CRPME Report on Religious Pluralism in the Middle East | No.4

Institution: Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East (CRPME)

Publication Date: 2017  

Executive Summary

The objective of the report is addressing the main developments concerning religious pluralism in the Middle East and highlighting the challenges that religious coexistence faces in the region. Building on the findings of the previous three CRPME reports, the analysis at hand focuses on featuring events and phenomena that have occurred in the past six months. The region covered includes Iraq and Syria, Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states. Additionally, the analysis of foreign actors’ humanitarian and diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis religious minorities in the Middle East is also part of this study. The documentation work carried out by the CRPME and published on the centre’s website serves as the basis for the report and is an ongoing endeavour, aiming at providing continuous updates on the state of religious pluralism in the Middle East. The findings presented, therefore, are not exhaustive, but highlight main trends and continuities.


Religious communities in the Middle East face the following three kinds of challenges, among others:
  1. The pursuit for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the post-ISIS era, includingthe return and re-integration of IDPs and refugees
  2. The disparity between minority rights guaranteed by the law in their respectivestates of residence and their actual living conditions
  3. Scapegoating in the aftermath of political cataclysms

In post-ISIS Iraq, the challenges faced by religious minorities are manifold, and the prevalent sectarianism pre-dating ISIS ‒ mainly between Sunni, Shia and Kurds ‒ is alarmingly re-emerging. The status of the geographic area of the Nineveh Plain, which hosts a large number of minority populations, is currently under dispute: the call for an autonomous region that will serve as a safe haven for religious minorities is presently not being met with good prospects. The independence referendum carried out by the Kurdistan Regional Government on September 25, 2017, has divided opinion within religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, since there has been no universal trust in a Kurdish independent state’s readiness to safeguard religious minority rights. Returning IDPs and refugees to the region are confronted with population engineering efforts by the Iraqi authorities; intra-community animosity and the threat of revenge attacks; destroyed buildings, infrastructure and cultural/religious heritage. One major challenge is giving peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives aiming at building a pluralistic Iraq precedence over punitive measures by returnees seeking justice. While it is still too early to tell, the question of the post-ISIS future of religious minorities in Syria presents itself as more optimistic than in Iraq. Concrete successful measures to bring stability to the region have been undertaken, such as the Plan for Four Cities, a population exchange agreement between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority still finds itself in a situation between marginalisation and persecution: the alarming events in North Sinai/Al-Minya, where Copts have been victims of armed attacks and forced displacement have contributed to a “climate of terror” aimed against the Coptic population. Challenges faced by the community include attacks of physical violence, being prevented from practicing their faith, State resistance to the construction of houses of worship, limited freedom of expression and accusations of blasphemy. Despite the efforts of the Al-Sisi government to support the community, and notwithstanding the fact that equal rights for minorities are enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution, Coptic Christians find themselves in a situation of discrimination and sometimes open hostility.

In Turkey, the aftermath of the events of July 2016 and the “state of emergency” climate has rendered the situation for religious minorities more volatile. ISIS-sponsored attacks in Ankara and Istanbul as well as a new Kurdish insurgency in the south of the country have aggravated their circumstances. The Turkish Jews, dwindling in numbers, have seen their cultural heritage and places of worship attacked. The Alevis, lacking formal recognition by the authorities as being a distinct religious community, and thus remaining ill-protected as well as discriminated against, have borne the brunt of post-coup accusations of endangering Turkish domestic security due to a perceived association with the Gülen movement. Christian communities in Turkey have seen a surge of growth, on the one hand, due to the influx of Syriac Orthodox Christian refugees from Syria; and have suffered grave injustices, on the other hand, including having church property seized by the Turkish authorities and being the victim of conspiracy theories aiming at purging Turkish society from perceived Gülenist influence. A development that is especially disconcerting is the conversion of Greek Orthodox Byzantine churches into mosques. The most prominent example, that of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, has seen Turkey disrespect the place’s status as a museum by repeatedly carrying out Koranic readings and Friday prayers, which has been repeatedly condemned by the international community.

Describing the situation of religious minorities in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is a delicate affair. Freedom of religion ranges from near-absence, such as in the case of Saudi Arabia, to being guaranteed by law in religiously more tolerant countries such as Bahrain and Oman. The unique situation in these states of the majority population not actually being citizens of the respective country ‒ and often adhering to a different faith than the Sunni/Wahhabi religious doctrine prescribes, including Shia, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Bahai, Druze, Sikh, Jew or Ismaili ‒ necessitates a certain dialogue centered on the fostering of religious coexistence. Indeed, a number of interreligious dialogue initiatives have been instigated by various countries of the Gulf, including the King Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue (KACND), promoting Sunni-Shia dialogue in Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, or the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID) in Qatar.

With regard to the efforts of foreign actors vis-à-vis religious minorities in the Middle East, from providing humanitarian aid to promoting interfaith dialogue and countering violent extremism, states and state-like actors such as Russia, the USA, the Holy See, France and the UK have taken a diverse range of action. France has not abandoned its role as the protector of Christians in the Middle East. For London, humanitarian aid goes hand-in-hand with UK’s efforts of establishing a network of NGOs that use multiple tools for the prevention of violent extremism, The Evangelical Christian community within the USA have advocated actively for taking political action benefitting Christians in the Middle East. In 2016, the USA has recognised the genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in (formerly) ISIS-controlled areas in Iraq and Syria. Russia has traditionally had an important stake in protecting Christian Orthodox communities in the Middle East and has encouraged an active role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kremlin’s foreign affairs. The use of religious diplomacy as a soft power tool in the region has been shown to antagonise the USA beyond the military sphere. The role of the Holy See in the Middle East is quite extraordinary since Pope Francis. The Holy See has been active both on a diplomatic and humanitarian level, especially since 2013. Moreover, the Holy See has been vigorously active in advocacy and interfaith dialogue.

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