groups purportedly interested in human rights ought to heed the plea of Pope Francis.
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.